The adventure to the top of Europe starts on the train. The Swiss know a thing or two about building railways and no lake or mountain can stop them from crafting a route.
From Zürich, the journey takes 2.5 hours but the scenery is a spectacular distraction, especially in winter. Travelling towards Interlaken, the route delivers stunning views across the Thunersee as the train hugs the lakeside, passing sleepy villages and farms caked in snow. In the distance, the Alps rise up to form a colossal wall of ice-capped stone. It may look hostile, but that’s the destination.
A mountain train takes passengers from Interlaken to Grindelwald where the valley walls begin to close in towards the track, and villages morph into high alpine pastures. It’s here that visitors start to see the quintessential Swiss chalets dotting the countryside, their weathered wooden façades proving they’ve seen worse winters. After snaking through the valley for half an hour, the magnificent Eiger mountain (below) is revealed, bearing down over Grindelwald from 3970m. Alongside it, the Mönch and Jungfrau graze the ceiling of the continent at 4107m and 4158m respectively. These colossal peaks are the stars of the show in Grindelwald.
So what is there to do? Go skiing, of course!
The Jungfrau ski area covers 200km of slopes on either side of Grindelwald village and stretches across to Wengen and Mürren. From the newly constructed terminal building, which feels more like an airport than a base station, two gondola lines whisk skiers up to the slopes linking to Wengen. Ski rental is available in the building along with lockers, giving skiers the luxury of going hands-free to and from the slopes. Less faff is always a win in my books! The Eiger Express has the capacity to transport a mind-boggling 2,200 people per hour up to Kleine Scheidegg at 2061m, the second-highest train station in Europe after the Jungfraujoch.
There is a great selection of blues and reds to choose from in the Kleine Scheidegg–Männlichen ski area, ideal for intermediate skiers. The pistes are wide enough to enjoy big carving turns and long enough to relish charging top to bottom. A good way to explore the area is to take the gondola in the direction of Männlichen and work your way towards Kleine Scheidegg, exploring the selection of well-linked runs on the way. The jewel in the ski experience of Grindelwald is the view of the Eiger and surrounding valley including the 4078m Schreckhorn and 3692 Wetterhorn stretching into the distance. Forests carpet their foothills until the trees lose the battle with geography and the mountainsides become too steep and rocky, only habitable for the hardiest alpine foliage.
One must-ski piste can be reached by descending the other side of Kleine Scheidegg and taking the Wixi lift. From the top, the Engi run allows skiers to take in the full majesty of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau plus several glaciers laced around their flanks. The incline of the piste delivers a quick build-up of speed for keen racers and its amplitude offers a different experience each run, with various line choices available. A short narrow section demands a hard right until the piste opens out wide again, eventually funnelling skiers over a bridge. The final descent has two unpisted fields running parallel which are perfect for playing around, hunting for jumps and testing your off-piste ability.
And for the racing geeks…
The top of the Wixi is also the starting point for the famous Lauberhorn race, the longest World Cup downhill course. Every year it stirs the Swiss public into a frenzy, attracting over 30,000 fans who watch athletes fly down the 4.2km run in two and a half minutes. After the race it’s open to the public, with speed measuring available to determine just how slow you ski compared to the pros.
Jungfraujoch, Top of Europe
Looking at the sheer menacing wall of rock which is the Eiger, you wouldn’t expect that 130 years ago some maniac thought it was possible to blast a tunnel through it. But sixteen years after beginning the project in 1898, the 9.2km tunnel was complete and the highest railway station in Europe opened. Nowadays with the Eiger Express, it’s possible for pedestrians to go from Grindelwald village to 3454m in 45 minutes. The small settlement at Eigergletscher used to be home to Italian workers who spent years tunnelling through the mountain with dynamite for a measly CHF 4.60 per day. Now it’s a modern station linking trains and gondolas to the top of Europe.
The only way is up
The Eiger’s glacier is visible for a few seconds before the train barrels into the tunnel, arriving at the top station in half an hour. Switzerland’s fastest lift transports visitors a further 100m to the Sphinx observatory at 3571m, a weather station and viewing platform. From this lofty perch, visitors can enjoy awesome views across the Alps and the 22km Aletsch glacier, weather permitting. If you happen to visit during a snowstorm and the view is obscured, like I did, then at least there is a magical ice palace to explore. Narrow tunnels lead visitors deep into the bowels of the glacier where a network of grottos has been hollowed out, creating a labyrinth of shimmering blue chambers filled with ice sculptures. Two mountain guides from Wengen and Grindelwald created the cavern in the 1930s and it has to be constantly recut, adjusting to 15cm of glacial movement per year. Up there, the altitude is no joke. With 30% less oxygen available to the brain, it’s normal to experience light-headedness akin to feeling tipsy. You have to feel it to believe it.
This magical destination in the Bernese Oberland is protected as a UNESCO world heritage site, but with the climate emergency knocking at the door, the time to visit is now.
We have a regular Podcast called The White Out where we review the latest gear, talk about the latest snow forecast and updates on where is best to ski now, as well interviews with absolute ski legends AND we spotlight a resort every week and so much more. You can check out our regular podcast here Apple | Spotify | Podcasts or search The White Out on your chosen podcast directory.