Jungfraujoch – The Top of Europe
In my last post from a June, 2022 trip to Switzerland with Canadian tour company Adventures Abroad our group took a gondola up from Grindelwald to First where we did an alpine hike to Bachalpsee and experienced the Cliff Walk. In keeping with the one day on one day off hiking schedule of this tour, today our tour leader Victor Romagnoli will take us to the highest elevation most of us have ever been, the 3,571 (11,782 feet) summit of the Jungfraujoch. Amazingly we won’t be getting there by tram or cable car as you might expect, but on a train that will take us to the highest rail station in Europe. This is something I have been looking forward to since signing up for this trip. It should be a blast so I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
It’s another glorious spring day in the Bernese Alps as we prepare to board the train that will take us from Wengen to Klein Scheidegg from where the Jungfrau railway departs to Jungfraujoch. At the small store inside the Wengen station someone points out this sign which would definitely be verboten in Canada or the U.S. In my experience the Germans are still heavy smokers and given that the majority of Swiss do speak German perhaps it’s not surprising that a lot of them smoke as well. Must be great for the lungs at these altitudes. Interesting that the sign includes “Smoking Kills” in three languages, but not English even though Starter-Kit is in English. Guess they don’t want English speakers to know what awaits if they take Camel up on it’s offer.
This is the view of Jungfrau from the train as we head for Klein Scheidegg station. Not a cloud in the sky. Our luck with the weather continues to be phenomenal despite yesterday’s blip.
We arrive at Klein Scheidegg and have this view from the platform.
I can also see the route of the Jungfraujoch railway which we are about to board. That’s the Eiger on the left and Mönch on the right. Essentially the route will take us up to the Eiger and then we will disappear inside a tunnel that will cut through both mountains and come out on the very right side of the photo which is the Jungfraujoch that is a ridge between Mönch and the Jungfrau.
Here is a map that gives a clearer idea of the route.
Zooming in as much as my lens will go I can make out the final destination for our journey today, the enigmatic building known as The Sphinx. But before getting aboard why did someone think it was a good idea to build the Jungfraujoch Railway in the first place and how did it get built?
History of the Jungfraujoch Railway
The idea of building the Jungfraujoch Railway by tunnelling through the Eiger and Mönch to get to Jungfrau was the brainchild of Swiss railway baron Adolf Guyer-Zeller who first applied for a concession to build it in 1893. Construction started in 1896 and by 1898 the line reached the edge of the Eiger. That was the easy part.
It took another fourteen years and many lives to complete the 7.3 km. (4.5 mile) tunnel to the underground station at Jungfraujoch. Guyer-Zeller died in 1899 and his sons continued the project, but not going as far as their father had planned which was all the way to Jungfrau. The astronomical observatory aka The Sphinx was built in 1937 and expanded to its present form sometime later. The completion of the Jungfraujoch Railway led to an explosion of tourism in the Bernese Alps and today it is one of the most popular destinations in Switzerland.
In addition to the fact that the Jungfraujoch Railway is an engineering marvel, it is what Guyer-Zeller wanted people to be able to see from the top that is equally as stupendous. In 2001 the landscape known as the Jungfrau-Aletsch Glacier was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site with this description:
Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch
The extension of the natural World Heritage property of Jungfrau – Aletsch – Bietschhorn (first inscribed in 2001), expands the site to the east and west, bringing its surface area up to 82,400 ha., up from 53,900. The site provides an outstanding example of the formation of the High Alps, including the most glaciated part of the mountain range and the largest glacier in Eurasia. It features a wide diversity of ecosystems, including successional stages due particularly to the retreat of glaciers resulting from climate change. The site is of outstanding universal value both for its beauty and for the wealth of information it contains about the formation of mountains and glaciers, as well as ongoing climate change. It is also invaluable in terms of the ecological and biological processes it illustrates, notably through plan succession. Its impressive landscape has played an important role in European art, literature, mountaineering and alpine tourism.
So let’s climb aboard and begin our journey to Jungfraujoch station.
The picture perfect day has brought out throngs of tourists from Grindelwald and Interlaken and there is a huge lineup ahead of us. I wonder how long we will have to wait before we can get on, but Victor leads us all past the lineup like he owns the place. Turns out that we have booked a specific time which only groups can do. We are immediately seated on the next departing train and are off in a matter of minutes.
