Stick it up your Jungfrau

Wilderswil - Schynige PlatteBack in Europe and picking up my car in Switzerland, which has a full set of winter tyres and my ski gear. Seems rude not to get in a few turns before I head back to the UK. A lot of snow looks to be on the way, but today promised sunshine. And so it proved.

I was tempted to try out a smaller resort, but I passed a couple on my travels around Switzerland attending to some business, and the poor snow conditions put me off. So I went for the Jungfrau. I booked into the delightful Edelweiss Lodge in Wilderswil.

Wilderswil is on the train route between Interlaken and the Jungfrau. It doesn’t have much nightlife, but the hotels are great value and accept short bookings. Train transfer is also included in the Jungfrau lift pass. There is also an interesting rail route from Wilderswil to a high plateau known as Schynige Platte, and the station in Wilderswil shares its name with the destination.

The Jungfrau is one of the world’s top ski destinations. So, after my recent trip to the USA, how does it compare with the slopes in the Americas? Firstly I would suggest that comparison is pointless – each resort has unique characteristics. If you like steep, off-piste powder, the resorts I visited in the USA had it in spades. The Jungfrau by comparison had rather crusty and generally quite tame off-piste, but it has miles of varied terrain and some of the most charming Alpine villages and restaurants, and a vibrant mountain history.

Talking of the off-piste, I ended up accidentally off-piste, following some uncharacteristically poor signage where the Wixi run was closed. Nobody else was around but it looked do-able, if steep, until I came across a sheer drop of a few hundred metres and a disconsolate individual who had made the same mistake and had sat frozen for half an hour working out what to do. We saw a feasible route down and I told him I would try it and signal when I was at the bottom. The other guy seemed rooted to where I had found him, so I alerted the lift operators. I was rather gratified when, some time later I saw him at the bottom of the off-piste section where it joined a run. Whether he walked or skied I know not.Off-piste Section above Wixi A telling reminder that the mountains can get both scary and dangerous.

It made me reflect on some fatalities in the Jungfrau. I remember some English guy falling off a cliff walking back to his hotel after a night out in Wengen. And of the climbers who perished on the North Face of the Eiger, some of whose nemesis is retold in the riveting film, Nordwand. Then there are the base jumpers who die every year in Lauterbrunnen and a couple of ski racers have died, one on the tough Lauberhorn race. It is a salutory reminder that the things we do for pleasure, reward or adventure can turn nasty in the mountains. Much as I recall of the sea.

I visited the Jungfrau on a weekend and it was busy, but not overcrowded. It is hard to tell whether Swiss exchange rates are putting people off – I heard plenty of native German, French and English accents amongst the skiers and there were plenty of Asian visitors wandering bemused amongst the skiers. However it was noteworthy that one hotel and chalet were up for sale and I baulked at making at least one purchase. However my expenses for the day were modest. My hotel with a wonderful breakfast cost me 40 francs, the lift and rail pass was 72 francs and my nourishing lunch of goulash soup with bread and wine cost less than 20 francs including a tip (a franc is about the same value as a dollar). That was all much cheaper than it would have cost me in the USA at a comparable resort.

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Ski the Stockhorn

I was reading an article in an online version of an Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, which was addressing the issue of global warming and its impact on the Alps. Apparently “a recent Austrian climate change report found that the country’s temperatures had risen twice as fast as the global average since 1880, with the number of sunshine hours in the Alps increasing by 20 per cent.” I have certainly seen the impact of climate change on glaciers I have visited over the years, and there is no denying it will have an impact on the Alps.

Anyway, one of the more interesting observations was that a “ski region” called Stockhorn has dispensed with its ski lifts to concentrate on snowshoe walkers and such like. Now, as a self-declared expert on skiing in Switzerland, I feel a little ashamed to say I didn’t even know there was a place called the Stockhorn which had dismantled its ski infrastructure, and don’t have it in my winter sports website. Certainly the Stockhorn (3405m) in Zermatt is not suffering from global warming or lift closures, at least not last time I visited earlier this year! But as is often the case, several mountains often share the same name in the Alps.

