Jeans and Sneakers at 12,000 feet

Twelve thousand feet is an altitude usually reserved for the most experienced mountain climbers. Yet, there we were, wearing nothing more exotic than jeans, sneakers and windbreakers. This is the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe (11,333 feet) where the snow and ice never melts.

Terms like rack railways, cogwheels and gondola were not in my vocabulary when my husband persuaded me to take an assortment of rail vehicles up the Jungfraujoch. Take warm clothing and sensible shoes, the brochure warned, and above all, don’t do anything exerting…you will be dealing with 1/3 less oxygen. Thus said, I was somewhat cheered by the fact that more than half a million people make this trek yearly…including children.

The-all-bundled-and-ready-for-the-mountain crowd plus a large group of Indian tourists in billowing saris and sandals were already assembled at the Interlaken Ost station when we arrived. It was a “families on holiday” atmosphere. The Wenteralp, a rack railway that has been steaming up the Alps since 1912, is the longest cogwheel railway in Switzerland. The half hour ride took us only as far as Lauterbrunnen, (2,612 feet), where we disembarked and boarded a second train for the Kleine Scheidegg station, at the foot of the Eiger’s sheer north wall (of Eiger Sanction fame).

jungfraujochThe train breaks through the tree line before arriving at Kleine Scheidegg. The town, really a hamlet, possesses a railroad station in the style the Swiss are so good at creating. The elevation signs read 6,762. The Jungfrau, the Monech, and the Eiger were all laid out before us in their magnificence.

A strange array of two-story high red, green and white teepees stood sentinel near the railroad tracks. These genuine American Indian constructions were brought over from California eight years ago and serve as après ski bars in the winter and a restaurant in the summer. A group of serious climbers… judging by their backpacks and crampons…were huddled in front of them. Just to the back we spotted a herdsmen standing watch over his three cattle.

We changed to the highest rack railway in Europe, the Jungfraubahn for the final six miles. Four of the miles consisted of a tunnel hewn out of alpine rock. We stopped twice, at the Eismeer and Eigerwand viewing stations. We scooted off and walked the few yards to the huge observation windows blasted out of the rock.

We were now at 10,000 feet.

The Jungfraujoch station is entirely underground. It is actually a small village with its own post office. (touted as the highest in Europe) and five restaurants. We lunched at the Jungfraujoch Glacier Restaurant billed as, the” Top of Europe”. The fare was typically Swiss: wurst with onion sauce, French fries and beer. Seemingly out of place, but right in the middle of things was a steaming Indian buffet.

Behind the celebrated post office, we took an elevator to the stairs leading down to the Eis Palace. Its vaulted rooms had been hacked out of the ice… sixty-five feet below the surface of the Aletsch Glacier. The walking surface is similar to a skating rink. Just in case, there’s a railing to hold on to. Life size ice sculptures stood in ten tableaus…a large Mickey Mouse, exact replicas of automobiles, life-size animals and a functional bar. The occasional flash of a camera punctuated the dim light. The last sculpture, that of an angel, was dedicated to the men and woman who have campaigned for the cause of liberty across the world. Visitors placed coins into her outstretched hands

From the Eis Palace, we took the elevator up 356 feet to the Sphinx Tunnel. and Terrace Observation Deck overlooking the Aletsch Glacier between the Moench and Jungfrau. At this 11,333 landmark you can send an email or go out and walk on the glacier, or (as in the case of the sari and sandal group) experience this Alpine wonderland from behind panoramic windows. For many tourists this is just the beginning; hardier souls experience hiking, sledding, dogsled rides and skiing.

Somewhere in all of this, scientists find time to do astronomical and meteorological research.

We spent two thoroughly enjoyable hours before taking the trains back down…this time the alternate route through Grindelwald.

Be warned, the trip up the Jungfraujoch is expensive, but it is such an incredible experience, we recommend cutting corners elsewhere.

It is simply wonderful.

If you go:

From the Interlaken Ost station to the Jungfraujoch

adult $154 first class (127 euros, 199 SF) $143 second class (119 euros, 185 SF)

child $78 first class (65 euros, 101 SF)

If you hold a Swiss Card, the price is

adult $78 first class (65 euros, 101 SF) $72 second class (60 euros, 93 SF)

If you hold an Eurail Pass, the price is

adult $116 first class (96 euros, 150 SF) $110 second class (91 euros, 142 SF)

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photo by cranky kat

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