It takes only a few minutes to get into the tunnel and once you enter it you do not really have the sensation of a steep ascent. There is one five minute stop on the way up at the Eismeer station where everybody gets out to have this view of the Alps through thick plexiglass. It’s nice, but I want to see the view without glass in the way, no matter how clear it is.
With the stop at Eismeer it takes about 35 minutes to get to Jungfraujoch station which is a huge expanse hundreds of feet below the surface. Victor gives us a talk on the signs of altitude sickness and advises anyone who has trouble adjusting to the elevation to immediately take the next train down. While Alison and I are both short of breath and somewhat light headed that clears up fairly quickly and to my knowledge no one in the group had to cut their visit short. From here we are on our own and can spend as much time as we want visiting the attractions of Jungfraujoch and then make our way back to Wengen at our own pace.
As you exit the station proper you come to this sign which dictates the path you must take in a counter-clockwise direction to see all sights which are essentially in three sections – attractions inside the mountain, the Sphinx and things you can do outside.
Although you can watch a short video on the Jungfraujoch before taking the elevator to the Sphinx we opted to skip it and go for the real deal first. Surprisingly there is no lineup to get on the elevator which is the only way to get to the Sphinx some 35 stories above the station and we are the only ones in it.
At the top you can pose to show just how high this place is and likely set a new altitude record for many including us.
We absolutely could not have asked for a better day to take in the views from The Sphinx. This is looking north towards Interlaken where there are green mountain pastures and forests as far as the eye can see.
Walking to the opposite side of The Sphinx this is the view looking directly across to the Jungfrau, the summit of which is less than 2,ooo feet (609 metres) from where I am standing.
Turning just a bit to the left you see the summit of Mönch which is only a bit lower than Jungfrau. It really is something to be standing so close to the tops of these famous alps.
Equally as spectacular is the view of Aletsch Glacier, the longest in all of Eurasia.
Looking down I can see all kinds of people milling about in the snow below and we decide we want to join them so we head back down on the elevator that once again is not crowded.
From the base of the elevator the prescribed route takes you outside where you can participate in a number of winter sports including skiing, snowboarding and tubing. You can also hike up to Mönchjoch hut or even take a zipline over the glacier. At this altitude we’ll settle for something a little more sedate which we can do from the Glacier Plateau which is a little further on.
Returning inside the Jungfraujoch the route takes us first through a dark area called the Alpine Sensation which was not easy to photograph. From here on in the place does take a kind of Disneyesque turn with things like this giant snow globe.
There is also a sombre note with this memorial to the thirty men who were killed constructing the tunnel to the Jungfraujoch. I note that every one of them was Italian.
The Alpine Sensation gives way to the much more interesting Ice Palace which starts with a long walk through an ice tunnel.
And comes out to a place with some very good ice sculptures including a frozen version of Billy Joel.
At the end of the Ice Palace we once again step outside onto the Glacier Plateau where there is a good spot to get your picture taken with the Swiss flag.
Or take more pictures of Aletsch glacier. What’s really amazing is that although we are in the midst of snow and ice at a high altitude, it’s really not that cold. The sun is as bright as you could ever imagine and seems to have cancelled out any chill you might otherwise expect. Some people are even frolicking in T-shirts and shorts.
This is also the best sport from which to get a good look at The Sphinx, surely one of the most unusual buildings in the world. It looks like it must have been built by some sort of James Bond villain as an alpine aerie and it has appeared in a number of movies and TV productions including The Amazing Race, but never in a Bond movie.
The trip to Jungfraujoch winds down with a return inside where the area is now dominated by shops and two restaurants. Alison paid a visit to the Lindt chocolate makers.
And we had a very nice lunch at the cafeteria where we watched helicopters carrying construction materials pass by every five minutes or so. I thought back to a time over a century ago when the Jungfraujoch was being built and flying machines had just been invented and helicopters only found in science fiction books. For a man to have imagined, let alone built something like this only using manual labour and TNT, is almost inconceivable, but it is real and yet another highlight on this great Adventures Abroad trip.
In the next post we’ll say goodbye to Wengen and head for the beautiful lakeside city of Lucerne. I’ll see you there.