Switzerland is beautiful. I cannot say this enough.
The lake-side hostel in Iseltwald on the Brienz was not bad. The location really couldn’t be beat but the sleeping arrangements were, the first night, interesting. That’s okay though, because the money we saved by staying in a hostel was more than worth the amount we spent to get to the “Top of Europe [d-d-d-daaaaahhh!!!], highest train station in the world!” With all the rainy days thus far we were lucky to have practically perfect weather on the day we wanted to go up.
The trains themselves are an interesting style because they have iron-teeth in the middle between the familiar rails. On the very steep grades this serves both to pull on the way up and to slow and stop on the way down. Some of the grades that the trains could manage were impressive. I would estimate up to about 30%. It took a bit of getting used to, that’s for sure.
As we left the valley floor at Interlaken -1860 feet-and gained just a bit of altitude it was easy to see the perfectly glacier-carved granite cliffs and U-shape of the valley before we entered another smaller valley leading up top. Picture Yosemite Valley with way less people, more red trains, green rolling hills below steep cliffs with white-capped peaks above, butterscotch (!) cows with big bells hanging around their necks, and quintessential Swiss houses dotting the landscape.
It was awesome.The beauty was everything I could have hoped for: I kept feeling incredibly grateful for such perfect weather.
After passing through these gorgeous rolling hills the train climbed even higher along even steeper terrain where we arrived at a most amazing view of the Swiss Alps-just below Eiger- at a stop called Kleine Scheidegg. This town consists of the train station, a souvenir shop, a bar, a cafe, and a restaurant. Note! There were ski lifts all over the barren hills here, and a part of me couldn’t help but feel like we were apparently a month or so early!
Yet, here I really felt like I was at the foot of the steep escarpments which are the rest of the Alps that we all have heard about and seen in the movies. Far above this small train station were blue glaciers forging their way over the limestone layers. Closer, the landscape was fairly sparse. Above the tree line now, this particular place is 6762 feet above sea level. Piles upon piles of large rocks indicated probable locations of glacial retreat from the geologically recent past.
Then the real treat came. Next, a special train would take its passengers along even steeper tracks up higher through the limestone layers via a tunnel system that was constructed in the early 1900’s. The end point would be Europe’s highest train station called “The Top of Europe, Jungfraujoch” at 11,333 feet. Sen-sational. An impressive feat of engineering, amazing Swiss technology, and simple human tenacity.
Along the way there were two incredible viewpoints where the upbound [can I say, “North bound”?] train would stop for five minutes where it was essentially waiting for the other train to come down and pass as the tunnel was kind of one-lane in most parts, but where passengers could also walk a few yards to the cliff side and see magnificent view of the glaciers below and the snowy peaks surrounding them. Marvelous!
And the vision that someone had to create such a place! Very impressive.
Upon arriving at the top I’m a little embarrassed to say that I could not figure out how to get out of the building and tunnel system to save my life! I kept seeing people with wet shoes so it was obvious it had to be possible, but it took a little while! I was getting anxious, too. I felt like, “we came all this way up here and I can’t get out of this building? That is really horrible!” Turns out there were a few places to go outside where we could enjoy the fresh [and thin] air, the amazing view, and the nice weather. Funny how much more information one can gain when one finds a map of a place!
At first I was kind of scoffing at the idea of taking a train to the Top of Europe, I felt like “if people want to see such pristine wilderness then we ought to work for it like the mountaineers”. But in reality, on this particular adventure I would not have had the ability to go if it weren’t for taking transportation. There would have been no way I was physically prepared to do such a high-mountain event in a day otherwise. So then I changed my attitude a little bit because there were many many people there who clearly would not have been able to see such a magnificent view [other than from an airplane] had it not been for the Swiss ingenuity. Ultimately, I suppose as long as they don’t construct train tracks through mountains to the top of every great vista it’s probably okay. I mean, for many travelers this is as close as they’ll get to something so incredibly high in altitude and otherwise inaccessible.
One of my favorite things was the walk out on a glacier. After walking through an elaborate tunnel system there is an opening out directly onto a glacier with a flat area and a subsequent small grade uphill and around a corner, where we did not go. I kept wondering how exactly the scientists keep track of the conditions and locations of the current crevasses. I know it’s easy if that’s what they do, and that generally they can predict glacier movement better than earthquakes for the most part. But I still couldn’t help but feel …. well, I couldn’t help but think about it. After all, we were walking on top of who knows what thickness [the glaciologists, actually] of ice that no doubt has many cracks and fissures running through it as it slowly flows towards the next glacier below. I considered the eons and centuries of ice accumulation that finally created these mountain top glaciers. Never mind the actual geologic processes that created the Alps! The plutonic granites below the layers of limestone that were eventually uplifted and twisted around due to the continents colliding is now well-exposed and it’s obvious that other glaciers came before and melted away the gorgeous hanging valleys where the Swiss now reside in calm serene with their cows, gardens, and organized lifestyles. Anyway, as I was saying, walking out on that glacier at the Top of Jungraujoch was simply humbling on many levels. The geologic processes that created this whole area go through a majority of the earth’s history dating back to the first oceans and simple sea life. It was a clear reminder that not only is a single human life a barely visible blip on the geologic time scale, but really the whole human race -while so big and menacing- is also just a second on this huge scale. It’s a shame in some ways that all the pollution we are creating has begun to show up in the layers of air trapped in glacial ice. I wondered what exactly had reached these glaciers, especially because really, Switzerland is so clean! [again, I know the scientists who study up there know, so we can likely look it up, but I’m just thinking out loud here].
At the end of this lovely day-trek into an arctic high-mountain wonderland we had to once again take the little red train through the mountainside. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be the crews working on this project. It took over 15 years to complete the whole thing from the first stage to completion at 11,333 feet. Honestly!
After almost an hour through the limestone layers we arrived again in Kleine Scheidegg where we boarded another train which would take us further down to a larger village -Grindelwald-below the tree line. Along the way it was raining and the mists looked so beautiful above the pale mountains where trees were beginning to do\// below where the train was crawling along the cliff sides. Such a gift! I couldn’t help but smile and giggle a grateful “thank you” to the Universe for such a memorable day all around.