One of the most bizarre mountain experiences you can have in the Alps comes on Day 8 of the Tour of the Jungfrau Region, when you arrive on the summit of the 2970m Schilthorn. One moment you’re scrambling along its narrow west ridge, the next you’re in a revolving restaurant with stairs leading to a small cinema where you can sit and watch scenes from a James Bond movie. Kev Reynolds explains…
The Schilthorn is well known to visitors of the Swiss resort of Mürren, for there’s a cable-car right to the summit of the mountain, which rises above the town and has been renamed Piz Gloria by the tourist authorities to cash in on the fact that scenes from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were shot there. In addition, the revolving restaurant provides exciting 360-degree panoramic views of some of the finest mountains in the Bernese Oberland. No wonder it’s popular.
But for the Tour of the Jungfrau Region (TJR) trekker, the Schilthorn is something of an anomaly. Until you reach the summit, the trek has avoided practically all of the region’s main tourist hotspots, and concentrated instead on its natural beauty, its finest trails and some of its most atmospheric lodgings.
On the morning of Day 8 (or 9, depending whether you take one or other of the recommended side-trips) you leave the Rotstock Hut with a choice of route options. The easier of the two wanders over cattle-grazed pastures on its way to the Blumental above Mürren. The other makes a traverse of the Schilthorn: up the west ridge and down the east ridge to reach the Blumental by ‘the back door’, so to speak.
The west ridge ascent is steep and narrow in places, with sections of fixed cable and a few short ladders as safeguards – probably no more scary than Striding Edge on Helvellyn, but being Swiss, safety is a major concern.
So you work your way along the ridge with stunning views to admire each time you pause, until suddenly you arrive on the summit and find yourself among crowds dressed in their Sunday best and smelling of a perfumery. But after you’ve got over the shock, tiptoed through the restaurant and watched the movie, you can turn your back on that alien world and descend via the (easier) east ridge to the Grauseeli lake, and from there continue down to the peaceful Blumental, where you have a choice of accommodation – both pensions being atmospheric and utterly charming.
All this, of course, is more than halfway through the Tour of the Jungfrau Region, a circular trek that has become one of the finest in the Alps.
The best of the best
The best treks, it seems to me, are those that have a combination of great scenery, cosy lodgings, decent trails and a few challenges along the way. Having walked just about every path accessible from Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren, and called at most of the remote huts since my first visit in the 1960s, I reckoned a great holiday could be had by linking the best of each in a round of about 10 days. So with my wife’s help our well-thumbed maps were spread out on the floor, and a plan was drawn up…
It proved to be a corker of a tour.
I know of no other trekking route that can be seen almost in its entirety from a single vantage point. Mesmerised by the view from the hotel at Schynige Platte on Day 1, you’ll realise the TJR is unique, for the panorama not only includes the iconic trio of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, but the Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, Finsteraarhorn, Ebnefluh, Lauterbrunnen Breithorn, Tschingelhorn and Gspaltenhorn – and lots more exquisite Oberland mountains. There’s everything you need in an alpine view: glaciers and snowfields, alpine pastures, patches of forest, rocky peaks and the glorious U-shaped trench of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, its walls laced with feathery cascades.
And working their way around this amazing landscape is a series of footpaths, all defined and waymarked with typical Swiss efficiency, providing a memorable journey of 9-10 days. I’ll never grow tired of it.
We begin by riding an historic narrow-gauge cog railway that climbs 1400 metres from Wilderswil near Interlaken, to the start of the trek at Schynige Platte. Although we could start the trek straightaway, I prefer to check in at the berghotel, a short stroll above the station, in order to capture sunset and sunrise from that amazing vantage point, and head off along the trail after breakfast the next morning.
Step outside in the crisp, early morning chill of September, and with that view in your face you’ll feel you can walk forever.
That first morning takes you along a ridge overlooking the Lake of Brienz on one side, and Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau on the other. After that you cross a small pass, wander through a seemingly forgotten valley and arrive at the Männdlenen Hut in time for a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread for lunch.
