Monday, July 6, 2009

The Iceman Commeth...?

It was nice to have a good night's sleep at the Grindelwald Youth Hostel - it is definitely worth paying the extra to have a room to ourselves and our own bathroom (my days of sharing are definitley over!!) This morning was dull and dank. It had rained quite a bit during the night and while the rain had stopped, there was an incredible heaviness to the low clouds that hung in the valley. We were up at sparrow fart (6 am) as we knew we needed to be in for breakfast early to beat the crowds. Breakfast is served from 7:15 am and we had tickets for the 8:25 am train from Gründ, a few kilometres down the road.

After last night's introduction to a Youth Hostel 'dixie-bashing' dinner, then breakfast was an equally illuminating experience as well. However, as with last night's fare - there was plenty of including muesli (but not Alpen) that tasted like cardboard, bread, butter, jams or nutella (the backpackers staple!) ‘ham’ and cheese, yoghurt and a mix of tinned and fresh fruit; all of which was wholesome and the coffee was FREE (whereas last night it cost CHF3 per cup!) and is probably the most popular item! A Canadian asked if they had a toaster and was told no, sorry.

So that over, off we head. There is still plenty of parking right near the station at this hour of the day, and it is so much cheaper (6 CHF for the day) than in Grindelwald town as well. There are a few other people waiting for the train and when it pulls in, we discover that almost ¾ of the train has been reserved for groups. Still, we get seats without a problem – very cramped though – must be the Swiss way to encourage people to get to know one another – you have to rub knees with the person opposite you! Heaven help the winter skiers with all the extra clothing on – must be extra squeezy!

The Swiss certainly know how to construct a railway system, and the
Jungfraubahnen (a UNESCO World Heritage listing) is just amazing. Construction commenced in 1890 and throughout the years, and gradual upgrades has not altered the railway as being the oldest 'rack-and-pinion' rail system still in operation. To ride this conveyence is an experience in itself. Anyhow, we board the train at 8:20 for the 8:25 Jungfraubahnen to the destined snowdomia, in the interim a special 'reserved' two car set arrives at the station bulging with Japanese tourists. Well, this contingent either spent the night at the summit or had an exceptionally early start.

The first leg of our trip is overland in a 2 carriage yellow train. As soon as we leave the station the climb begins and it is not long before we are traversing grades of between 30° and 45°! I kid you not!! The train has a regular wheel system to which has been fitted a pinion or cog mechanism that turns in a rack for extra purchase and passenger peace of mind!

It takes 25 minutes to travel up out of the valley floor to the change point at Kleine Scheidegg. All the while we watch (through the clouds as they part, then clear a little) as the township of Grindelwald shrinks to even less than dolls house size. And looking heavenwards, we marvel with awe at the alps' manufacturing clouds - truly, these mountains are 'cloud nurseries'.

The grass is green up in the pastures and although the majority of the spring melt is well and truly over, there are still plenty of small rivulets and waterfalls streaming water down the hills into the valleys. This, together with the obvious hooven animal tracks wreak havoc on this fragile environment and there are many spots where you can see erosion - and in some parts quite bad erosion devastating this landform. Still enough of that.

As we climb higher the clouds stay with us. When we get as far as Alpiglen when you can usually get your first glimps of that famous north face of the Eiger Mountain, all we see is cloud with just a little part of the lower wall visible. Still, as we get higher we will be up above the clouds and our views will improve! We reach Kleine Scheidegg and change for the train up to Jungfraujoch. This is the junction for the line we are on, and another from Lauterbrunnen, so there are more people around. There is the same St Bernard Dog with his barrel of rum around his neck that was here when we were here three years ago. And he does not look like he has had a wash in that time either! Still, the Japanese tourists love him and there are lots of them crowded around having a group photo! The handler looked positively bored!!

So from Kleine Scheidegg we board another 2 carriage train for the ascent through the mountains to the peaks. We travel up through a series of galleries (half tunnels) that are cut into the side of the slope before entering into the bowels of the mountains - a tunnel that travels through the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau Mountains. There are two scenic observation windows that have been cut into the mountain face - the first at Eigerwand on the face of the Eiger Mountain (looks out to the north west) and the second at Eismeer on the eastern face of the Eiger. Today, both are fully immersed in dense cloud and all we can see from either station is a glaring, blinding white! However, the five minute stop gives Michael the chance to check out the train (as he would!!).

