Life at the top of Europe

Switzerland offers a wonderland of snow, cheese, hiking and wild train rides in the mountains.

EMBARKING ON THE ‘cliff walk’ suspension bridge that is the highest in Europe. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
EMBARKING ON THE ‘cliff walk’ suspension bridge that is the highest in Europe.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Only a madman would look at the face of a mountain rising a mile above the valleys below and think, “Well, why don’t we built a train to the top?” But that’s what industrialist Adolf Guyer-Zeller decided to do in 1894 when he received a concession to build a meter gauge railway through a mountain tunnel to the top of the Jungfrau, 4158 meters high. It took 18 years for the railway, stretching through a tunnel in the mountain, to reach its current alpine station at 3,454 meters.
Traveling via this railway is somewhat disconcerting. One begins at Kleine Sheidegg station, beneath the massive hulking mountain called the Eiger. Galen Rowell called standing amid great mountains akin to be in the “throne room of the mountain gods,” the title he gave his 1977 book about climbing K2. The alps around Kleine Sheidegg are the same, consisting of awesome ridgelines, peaks and passes. In June there is still retreating snow at this altitude, sad little clumps of it. The air is crisp and one feels closer to space than to the bustling cities of humanity.
Kleine Sheidegg itself is a kind of hill station and center of sports all year around.
In winter people stack their skis next to the trains and head inside the large restaurant for warmth. In the summer, the same restaurant has tables outside, beer on tap and large bratwursts warmed by the fire. A man stokes a cauldron of sauerkraut and waitresses bring rosti, a Swiss dish consisting of a potato hashbrown pancake (like a latka), to the tables.
What’s disconcerting about the train ride from here to the “top of Europe,” as the Jungfrau is called here, is that you can’t imagine how you can be going any higher than this by train. For a handsome fee of $127 per person per round trip, the comfortable train takes one into the mountain tunnels, and up, up, toward the summit. Halfway there, after 20 minutes or so, the train stops at a pitch black station and riders are allowed to exit. Through a tunnel in the mountain a lookout, behind a thick pane of glass, gives one a panorama of the valleys below. Kleine Sheidegg, with its stately 19th century hotel, has become a small toy-like model in the distance.
There is another lookout closer to the final destination. Now the view is of a winter wonderland of snow and glacier.
It’s like one has taken an elevator to another climate and time. A little further on and the train arrives at its last stop, not far from the summit. Here the Swiss have gone all out with tourist activities.
In the heat of summer one can go sledding, take a zip line over the snow-encased mountains, sip a beer on a lawn chair in the ice, or hire a helicopter for $1,000 an hour. When we were there the sun was shining intensely and despite the snow, short sleeves were comfortable.
Switzerland offers a variety of mountain paradise playgrounds similar to the Jungfrau. At Titlis, a 3,200m. peak several hours away by train and cablecar from the Jungfrau, visitors can take a cable-car over a glacier, and walk a “cliff walk” suspension bridge that is the highest in Europe, and was opened in 2012. There is also a chance to walk into a cave inside a glacier.
These kinds of activities add to the experience Switzerland has provided travelers for more than a hundred years.
Epic summits such as the Matterhorn were a destination for climbers in the 19th century, and in the 20th, before and after the World Wars, European tourists flocked to these places. The Swiss constructed cog-railways to penetrate these mountains that seem to unapproachable.
This allows families, the elderly, or disabled to experience what only the most fit would have been able to long ago.
The addition to this, zip-lines, mountain bike rentals, cable-cars and paragliding give visitors an almost endless list of activities in areas such as Interlaken and the Jungfrau. But there is an overdose affect – and a hit to the wallet. A perfect trip to these alpine areas should consist of a bit of “keep it simple.” Rent a cottage, as we did in Wengen, and get a Berner Oberland Pass, which allows travel on almost all the railways and cablecars, and take time to explore the surroundings.
Enjoy the local cuisine, walk through the cow pastures of the Swiss mountains. (Everything is expensive in Switzerland, but local Gruyere cheese is reasonably priced). Spend a night in a mountain hut away from the trains and zip-lines, after a day of hiking. Or enjoy a ride on a lake with a historic boat. Whatever you do, an alpine holiday here will not disappoint.