Switzerland’s Best Kept Secret: Skiing in the Shadow of the Murder Wall
Thought Switzerland was a safe but boring ski bet? Jungfrau will make you think again...
The Jungfrau region has everything you’d to see on a traditional Swiss ski holiday. The memorable train ride in passes the beautiful Lake Geneva, with the stunning Swiss Alps lurking just behind.
When you climb off the train in Interlaken, you’re greeted by more snowy, serrated mountains; when you go for a bite to eat you’re met with mounds of cheese and garlic, the chocolate is great, and when you arrive at that first chairlift, you’ll hear some cheesy Swiss music blaring at you from the background.
That’s where the clichés end though. Once you get on the chairlift and the music fades, you’re forced to focus on what’s in front of you, a beautiful region with a dirty little secret – it’s a dangerous place.
It doesn’t take long to work out that Jungfrau is an adrenaline junkies paradise. That much becomes clear as your chairlift floats by the infamous North Face of the Eiger.
The gargantuan rock face is well documented as being one of the toughest climbs in the world. It’s local nickname ‘Mordwand’ simply means ‘Murder Wall’, and when you note that ‘Eiger’ itself means ‘ogre’, it says a lot that it even needed a more sinister moniker.
The 1800m face is the largest in the Alps, and it’s responsible for more gruesome deaths than Sauron and Voldermort combined.
Global warming is making it increasingly unstable each year as well, so the advised time to conquer it is now in winter. The temperatures may make for chilling reading at that time of year, but the wall is covered with a coating of ice which prevents rocks falling onto the climber.
Indeed, summer is the time for wingsuiting and BASE jumping in Jungfrau. It’s one of the most popular places for it in the world, with Patrick Kerber completing the biggest wingsuit BASE jump ever from the peak of the Jungfrau in 2013 – but in winter all eyes are on the slopes and the ever-lurking North Face.
Some climbers spend days sleeping on the ferocious face of the wall in mind-boggling temperatures. Some freeze to death, while others, well, Ueli Steck and Daniel Arnold, have conquered the face in under three hours.
For those who start the climb but can't complete it, an escape point awaits in the mountain, roughly half way up. Struggling climbers can open the door and climb into the shelter, which also acts as a viewing point for tourists en route to the Jungfraujoch Top of Europe viewing centre.
The view from The Top of Europe must be one of the best in the country, if not on the continent As A whole...
Hypothetically, you could be taking a toilet break on the scenic trip to the highest train station in Europe – a journey to 3,454m which travels at angles of up to 25 degrees – when you see a climber breaking into your view just glad to be alive.
Of course, a climb up the Eiger or a wingsuit jump from the top is not going to be for most people, no matter how keen they are to get the full area experience, but a trip to the Top of Europe is a must.
It’s worth noting that the train only stops along the way to let tourists adjust to the altitude before they reach their final destination - which peaks at 3,571m – and when you get out at the final stop you can certainly see why.
Stepping out at that height doesn’t give you much time to find your feet. There can be up to 16 percent less oxygen up there depending on the air pressure, and it leaves you feeling like you’ve spent your afternoon trying to out-drug Charlie Sheen. We hate to think what it’d be like if you actually had just done that.
The view, though, must be one of the best in the country if not on the continent. On a clear day you can see far across to France on one side, and get a breathtaking view of the Aletsch Glacier on the other – where Roger Federer rather bizarrely played Lindsey Vonn in a game of tennis last July.
Of course, it’s worth noting that there’s a watch shop and a Lindt choclatier up there as well, because, y’know, it’s still Switzerland and all. It’s a nice touch, and one which adds a good bit of pigeonholing comedy to the whole set up.
The extremities of the area should not be underestimated though. When we asked our wonderful local guide Beat Kornfeind if anyone had ever skied down to Grindlewald from the area he responded: “One guy tried from near here once. I think he survived."
In Mürren, they host the Whitestyle Open freestyle ski and snowboard comp each March on the streets of the town...
The skiing and boarding isn’t exactly tame back down on the slopes, either. Snow permitting, the region is set to become home to biggest half-pipe in the country this season, and the tree runs and powder make for a wonderful mix across the 206km of slopes.
There is limited terrain for the more advanced shredder, but the views compensate, and there's more than enough to keep you busy.
Our first day of skiing was an absolute bluebird. The snow was brilliant and the runs perfect, but the best thing about it was that the slopes weren’t half as crowded as they would’ve been elsewhere. The region still has the numbers of an untapped resource, something unlikely to last too long.
Another awesome add-on is the ‘Winnercard’ system in Jungfrau. Basically, by scanning your lift pass at certain check-points, you can make use of photo-points on piste, track how far you’ve travelled, how many lifts you’ve taken and much more as well. It’s a genius idea which will surely become universal in the next 10 or 20 years.
Myself, I clocked a total of 46km across a couple of days, took 25 ski lifts and racked up the cheeky photo album below. It’s sure as hell better than having to get your phone out constantly or selling out to the selfie stick, anyway.
In the resorts below – Jungfrau is home to Grindelwald, Wengen, Lauterbrunnen and Murren – they like to keep themselves busy too. Rather than the small tartan-clothed dogs I’d expected to see on the streets of Grindlewald, I was met with dudes who had matched up bare bike frames and skis to make sketchy velo-skis.
In Mürren, they host the Whitestyle Open freestyle comp each March on the streets of the town. You can’t say that about too many places, and certainly not about a resort where the comp won’t be interrupted by students throwing up the litres of 80 cent wine they consumed the night before.
And that’s Jungfrau in a nutshell. Think less pampered Chihuahuas freezing on the streets, more committed climbers freezing halfway up a cliff face. The onesies you see are more likely to be wingsuits than flur-clad, and even when you’re standing still, the views – and the altitude – are enough to knock you off your feet.
It’s the extreme sports hub that you may have never heard of, or that you may have never considered, but it’s certainly one that you should keep in mind for your next trip.
The word ‘Jungfrau’ may stand for ‘Virgin’, but have no doubt about it – there's a world of wildness waiting behind that innocent front.