The Jungfraujoch brochure is entitled Between Heaven and Earth. That sums it up pretty well. It’s vast and glorious and high. I felt I was soaring amongst the mountains and glaciers.
But the day and the delight began long before that. We hopped on the train at Grindelwald and chugged our way up the mountain, feeling like Heidi, to the well-known ski resort Kleine Scheidegg. The village featured in the movies North Face and The Eiger Sanction.
Soon after that, we entered the 7.3 km long cog railway tunnel in a different train. If you bore easily, fear not, the train is equipped with a screen providing information on the area. As well, there are two stops at huge viewing windows, familiar to movie-goers. The Eiger Wall station is an escape route for climbers and the departure point for rescue missions.
The Jungfraujoch railway station, at 3,454 metres, is the highest in Europe. During construction of the railway, the worksite was cut off over winter so provisions were delivered in autumn and perishables stored in crevasses in the Eiger glacier. Amongst the food were two tons of potatoes for the Swiss workers and 800kg of macaroni for the Italians. Each worker was assumed to require almost one litre of wine per day. The railway took 16 years to build.
Perhaps it’s the gradient (maximum 25cm per metre). Perhaps it’s the speed (50 minutes up, 35 down) or the darkness; the closeness and coarseness of the walls or the narrow aperture at the end but, more than when travelling through a tunnel by car, I felt the presence of the mountain. Everywhere, people were busy on the surface of the planet but I was inside it; inside a huge mass of black and hard; a speck tucked in the tiny carriage of a red metal train inching my way forward like a glow worm over a night ocean.
These alps formed about 100 million years ago as the earth’s crust pushed together. This timescale makes them infants on a planet that was born about 4.54 billion years ago. Two hundred years ago (1811) Jungfrau, 3500 m, was scaled, followed by ascents of Mönch in 1857 and Eiger in 1858.
The clean air at this altitude provides ideal conditions for environmental research on atmospheric chemistry including long term changes in the composition of the atmosphere. The dome of the Sphinx Observatory must look a little like something out of a sci-fi movie at night with its beam of green light zooming straight up from for about 100km.
The Jungfraujoch opened in 1912 but the complex present today was built in 1975 and 1987 after fire destroyed the original buildings in 1972. The rear wall of the structure is attached to the mountain with rock anchors as well as cables 23 – 34 metres long. Netting and mesh above the complex ensure rocks don’t fall onto it. Naturally, a place designed to study the environment tries to go easy on it. The sun’s warmth, as well as heat from light bulbs, people and electrical apparatuses, is used to maintain a pleasant temperature inside.
Think of the human-made area as a burrow with four exits – down the railway line to Kleine Scheidegg, up a lift and tunnels to the plateau, up a taller lift to The Sphinx or along a tunnel to the glacier and play area.
In the ice palace you can see the bubbles formed from the air that was between the snow crystals when they fell.
Snow flakes that fall on the Jungfraujoch spend 200 – 250 years as ice crystals in the Grindelwald Glacier before melting and becoming the Lütschine River. That’s a life cycle.
On the way down on the train screen I saw a helicopter view of The Sphinx. I was taken aback by my response. This place, far from my homeland and unknown to me hours before, had become part of me. Not in the familiar, ‘Oh, I’ve been there,’ kind of way but as a part of my fabric. When we say, ‘I’ve been there’, when we look at postcards and photos, we’re remembering ourselves in a place. Occasionally the link is visceral. That’s when we’re recognizing ourselves, or that place in ourselves.
See here for further information.
Tours from Zurich lasting 11 ½ hours are available. Grindelwald is about half and hour’s drive south-west of Interlaken.