Getting a ticket for Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest railway station, had proved harder than I thought. First, I’d made the mistake of travelling in August, the month when half the world decamps to Switzerland and specifically, that part of Switzerland. Second, I’d chosen to travel on a dry day, when the mountain scenery was showcased against a clear blue sky. And third, worst of all, I hadn’t gone straight there. I shouldn’t have been surprised therefore to find that the Swiss had wisely imposed a quota on the number of tickets sold and that by the time I rocked up to the tiny ticket office in the mountain resort of Kleine Scheidegg, they’d all gone.
You see, I’d been staying in Interlaken, a lively resort town sandwiched between Lakes Brienz and Thun. From there, my journey had already involved several trains: first to Wilderswil, where I’d been tempted off the train to make a side trip to Schynige Platte on a cogwheel railway that provided spectacular views of the iconic mountain trio Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch. The scenery was splendid, savoured with a large portion of apple strudel to the soundtrack of a pair of Alpine horns being played in the background.
Climbing to Lauterbrunnen, I resisted the temptation to alight, viewing the mighty Trümmelbach Falls from the train window. Thousands of tonnes of boulders and thrown down a deep chasm by the water from not one but ten glacial streams whose water once formed the imposing snow caps and glaciers of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch. From Lauterbrunnen, I could have headed for Mürren, the setting for Blofeld’s lair in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, just a short ride up the mountain. Instead, I chose to stay on the train, changing trains at Wengen and then Kleine Scheidegg. And now, with the infamous north face of the Eiger so close I could almost reach out and touch the icy rock, it looked like I was stuck.
Begging the ticket office clerk hadn’t worked. As far as he was concerned, it was my own fault for not being more organised. He had a point, but I wasn’t done yet. I was still almost 1500 metres short of my target station and I had a plan. The area attracted a large number of Asian tourists. Many of them are Japanese; in 1926, the Japanese Crown Prince Chichibu summated the nearby Wetterhorn and wrote in glowing terms about the area. Since then, thousands of Japanese have made a pilgrimage to the area to see what their revered Prince had raved about. Many of them spoke little English, let alone German, so the Jungfrau Railway company had thoughtfully employed several staff to provide information and ensure that everyone reached their destination without incident.
The young girl on duty was eager to help with my plight. Alas, she wasn’t authorised for sales, and having failed as well to persuade the jobsworth behind the counter to sell me a ticket, she came up with a plan. I was to buy a ticket to Eigergletscher, a tiny station just ten minutes further up the mountain. From there, she said, it was sometimes possible to persuade the on-board conductor to sell tickets for the steep bit up to Jungfraujoch. I figured it was worth a try.
Things didn’t go any better at Eigergletscher. The weather was closing in, wispy clouds rolling down the mountainous ravines to puddle into thick blankets in the valleys. My pleas for a ticket were met with a regretful shake of the head, polite but firm. Just beyond the end of the platform was the tunnel that enters the Mönch for its onward journey inside the mountain to Jungfraujoch. I’d come so close, but it was not to be. Reluctantly I boarded a train carriage marked “Kleine Scheidegg” and resigned myself to the fact that I’d have to come back another time.
The train started to slowly pull away but to my great surprise, instead of heading down the mountain, it was going up. Ironically, this trip was billed as one of Switzerland’s scenic railways, but for most of the journey all that I could see was a roughly hewn rock face. For half an hour of ear-popping discomfort, I panicked. I’d never dodged a fare before. Heart pounding, the train paused at the the intermediate stops of Eigerwand and Eismeer, both buried within the mountain tunnel. As my fellow passengers alighted for a quick photograph through the tunnel’s panoramic windows, I was unable to move from my seat, paralysed by the fear that I’d be dragged off the train by an inspector in front of everyone.
The humiliation never came. Neither did a ticket inspector, so when I stepped off into the underground bunker that doubles as the summit station, my first thought was to find someone to listen to my confession. Flustered, I approached a man in uniform, who didn’t seem to care I had no ticket and told me to wait at the ticket office. At the ticket office, the clerk shrugged his shoulders and told me to get a ticket on the train on the way back down. It seemed I had been worrying over nothing. To think, I would have obediently abandoned my journey when all the while, the only thing I had to do was brazenly take a seat anyway and just flash the cash when asked.
Emerging into the visitor centre with its huge picture windows, I saw that the sun had made an appearance once more after the swirling fog at Eigergletscher. For the first time, I truly appreciated the incredible task that had been undertaken by those railway engineers over a century before. The tunnel track had taken sixteen long years to complete but at 3454 metres above sea level, looking down from the visitor centre onto the impressive Aletsch Glacier, it was easy to see why they’d persevered. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking this river of ice stood the Sphinx Observatory, a 1930s research station for scientists marooned in a sea of white. Even in the height of summer, the snow lay thick on the ground. At this altitude, sub-zero temperatures are a permanent characteristic. The thermometer read -5°C, but I noted that the overnight low had been a jaw-dropping -22°C. I didn’t want to think about how cold it would get in winter.
Although members of the public aren’t permitted in the Observatory itself, there is a viewing platform offering a grand vista along the 23 km Aletsch Glacier. Tourists can also visit the Ice Palace, a thousand square metre cavern of translucent blue ice initially created in 1934 by two local guides with ice picks. Because the glacier is constantly moving downhill, an “ice master” has the job of compensating for a half metre of so of movement each year. Visitors who are game for braving the icy conditions can also hike for an hour across the top of the glacier on the trail to the Mönchsjoch hut. Looking out over the Aletsch Glacier, I came to one definite conclusion: Crown Prince Chichibu was a man of very good taste. But if no one minded, I thought I’d just put my feet up with a glass of hot chocolate and stay in the warm, thank you very much.