And then we are there. We have reached the summit and are now at 11,333 feet above sea level. The actual summit of the Jungfrau Mountain is still a further 2,309 feet above us, but this is as far as we can get by train. The carriages disgorge their contents and there is a rush to be at the head of the pack - gosh, don't know why - there really is plenty of space for everyone! We make our way into the tunnels that carry millions of tourists each year to a number of viewing and activity areas. We decide to head down the quieter tunnel and will first go to have a look at the Ice Palace. I did not go into this icy, slick cavern when we came up last time as I was worried about slipping and hurting my leg BUT this time I have come prepared - I have my walking sticks with me! So into the ice we go. Gosh, it is cold here - and slippery. But it is amazing to see the ice up so close. The ice 'faces' have gone though Mum and Donna, replaced by a little ledge that we squeeze through a small tunnel to lean on - same effect though - you can be photographed looking out from the ice ledge. Many of the scupltures down here are the same ones that we here three years ago - and looking just as pristine.

From here we go out on the Plateau where we are still cloud bound and the snow is starting to fall. We are here with a million Japanese, some of whom are so inadequately clad so as to have peddle pushers and thongs on - NO KIDDING! I mean it is 0.8° and with a wind chill that is taking is well south of that. You would think that as Japan has high mountains as well, that they would be better prepared - but I guess if you are a Tokyo girl, maybe not! All I can say is that even warmly dressed, I was not hot and with my boots on and poles firmly in hand, the going was still pretty slippery - especially around the entrance areas where traffic is very high, the snow melts and then freezes over. Still can't believe that anyone would be so stupid as to come up in bare feet with thongs! (And while I am having a gripe, why oh why don't I have a program that will make me looker slimmer!)

So, the first mountain top snow experience out of the way, we head up to the Sphinx where we make our first stop at the restaurant. It is early for lunch (11:45 am), but I can't stomach the thought of being there with the crowds that are up here today. In memory of Mum, I have a schnitzel and pommes frites (french fries) and we get one of the meat and cheese plates to share. Michael however can't come at Spag Bol (for my brother Michael) and instead has a huge Bratwurst Sausage (that didn't need flushing until much, much later!) with pommes frites. We get a window seat and watch the clouds forming patterns on the glacier and snow below us. We don't get to see much blue sky yet, and there are times of total whiteout with a combination of snow and cloud obscuring everything!

Still, at times like these, there is still plenty to look at inside, like the middle aged Japanese woman in heeled court shoes, or the Indian lady in high wedged thongs, or the brash, loud American girl in open sandals and shorts!

As we get ready to leave, the hordes are arriving for lunch (yes, ours was a wise decision) including the groups. We start to see the lots of Indians that I remember from last time as well. We leave and go up to the Sphinx Observation Tower. Up a lift that travels the 108 m at a stomach grabbing 3m/second! We walk out into blinding brillance - the clouds still have not fully lifted and the glare is magnified by the huge plate glass windows. A walk around to the stairwell entrance and some other tourists happily oblige by taking a photo of us together under the sign - no cutting and pasting me into the shot this time!!

They have the whole foyer area out on to the observation deck heated - so much so that we can't wait to get out into the cool! Part of the walkway around the edge of the deck is closed due to falling icicles and snow - no need this time for the men with the chainsaws and shovel sleds to be clearing the snow - but we are a month later than when I was last here in 2006. The clouds are now beginning to break, burned away by the midday sun in the cool, high mountain air. And yet, as we continue to gaze with wonder at the amazing scenery all around us, still the snow falls. Michael enjoys trying to catch some on his tongue! We watch a flock of birds landing and casting off the rock ledge below us. It's amazing these little creatures don't suffer from frostbite; as they leave their claw impressions in the small ice rifts. They land on the ledge and despite teh multitude of signs in a myriad of languages about not feeding the birds, plenty do - predominantly the Indians. They are so tame that I am even lucky enough to get a series of photos of one of them preening - standing less than a foot away from it!

