Eiger climb made for mortals

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      The sight of the climber’s rope dangling against the sheer rock face stops me cold.

      Until this moment, my day trip aboard Switzerland’s Jungfrau Railway—from the alpine village of Grindelwald, up and across the base of the Eiger and into a tunnel that drills right through the mountain—has been all happy anticipation and wonder.

      That anticipation has been building since 1975, when my parents took me to see The Eiger Sanction, an action flick in which Clint Eastwood battles the bad guys while busting some impressive mountaineering moves. My young mind was mightily impressed with the movie’s shots of the Swiss Alps, in particular the Eiger’s north face, a 1,828-metre wall of vertical rock and ice that’s widely considered the most technically difficult climb in Europe.

      After the movie was finished, I announced to my parents that I would visit the Eiger. I also said I’d marry Clint Eastwood, but that’s another story.

      As the years passed, my fascination with the mountain grew (although my crush on Eastwood faded). I devoured news items and articles that told the stories of climbers who had scaled the Eiger’s north face—or died trying.

      The last bit of fuel to feed my Eiger desire was, fittingly enough, another movie. Just weeks before setting out on a trip to Switzerland, I went to see the IMAX movie The Alps (now showing at Vancouver’s Telus World of Science).

      In the film, John Harlin III attempts to climb the Eiger’s north face via the same route that claimed the life of his father in 1966. (The senior Harlin’s rope broke and he fell some 1,200 metres, the 28th person to die on the wall. His son was nine years old at the time.) I got teary watching the movie, partly due to its emotional punch and partly because, after all these years, I was finally going to visit the mountain.

      And now here I stand at a huge observation window cut right into the Eiger’s north face at an elevation of 2,865 metres, far up the mountain’s massive wall. This is the Eigerwand station, one of two stops for cogwheel trains as they clickety-clack up the seven-kilometre-long tunnel that loops through the Eiger and Mí¶nch mountains and ends at the Jungfraujoch, which, at 3,454 metres, is the site of Europe’s highest train station.

      Around me, an international gaggle of train passengers points to the sheer rock face outside the window, to the cluster of buildings some 800 vertical metres below in Kleine Scheidegg (where observers watch climbers with telescopes), and, further down still, to the village of Grindelwald. Although I can’t understand the Japanese, Punjabi, German, French, and other languages swirling around me, I’m sure the translation is always roughly the same: “Wow, will you look at those incredible views!”

      We’re allowed five minutes at this stop, and I wait until the last second before turning back toward the waiting train. As I turn, a flash of green catches my eye. To my right, close enough to reach out and grab if a thick piece of glass weren’t in the way, is a climber’s rope.

      This dose of reality stops me in my tracks. Truth is, I’d been thinking of this mountain as a civilized tourist attraction. After all, mere mortals like me can reach dizzying heights with little more than the effort it takes to put down a credit card and climb aboard a heated train carriage.

      The rope is a sobering reminder that this mountain is very much a force of nature. Scores of climbers have spent days, even weeks clinging to its wall with only a rope and their wits to keep them safe. This observation window has served—and continues to serve—as an escape route for climbers in peril (it can be opened from the inside) and a departure point for rescue missions. I stare a moment longer, then sprint to the train.

      We make one more stop, at the Eismeer station, where a wide river of ice flows down toward the Lower Grindelwald Glacier. By the time we reach our final destination at the Jungfraujoch, we’ve travelled 2.5 vertical kilometres in about two hours.

      From the underground train station, I follow a labyrinth of corridors to the main Berghaus complex and its outside terraces.

      Stepping into the crisp mountain air, I’m confronted with vistas that are far, far beyond my expectations. The Jungfraujoch complex sits on a rocky pinnacle in a snowy saddle that stretches between the majestic Mí¶nch and Jungfrau mountains. Sloping away from this high-altitude outpost is the Aletsch Glacier; at 23 kilometres, it’s the longest glacier in Europe. All around are snowy slopes, jagged mountain peaks, and exposed rock that glimmers jet black in the intense alpine sun.

      Lest you think I’m enjoying this wide-eyed wonder in solitude, consider that 500,000 people reportedly visit the Jungfraujoch each year. Not only do visitors come to the highest-altitude train station in Europe, they can mail a postcard at the highest-altitude post office, check out the forecast from the highest permanently manned weather station, and drop a chunk of cash at the highest-altitude watch shop.

      In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Jungfraujoch is the highest-altitude tourist trap in Europe. By the time I pass the souvenir shop selling the requisite cowbells and T-shirts, a cafeteria with overpriced hot chocolate, the Crystal and Bollywood restaurants (high-altitude curry, anyone?), and numerous pay-as-you-go activities—including (in the summer) a lame ski run, a 200-metre-long zip line, and dogsled rides—my tourist-trap-o-meter is red-lining.

      But then I go for a walk on the glacier.

      When the weather is clear—and really, only do this trip if the weather is clear—you can hike 45 minutes across the glacier to the Mí¶nchsjoch Hut. I set off on a short hike in that direction and quickly leave the crowds behind. After just a few minutes of slip-sliding my way along the trail, all of the touristy trappings have been forgotten and I’m back to marvelling at the dramatic and drop-dead-gorgeous snowscape.

      Glacial sojourn complete, I hike back to the main complex and ride an elevator 110 metres up to the Sphinx observatory. This domed building, which looks like it would be a great location for a James Bond movie, houses an important environmental-research station and offers killer views of the Mí¶nch summit from its steel terrace.

      Next, it’s back underground to the Ice Palace, an icy cavern that’s cut right into the Aletsch Glacier. Here, the ceiling, walls, and (take note) floors are ice, and the air is filled with the sounds of visitors shrieking happily as they slip-slide along icy corridors past translucent penguins, husky dogs, and other ice sculptures.

      From the Ice Palace, I emerge onto a well-trodden snow trail that leads up to a steep-sided plateau with 360-degree views. Once again, the scenery is stunning. And once again, a length of climber’s rope catches my eye.

      This time, it’s an old, frayed rope that loops from stake to stake across the edge of the plateau. It marks the boundary beyond which we mere mortals should not go.

      Access: The writer travelled up the mountain as a guest of the Jungfrau Railway, which operates year-round. Return train fare from Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch is 161 CHF ($168). See www.jungfraubahn.ch/ for discounted fares for early-morning departures and those available to holders of Swiss Rail passes.




      May 8, 2009 at 5:50pm

      Breathtaking photo! Looks almost unreal. I think I just found my next travel destination. Fantastic!
      -- I'm not the most intelligent, but I always have an opinion. My current project: <a href="http://www.vancouverapartmentsrent.ca/">Vancouver Apartments</a>

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