The Alpine Trinity - Part 1of 3 : The Eiger/Jungfrau
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
For the next leg of our trip, we would leave Austria and head to Switzerland to the high Alpine region of the Alps. Our mission was to ski, hike, and explore the areas around three of the most legendary mountains in Europe. Our first stop would be at the town of Grindelwald at the base of the mighty Eiger. After that, we would head south to Zermatt, home to the iconic Matterhorn. We would finish this part of the trip in the outdoor recreation mecca, Chamonix, and the base of the highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc. This trifecta represented some of the most classic and most visited mountaineering routes in the world. Fortunately, they also offer some of the best skiing and most gnarly lines out there.
Austria To Switzerland
At 6 am, we quietly snuck out of our friend Sebastian's house in Feldkirch, Austria and jumped in the Kuga to cross the border into Lichtenstein. After a few minutes, we were through this tiny city-state and we proceeded on into eastern Switzerland. The dark began to lift and we were welcomed to a beautiful sunrise against the eastern face of the mountains outside of Zürich. Like most things in Switzerland, the drive was easy and functional and we were fortunate not to have any traffic. This was important because we had a big day ahead of us.
During our down-day in Feldkirch, we put together a plan to do a ski tour in Jungfrau that Sebastian had done previously. The day would begin with catching a train in the town of Grindelwald in the Bern Canton, taking it to the base of the Eiger, getting in another train that would take us through the Eiger and to a mountaintop base where we would begin our ski tour. The tour would start with a descent onto the glacier and then a 7km trek to a fork where we turn right and continue for another several kilometers. After reaching a col at the end of the second glacier, we would ski down to a village in the valley where we would catch a ride to a train that would take us back to Grindelwald.
Based on Sebastian's recommendations from his previous trip, we were estimating the tour to take five to six hours to complete from the top of Jungfrau to our final destination a few valleys over. Fortunately, the sky was bright blue so we were not concerned about any bad weather. But this also meant that the temperature was going to be quite cold. We just needed to have enough time to finish the tour before the sun set and it would be dangerously cold. Fortunately we rolled into our hotel in Grindelwald around 9 am, right on time.
Grindelwald is a typical Swiss town that you would expect to find around Switzerland with cuckoo-clock houses dotting the hillside and beautiful snowcapped peaks in the distance. On the south side of the town, however, a massive rock face sharply rises 1800 sheer meters, covering the town in its shadow. This giant rock face is the North face of the Eiger. Nicknamed the Mordwand, literally "murder(ous) wall," the North Face of the Eiger has claimed over 64 lives since 1935. In the summertime, it hosts a multitude of climbers looking to add a big notch to their belt. In the winter, it mostly acts as a towering backdrop to the medium-size ski resorts of Kleine Scheidegg and Wengen at its base. Over 100 years ago, a tunnel was carved out in the middle of the Eiger so that a train could pass through the center of the rock and come out it's backside to an observation point on Jungfrau. The same train would take us up to our destination.
In order to get to the mountaintop station where the train would leave from, we had to take another train from the town of Grindelwald. Thinking this process would be quick and easy, we were in no rush when we got there at 10 a.m. Sadly several hundred other people were also waiting for the same train which would only take a small group up at a time. We had not figured on the tremendous number of Chinese tourists that would be visiting during the Chinese New Year. While I had experienced this once before when I was in Zermatt several years prior, I figured Jungfrau and the Eiger would be off the radar of most casual tourists. We were forced to wait for over an hour and a half to get onto the first train. This was a precarious start to our day.
After boarding the pre-World War II era train, the sheer scale of the surrounding mountains landscapes quickly made us forget any worries. The Eiger was tremendous as were the several neighboring peaks. As with our previous week in St. Anton, we were blown away by how much snow was on the houses, covering the cars, and blanketing the landscape. This is how the Alps were supposed to look but so rarely do because of the warm winters and lack of snow that have recently plagued the region. We thanked ourselves once again for deciding to make this Europe trip happen. As we made our way up the hillside, we began planning the following day of skiing at the resort. One peak in the resort was designated with the name James Bond because it was the setting of the classic Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service. This was a true Alps experience.
