Read the previous story, “Swiss Family Habegger: More Adventures on Swiss Trains.”
The highest railway station in Europe perches at 11,333 feet on a razor ridge with glaciers falling off in all directions, wedged in by the soaring peaks of the Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. It is a foreboding, unforgiving, and humbling landscape that, like all such places, would remind you of our puny human stature and how indifferent to our aspirations such wild places are, if it weren’t so easy to get to. Easy, because the industrious Swiss have harnessed technology to build a system to make the most inaccessible spots a joyride.
My father-in-law, Eugene, and I were admiring this frozen landscape at Jungfraujoch in the radiant sunshine with hardly a thought about the vagaries of human existence. I was just wondering how Paula and the girls were doing. We’d left well before they awoke to make the journey here so we’d be able to return to Grindelwald in time to catch the next train out. By now they were probably strolling through the village, weaving in and out of shops to buy a “Swiss t-shirt” proudly bearing the signature Swiss white cross on red background, picking out chocolates for their next treat, or swinging on the bars in the playground. Five-year-old Alanna had talked incessantly about seeing “snow mountains,” and the sight of the Eiger wasn’t quite enough for her. She wanted to see snow, glaciers, giant white peaks that would steal her breath. Looking out over the fabled Aletsch Glacier as it flowed white and chunky into the distance, crevasses gaping like hungry mouths, I knew this was what she had in mind. We’d left her behind because I wasn’t sure how she’d handle the early start, the altitude, or the possibly boring train journey to get us here, especially since we’d be heading for another long rail trip to Luzern as soon as we descended. I also expected to see lots of glaciers on the Glacier Express excursion we planned to take later on our trip.
Up here the weather was brisk but comfortable. From the observation deck, enigmatically called the Sphinx, the people exploring the glacier below seemed mere specks even though they were just outside the door of the train station. But we had come up in an elevator 360 feet, or the equivalent of about 36 stories, so it was no wonder they were ant-like down there. Then farther down the view stretched to the lush Grindelwald Valley of pastures and forests and chalets, and beyond, to Lake Thun, glimmering. The scale was impossible to grasp.
Before I had learned anything about this train route I’d wondered how they kept the tracks clear of snow in the winter, the answer of course being that in the high elevations the tracks are entirely inside the mountain. Not long after leaving Kleine Scheidegg at 6,752 feet, the tracks enter a tunnel, and four miles and almost 5,000 feet in elevation later the train arrives at Jungfraujoch.
The whole notion of tunneling through the Eiger to reach the Jungfrau goes back to the 1860s, but it wasn’t until 1893, when Swiss engineer Adolf Guyer-Zeller developed a workable plan to build a cogwheel railway in a tunnel, that investors began to line up and the project got underway. Construction started in 1896 and was completed, after many mishaps, in 1912. It’s been running ever since with few changes beyond equipment upgrades.
A half million people take this journey every year, in winter as well as summer, and despite being there at the peak of peak season, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by crowds. Our train was full, but when we arrived and wandered through the ice palace to see whimsical carvings of penguins, bears, and other creatures, the crowds had dispersed. When we boarded the elevator to the Sphinx Observation Hall and Terrace we shared the car with only two other people. On the terrace we found other tourists but had free rein to poke around wherever we wanted. Only later, when we wandered through the shopping area to buy postcards before descending on the train, did we encounter crowds, and we quickly left them behind.
Once we popped out of the tunnel on the way down we rolled along past waterfalls and green expanses to Kleine Scheidegg, seeing hikers rambling in the sun above tree line, and I had a moment’s envy knowing there was no time for a hike for me. When you have a family you have compromises, and I had to accept that a walk in the high mountain meadows would have to wait.
The toboggan run, a banked track down which you could probably go at full speed without killing yourself, looked like a lot of fun, and the girls wanted to do it. So, with Alanna in my lap, down I went, cautiously pulling on the brake and relieved to discover it was very easy to control your speed. We swept left and right, down steeply and then weaving through flatter stretches, wildflowers whizzing past, until we reached the bottom and got latched on for the tow back up. It was over way too fast and when all four of us reached the top both girls wanted to do it again. So we switched, Paula took Alanna this time and I took three-year-old Érne, and of course we both went a lot faster, confident now with the controls.
Twice was enough for us (the girls wanted more), then we wandered in the meadows, finding the promised cows who wouldn’t let us get near, then resting on a bench perched atop a precipitous drop while goats came to see if we had anything to offer. Eugene left us then to go off on a hike by himself, and when we headed back down on the tram we discovered my name proudly displayed at the base station: Machinenfabrik, Habegger, Thun. Yep, “we” had built the Pfingstegg system. It was another nudge to pursue the hunt for my name, but that would have to wait.
After lunch we discovered a souvenir shop that also had a chocolate factory downstairs with “tours” on the hour, so we came back with the girls and were treated to our own private session since no one else was there. Ollie, the chocolate man, explained the entire process to the girls, showing them the cocoa pods, the beans, describing the way they were dried and roasted, how chocolate was made, and then molded and packaged. He offered the girls several tastes without overwhelming them, and happily posed for pictures. He seemed genuinely happy to be doing his job, to be entertaining children, and he took as much time with us as we needed, even though he had a tour group breathing down his neck to get started with their private presentation.
The Sportscentrum near the playground has a huge indoor swimming facility including a wading pool, and we spent most of the afternoon splashing around. Admission is free with passes from many of the towns hotels, and the kids couldn’t have been happier. With a day of toboggan runs, cows and goats, chocolate, and all the swimming you can get, who’s going to complain?
Eugene met up with us at the hotel, where we cooked dinner in our kitchenette, and told us he’d had a marvelous hike. He’d taken a small bus up toward Grosse Scheidegg, wandered on the trails that were clearly sign-posted, and caught the bus back. He was tired, but pleased with his day.
That evening a thunderstorm gathered around the peaks and we were treated to a short spell of thunder, lightning, rain, then brilliant sunshine that threw rainbows across the valley above the river below us. Silver waterfalls coursed down the Eiger’s face and the emerald meadows and pine forests gleamed in a vision of quintessential alpine quaintness. It looked like a cliché, but it was real, and just beyond our deck.
Read the next story, “Swiss Family Habegger: Luzern and Mount Pilatus”
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.