Inside the ice cave with it’s historic line of sawdust striping across the ceiling.
Interlaken lies between two lakes, serene in a valley dwarfed by giant, snow covered ridges. Charming and bright, the city embodies all that Western visitors dream of when they imagine Switzerland. Many imagine the Matterhorn too, the same that Walt Disney decided would be the perfect model for his theme parks. That lies in the south above Zermatt. The frozen world above Interlaken hides Jungfraujoc, a shoulder of ice between bright, white peaks that can be glimpsed from town on a clear afternoon. It lies at the end of a steep ride, at the ‘top of Europe’, the highest one can venture to by train.
The apex has the coldest annual temperature in Europe. I was prepared for cold, but knowing that made me feel a bit more intrepid. I made it up the series of railways easily enough but when I went to step out onto the viewing platform, the sunlight was deceiving. I couldn’t handle the wind. Where I had been toasty enough before exiting the building, my finger tips grew numb in less than a minute. Still I was lucky, some make the ascent and find only fog shrouded peaks. The views were electrifying – snowy peaks, vast glaciers and crevasses, a world unlike any I’d ever seen before.
Guide Erika pointing out one of the rail lines up to the Top of Europe
The train ride up to the Top of Europe
…is a combination of cog and quiet, clean hydroelectric power. Industrialist Adolph Guyer-Zimmer had dreamed of blasting through the rocky summits of Eiger and Monch to build a cog-wheel train to the summit. He sketched out his ideas in 1893 but passed away before the peak was conquered. At the start, in 1896 more than 100 Italian laborers were enlisted to work in the harsh conditions. They blasted, picked and struck at one point for better wages. In 1899 a blasting accident claimed 6 lives. While adventurous climbers attempt the ascent, for most a comfortable ride with a warm lunch, first class or casual, is available at the crest.
I met my guide for the day inside the Hotel du Nord. Erika’s been a guide for five years after retiring. Very slim and fit, it’s clear that she loves her work explaining and helping guests around the Interlaken mountain system. The first train took us out of town just before 7 am but was packed with tourists all the same. The day was clear and cold as sun crept across dark peaks. As our ascent began we watched the morning light strike the mountain tops.
Our train ran silent and smooth, lacing up white valleys full of fresh snow. The powder, the sun, were magnets and soon skiers were seen skittering over tracks with abandon. I spied an old tunnel that was a remnant of WW2 and now, instead of storing munitions, it stores mountain cheese. There are over 20,000 old bunkers which once held arms, troops, and today are storehouses for peacetime, some are used for events, some are high tech installations. This is the ‘life inside the mountain” or ‘reduit’ as Erika said. We passed it quickly, climbing up higher and higher. Outside of Interlaken there were several smaller villages where hostels and small pensions serve those wanting to be closer to ski runs and budget-minded, adventure travelers.
Ride along in this video:
Near the Beginners Slopes – just my speed!
It was exhilarating to step out inside caves near the summit to acclimate a bit to the altitude and glance across the frosty cliffs. Large windows shielded us from dancing snow, sheer rock cliffs and icy pinnacles.
The frozen world spied from a tunnel near the Top of Europe
Feeling the altitude, I moved slowly to wander the attractions at the summit, 11,783 feet/3571 meters high. The train cars opened to elevators we entered a hall with a casual coffee bar where skiers and hikers began preparations for the long descent.
Visiting with Heidi’s Grandpa inside the Alpine Sensation displays
The ‘Tour’ led us to the Alpine Sensation with it’s references to Heidi, a Swiss childrens’ story, a historical panorama glimpsed from a moving sidewalk with film clips and animation. The memorial to Adolph Guyer-Zimmer is centered in a dome with his likeness climbing out of rock – chilling, wondrous and very creative. A replica of his original sketch is etched in the floor.
The dreamer, Adolph Guyer-Zimmer, founder of the Jungfrau train system.
We moved onto the ice cave. It was originally created by two mountain guides who must have had time on their hands. Now it covers over 1000 meters and walking through the passages, it’s easy to imagine what exploring a crevasse would be like. I was surrounded by icy blues and grey. Some were striped where guides decades ago had scattered wood chips on the surface of the glacier. Those chips are now compressed into a wandering line, deep in the glacial ice. The dynamic ice is deceivingly solid as it moves up to 15 centimeters each year and the cave has to be re-carved again and again. Crystal sculptures are arranged in niches. Carved in a valley studio they are transported by train to the summit, as all things are at the Top of Europe.
Ice sculptures inside the Jungfraujoc ice cave
I fell for a mountain quartz ring in the gift shop and then Erika introduced me to the country’s soda, Rivella, at lunch as we watched skiers descend the Aletsch glacier expanse below. Of course I couldn’t resist a cup of coffee and a chocolate shaped like the mountain, snowy peak and all.
I can’t imagine a more wondrous and comfortable day exploring an icy world, riding trains past sunny expanses of fresh snow, eating and drinking with great company, and coming home at the end of it all with an abiding amazement at how much beauty there is in Switzerland, at the Top of Europe.
The plateau at the Top of Europe
If you go to the Top of Europe:
Consider using the Swiss Travel Pass to explore Switzerland. It allows you to take buses, trains and boats across the country. Very easy!
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