After pulling into the mountainside train station at 2320m elevation, we then moved into the more modern train that would take us through the Eiger to Jungfrau. While on the previous train, there were many skiers with skis. However, on this train we noticed that we were the only people carrying skis. Most of the other passengers seem to be tourists from Aisa on vacation. I sparked up a conversation with our neighbors in my broken mandarin and talked about why they decided to come here for their Chinese New Year. They, like others on the train seemed bewildered why we would be attempting to ski something that is typically only viewed from an observation deck.
About halfway up, the train stopped and the passengers were let out for a brief photo opportunity. A hole had been borrowed out in the north face of the Eiger many years before and now this acted as a viewing platform. This was the same hole that was featured in the closing scene of the movie The Eiger Sanction when Clint Eastwood was left dangling from the rope outside its opening. a big fan of Clint and the movie, this adventure was already epic for me.
Getting back on the train, we made our way to the mountaintop viewing station. Part Observatory, part concrete bunker, this definitely looked like it was the fortress of a villain in a James Bond film. We made our way out into the building so that we could put on our harnesses and get ready for our adventure. The only place that we could get enough room to suit up was a ridiculous Bollywood Restaurant on the fourth floor. It was slightly disturbing sight. It would've been a lot nicer if there was a fondue restaurant or some sort of European cafeteria but considering the large numbers of South Asians at the restaurant, it was clearly put there to make a profit, not to be authentic. At least we made enough of a scene that everyone stopped to gawk at us putting 30kg of harnesses, ropes, carabiners, and avalanche backpacks on our backs. Once we were all geared up, we said sayonara to the Bollywood Restaurant and walked down to the underground tunnels below that would take us out onto the glacier.
Stepping out of the long dark tunnel, we emerged onto a bright, white expanse over the huge Aletsch Glacier. Much like the advertisement for the Jungfrau Observatory claimed, this truly felt like it was on top of the world. The contrast between the white snow-capped mountains and the bluebird sky was one of the best I've seen. With the recent snowfall, everything was blanketed with a deep, dry snow that is a wet dream for any hard-core skier or lover of winter. Rarely do we you come across so much snow that has yet to be touched by anyone before you. And here Max and I had the valley all to ourselves. The fact that it was already past 1 PM didn't even occur to us as we happily prepared to ski into the afternoon.
While the lush glacier was quite large, the slope into the valley was minor. Making the most of the turns that we would have, we meandered down the slope to glacier floor below. While the skiing was not particularly exciting, the surrounding scenery was breathtaking. A ring of high peaks acting as a crown around the glacier. When we finally got to the glacier, we were in no rush to leave this sublime slice of Alpine heaven. The only reminder that we were even near civilization where the various aircraft that decided to join us in this massive valley of splendor. Initially, this comprised a few helicopters including a tiny one-man helicopter that I had never seen before. After an hour or so of touring, a light, swift glider swept into the valley from the sky above. This glider would spend much of the afternoon dancing in the valley above us.
Shortly after, we noticed high above a jet fighter from the Swiss Air Force making use of the beautiful day for a training session. After a few lower elevation flybys, we were startled by a tremendous boom. A wave of more explosions rippled through the peaks of the Valley. Before leaving the observatory, we were warned by ski patrol that there would be avalanche bombing several hours later in the day. We were taken back why they began booming so much earlier than they had warned. Even though we knew we were safe in the middle of the glacier were there to be an avalanche, this was a little unsettling. We phoned in to the dispatch and asked what had happened. They confirmed that the explosion was actually a sonic boom from the aircraft had of us.
We continued along the valley for another hour when we started to take stock in the unique downwind currents that were blowing across the glacier surface. Max mentioned how this was a phenomenon on glaciers when it was particularly cold. We then remembered then that the thermometer -20 Celsius when we were still in the Jungfrau Observatory during midday. Since the afternoon was beautiful and very sunny, we did not think much about the cold up until this point. But now we started to take note of it.