We walk around the observation deck snapping away. While it is snowing, it is not heavy and at the moment there is amazingly little wind, so it is not too cold at all. And the clouds play hide and seek with our views! From time to time we can see the people on the snow below us, while at other times the are obscured by that whiteout. Michael however is champing at the bit to get down there. There are a huge array of activities on offer - from skiing and snowboarding, to dish skimming (their version of cardboard sliding!) to husky rides, to a thrill-seekers flying fox line) to walking either independently or with a guided group to the head of the glacier or beyond. So down stairs we go. But my hip is really starting to ache now - a combination of some more strenous walking and the cold I think, so I will stay and have a look at the art exhibition currently showing while Michael takes a walk.

So off he heads - Glacier Head bound. He is in for quite a treat. Not only does he get to look down on the glacier from near its head, he also manages to capture a series of small avalanches falling (though I am not sure how clear the photo will be once it is reduced for the blog) and finally the sun shines through - giving him a true impression of just how blue and clear the sky can be up here in the heavens. But looking back on the impressive Sphinx Meteorological Station, he can only get a shot of it with a heavy grey background - unlike that amazing photo that I got with the clear summer sky behind it last time. And he should have out more sunblock on - but didn't, so now his face glows, even though we was wearing his hat, the reflected gare off the snow has given him quite a bit of a burning. No doubt it will be brown by morning!

So, a full day almost done, we are ready to head off mountain and back to the valley floor. The train trip down is slightly amusing as most of the people aboard just go to sleep. In their defence, I will admit that the heating was on and it is somewhat stifling. One of the Japanese tour group guides is also amused and busily takes photos of her sleeping charges - no doubt to embarrass them with later! Michael also gets a good shot. It is amazing how many people don't look good with their mouths open, and also amazing at just how many people do sleep with their mouths open when they are sitting up!
We again marvel at the changing scenery on the trip back down and as we near Kleine Scheidegg see a couple of walkers trudging across the landscape. When we actually get to the station, they are already there and I ask them how fay they have walked.
"Oh just from Schiltorn today"
"How long did it take you?"
"Not too long - 6 hours"
Not too long? Not too far? Who are they kidding???? There is a perfectly good train that they could have got from Lauterbrunnen and not have even needed to go up to Schiltorn - still, whatever rocks your boat!!!

At Kleine Scheidegg we decided to get cups of coffee and cake for afternoon tea. The Apfelkuchen looked wonderful, so that will do us. When it is delivered to our table, I can hardly believe my eyes! The slices are H U G E. And the German fellow at the table behind us just laughs and laughs and laughs. When they order the same, I notice that they only order one between two! Too bad they did not order first! I mean that cake was delicious - light cake base covered with heaps of grated apple mixed (I think) with some of the cake mix to hold it together and then a crumble like top. Actually, it was very light. And wholesome food insists Michael, no junk, as her polished off his piece and almost ⅔of mine as well! Yeah, right, whatever makes you feel good darling!!!!

Then it is back on to the yellow train for the valley and Grindelwald. Back through the galleries and with a bit better a view of the Eiger north face as we journey through. The clouds have still not lifted. The trip down in uneventful and I get chatting to some other travellers who have also come over from France. But they are not staying up mountain and have to travel back down to Interlaken when we get down. We make comparisons re the differences we see in the Swiss and French Alps. With the exception of the Mont Blanc range, the Swiss Alps are 'high mountains' compared to most of the French Alps. Mind you, they are all connected and what in fact we experienced in Manigod was the lower slopes on the other side of these Alps. Michael however, is taking more photos at the carriage door, so his hat has a seat all to itself. Comes in handy, does his Akubra - most people pick us for Australians straight away - although the questions about the corks are starting to wear a little thin!

And so back on the valley floor we arrive about 6 pm, tired but thrilled with our day up in the big mountains. As I had expected, Michael was really stunned by the experience and I suspect I'll never again hear the words, "Alps, not more b***** alps!" And diner tonight? Who the hell needs dinner after that Apfelkuchen! We are happy not to have anything. We have a nap, and then while Michael heads up to the main building, I begin the blog, downloading and resizing the photos and then watch 'Twilight' a movie that Michael really wanted to see that I have downloaded through iTunes. Good plot, pretty good movie. Bit too girly though for Michael I suspect. So now I am off to bed.

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