Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe

We were tipped off by a colleague that visiting Jungfraujoch would be an incredible destination while in Switzerland.  Words like “glacier” seemed sort of cool, but when other words like “cog railway”, “narrow gauge railway” and “UNESCO World Heritage Site” were used, I was hooked.Sara was skeptical at best, her last brush with a mountain being a bait-and-switch experience involving a promise of “no hiking” and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina.  As we got closer to making plans and buying tickets, her confirmations became more frequent, until we were down to a “There’s going to be no hiking, right?” every 10 minutes, along with a complete thesaurus readout of alternate phrases: long walking, walking up a hill, trudging, stomping through snow, climbing, etc.As we bought our tickets, we didn’t really understand what we were in for on the trip over.  Swiss railways are nothing short of spectacular, the Zurich Hauptbahnhof being a prime exhibit with its 26+ tracks, two levels, 2,900 daily trains, and over 340,000 passenger per day.  For a point of comparison, Beijing’s new West Railway station serves roughly 150,000 passengers per day on average, and while this is one of three Beijing stations, you’re talking a comparison of a city of 22 million vs. a city of 365,000.  OK, enough stats.  The point is, I’m not sure there’s very many systems in the world, even in small countries, that can get you to where you want to go and back on a 10+ connection, 10 hour journey.  We missed one of our connections in Bern due to a misreading of the schedule, but there was another option 20 minutes after that one, and I’m not even sure it mattered towards the end result.The trip involved five different trains out and back, and our route was:

  • Zurich -> Bern (Intercity Express or ICE, double decker coaches)
  • Bern -> Interlaken Ost (Intercity Express single deck coaches)
  • Interlaken Ost -> Lauterbrunnen (Narrow Gauge on the Bernese Oberland Railways)
  • Lauterbrunnen -> Kleine Scheidegg (Narrow Gauge Cog on the Wengernalp Railway )
  • Kleine Scheidegg -> Jungfraujoch (Narrow Gauge Cog on the Jungfrau Railway)

From Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch, each of these segments included multiple stops (see the route maps I’ve linked to) as we wound our way up the mountain from Interlaken to an altitude of 11,388 feet which makes it the highest railway station in Europe.  In case your curious, the Qingzang railway to Tibet holds the record for the world.Riding up from Interlaken was a neat experience as the cogs permit a level of ascent that’s almost roller-coasterish in some places.  You pass by hundreds of small cottages, several small skiing and resort towns, and the train is carrying mostly skiers through the lower stations, complete with additional carts for baggage on the front of the train.  The railway is completely electrified, and though the equipment looks interchangeable, these are all separately operated railways with different uniforms, liveries, cars, and locomotives.  Typical of Swiss efficiency, the trains generate electricity for the line on the way down and can recover something like 40% of the power expended on the ascent.  As we progressed, we became a little worried that the top would be obscured by heavy fog that was blanketing the mountains, even though a train information official assured us it was clear on the top.The last two plus kilometers of the trips is at a very steep ascent rate and is completely within a tunnel with one stop for an observation point.  This last point is incredible, considering that this line was built in 1894 and 1912.We got a late start from Zurich as we caught the 10:32 AM train out of Zurich and the entire trip we witnessed frowns and mumbles about there not being enough time, and sure enough, when we got there we had 40 minutes until the last train, but for us it was enough.  We hustled through the station, rode a very fast elevator up, and emerged at the Sphinx Observatory whose very name leaves you unsurprised it has been used in a James Bond movie and as a setting for several novels.What a view!  We were high above the clouds, and in every direction there was snow, mountain peaks, and nothing else.  The lack of a visible rail line or road to the station due to the railway’s tunnel progression make it seem like you’re at some sort of Antarctic outpost having parachuted in, and the 12 degrees Fahrenheit temperature reinforce that impression.  We snapped off a ton of pictures, about froze to death, ran back down to the train, and were off!No hiking.Was it worth it?  I would say definitely yes.  If you’re a train buff, this is a can’t-miss experience despite the rather expensive cost.  For extreme environment junkies, I’d say yes as well.  There are hiking excusions you can take but those may only be available for the summer.  Our advice would be to go for a weekend or couple of days of skiing at one of the lower stations and head up for an hour as part of your larger experience.  An hour is all you need if you just want to see things, if you want to experience the restaurant or ice palace, maybe more time is warranted.

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