Video of Cold Glacier Downwinds:
Typically skiers always savor any fresh tracks they are able to ski in the snow. The one exception is when you are ski touring and not downhill skiing. We, and mostly I mean Max, had to create the track in the relatively deep snow. This increases the difficulty of a tour considerably. So our five-hour tour was beginning to look like it was going to take longer than expected. When another glacier merged with the glacier we had been on, we turned right and began the second half of our tour. Far in the distance, we could see the col (the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks) that was our destination. Considering that this distance looked at least equal to what we had already covered with a 500m rise, we started to be a little concerned. It was getting later in the afternoon and we knew we only had a few more hours of daylight. Once the sun was down, it would be seriously cold.
We continued touring the long slog ahead as we started to regain elevation. One by one, the neighboring aircraft departed to their distant landing strips far from the mountains. A helicopter that I thought might be a patrol helicopter seemed to circle around us a few times probably wondering what we were doing so deep into the glacier so late in the afternoon. perhaps since we did not signal for any help, the helicopter eventually returned home. After 5 PM, we were on our own. This is also when I started to feel my toes going numb.
By the time we finally got to the top of the col, the sun had just completely set. There was still enough light to see how far away the nearest potential settlement was far away in the next valley over. Just above the col, there was the Hollandia Mountain Hut. While popular in the summertime this hut, like many in the Alps, was not open during the winter. Fortunately, like most huts here, there was a small room that could be used as an emergency shelter during the winter. We could either continue on to the valley in the distance or stay in the hut. While we would be sheltered in the hut, it would be a very cold night and we did not have much food or water. We both figured that frostbite was a likelihood as well as other potential dangers if we stayed in the hut. On the other hand, skiing down into the valley had its own perils. We did not know how far we had to go. And we would be in the dark for the whole ski down. Perhaps the thought of a warm bed and some food motivated us to push onward to our original destination in the valley. We clicked on her skis and turned on our headlamps to begin the long ski down into the dark abyss.
Only when it was completely dark did we begin to see a few lights in the distance. At least we knew that there was some civilization if we kept going forward. Skiing in the dark can be fun in the right circumstances. This was not fun. Since the pitch of the slope started to become more moderate, we had to seek the best line down to keep speed otherwise we would need to begin touring again. To make matters worse, Max's headlamp was running out of batteries. Also my Marker Kingpin bindings were being to be affected by the ice stuck within them. And the lights in the distance did not seem to be getting much closer.
It was not until past 8 PM when we finally came across a road covered in snow that would lead us down to a small mountain town that seemed pretty desolate. Fortunately, we came across a cross-country ski center where a few locals were shutting down for the evening before heading home. One of them offered to take us further down the valley to a train station that might bring us back to Grindelwald... eventually. While this train trip was originally part of our plan, at this point, we just wanted to be finished with the day, ideally with a beer or schnapps and some cheese. But considering where we were coming from, we were thankful to have any help. And after waiting for awhile at the station,when the train finally came, we knew that we had made it out of our precarious predicament. We had to transfer onto another train and then onto a bus with a taxi ride to our hostel before we were safely back in warm beds. Lying in our covers, we were thankful that we had made it out. But the pain in our toes reminded us that it was not without consequence.
The next morning we struggled to get out of bed but knew we needed some sustenance after our several-thousand calorie day before. Walking to breakfast, I could tell from previous experience that I had minor frostbite in my toes. The big toe on my left foot - where I often loose a nail during the ski season - felt particularly peculiar and was turning black. As a result, we decided to take the day off and forgo skiing the resort. While bummed at the missed opportunity and the pain in the toe, I was happy to be off the mountain in relatively good shape. Many others who had come to climb the North Face of the Eiger in the past were not so lucky. And while our tour was nowhere near as severe as a climb up the North Face, we were reminded how serious the situation can get when you're out exploring in the winter wilderness.
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