Suitably fortified, you’ll be ready to storm up a steep ramp of a path, cross the flank of the Faulhorn, then stroll down to the shores of one of the loveliest lakes in all the Alps: the Bachsee. I cannot count the number of times I’ve drooled over its mirror-like reflections of the Schreckhorn and distant spike of the Finsteraarhorn, but that view now gives you one of the biggest problems of the whole trek – how to drag yourself away?
Fortunately, there’s not far to go to find a bed for the night, for a gondola lift station about 20 minutes beyond the lake has dormitories below its restaurant, and when all the tourists have fled down to Grindelwald and the gondolas have stopped working, it makes a comfortable lodging, while mountains across the valley turn bronze with the alpenglow.
That’s as good a first day’s trek as any I know. In the Himalaya it would take several days of hiking before you would experience anything as rewarding as that. And that’s just the start.
The Jungfrau region is so richly endowed with hiking trails and outstanding accommodation options, that the tour we devised offers several alternative routes. That on Day 2 is a good example. We could have a short and easy day, skirting pastures and dairy farms to Grosse Scheidegg, then drop down through meadows and woodland to Hotel Wetterhorn to give an opportunity to visit Grindelwald, or – my preference – take a side trail that climbs along the gorge of the Upper Grindelwald Glacier in order to spend a night at the Gleckstein Hut.
Set upon a grassy ledge high above the glacier gorge, the hut was originally built as a hotel, when plans were afoot to string a four-stage cableway to the summit of the Wetterhorn. The hotel was to have been served by that cableway, but the World War 1 got in the way, plans for the cableway were abandoned, and the hotel became a mountain hut. It has room for 100 in its dormitories, and exquisite views of the Schreckhorn and its cascading icefall. If that’s not enough, the hut’s surrounds are visited most early mornings by ibex in search of salt.
Running parallel to the glacier gorge that gives access to the Gleckstein Hut is the gorge of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier, which slices into the mountains between Schreckhorn and Eiger and is blocked at its head by the great wall of rock and ice of the Fiescherwand. Until the summer of 2005, a beautiful moraine meadow below that wall was home to Stieregg, a restaurant with a few dormitory beds. But global warming melted the permafrost that had glued the moraine together, and it collapsed into the gorge. Undaunted, the owner built a new restaurant about 100m higher, on the Bäregg spur, and today Berghaus Bäregg makes another memorable overnight option for trekkers following the TJR.
The next day’s destination is the berghaus at Alpiglen below the Eiger – an historic place that played a part in early attempts on the Eiger’s North Face, many of which ended in tragedy. It’s a cosy place in which to spend the night before tackling the Eiger Trail to Kleine Scheidegg.
As the name suggests, the Eiger Trail sneaks along the foot of that most notorious of Swiss mountains, and you can often see and hear climbers tackling routes on the face directly above you.
Our choice of route into the deep Lauterbrunnen Valley is a real knee-trembler, for it begins on the moraine wall of the Eiger’s glacier, and follows the course of its outflow stream beneath the graceful Mönch and Jungfrau all the way down to where the Trummelbach Falls burst into the valley nearly 1300m below. There then follows an almost level stroll to Stechelberg, a modest little village at the roadhead, where we always check in for a night or two at the delightful Alpenhof, a low-key hostel with self-catering facilities or B&B options, run by our good friends Marc and Di.
That leaves the head of the Lauterbrunnen Valley to explore – a haven of wildlife, wild, uncompromising landscapes and romantic accommodation – before making for the Rotstock Hut and the Schilthorn, with its revolving restaurant and unique cinema experience. After that it takes only two days to reach Wilderswil below Schynige Platte, where the trek began.
Two days of walking, but that gives one last night at the Suls-Lobhorn Hut with its never-to-be-forgotten, full-frontal view of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, flush with the beauty of alpenglow.
Now that’s a view to take home with you. It’ll ensure you come back again. And again.