So I did a little research.
Ski the Simmental valley
And I found another Stockhorn. The website for the resort states “Erlenbach in the Simmental lies in the Bernese Oberland at the start of the Simmental, in the direction of Lenk and Gstaad. The valley station of the Stockhorn cableway can be reached easily in approx. 30 mins by car from Bern, and in approx. 15 minutes from Thun. The timetable of the Stockhorn cableway has been coordinated with the train timetable.” Yes, this is Switzerland, there is a railway station in Erlenbach im Simmental with lifts timetabled to connect with the train timetable. I know Erlenbach – it is a small sleepy village in the Simmental valley and at a 700m elevation never a great candidate for ski-in, ski-out facilities. Could it have once been the throbbing heart of a ski region whose fame stretched across the planet as far as Australia?

The top of the Stockhorn is 2190m, but it seems skiing off the summit is not feasible. If there ever was skiing here, it would have been from the mid-station at Chrindi at a modest elevation of 1642m or possibly from local facilities in Erlenbach, but the village is very low to sustain a decent piste for any duration – in fact I know of NO resort with runs that low.

So it does have a cableway, but appears to have no other ski facilities. But surely, then, you can ski down still? And it does appear you can. As well as snowshoe walks, winter walks, an igloo village, fabulous views and fine dining, there are ski tours you can do in the area, organised by a local ski school. Starting at 9.50am on 30th December 2014, 3rd January 2015, 17th January 2015, 1st February 2015 and 28th February 2015 for between CHF140 and CHF290 Alpinschule Bergfalke (+41 (0)795025080/ take guided ski tours in the area. No touring experience is necessary, just that you are a reasonably good piste skier or snowboarder and in good physical condition. It looks like you have a three hour ascent from the lifts to start the downhill section of the tour. The claim is the tour suits both beginners and connoisseurs.

And it doesn’t look like you ski the Stockhorn anyway – the area you ski is the Lasenberg (Laseberg) which peaks at 2019m and the Cheibenhorn at 1952m, but you use the Stockhorn lift to get there, getting out at the Chrindi mid-station.

The Simmental is a fabulous region, renowned for its food, at least in Switzerland, and probably best known for the ski resort at Lenk and its access to Gstaad Mountain rides from Zweisimmen. Locals also often ski the small resorts at Diemtigtal and Beatenberg.

Were there ever ski facilities at the Stockhorn? I can find no evidence it was graced with as much as a drag lift at any period, but I suspect competing resorts in the Bernese Oberland rather than global warming did for the facilities if they ever did exist. It may have been that the locals tried out a drag lift for a period, but these are usually dismantled in the summer, and hardly constitutes the making of a ski region. Sometimes it is simply not economic to re-assemble and repair, or replace, an old and little-used lift. And if there were any ski facilities in the area once I doubt if anyone other than the good citizens of Erlenbach ever used them.

But there is another more prosaic explanation for this new story. Back in 2007, a cable car system, initally constructed in 1958 linking Gornergrat (3089m) to Stockhorn (3405m) above Zermatt (1620m) was dismantled and replaced with a new lift. Could this be the origin of the news story? Possibly not, since the story cites a “refocus on winter hiking and snowshoeing” as the replacement activity to skiing. Any readers ever seen somebody snowshoe walking the Triftji Jumps? No, nor have I. But possibly the intrepid newshounds from AFP,a French news agency that seems to have originated the story, got confused and linked two events about two different mountains and came up with a whole new angle.

So hitting my inbox and that of many other people round the world, and syndicated across a whole bunch of Australian, Asian, American and European newspapers and journals (including the famously gaff-prone UK Daily Mail), is a story entitled “Dismantling ski lifts in Europe as world warms up”. And they cite the Stockhorn as their sole justification, and there is no evidence to support any mountain in Switzerland called the Stockhorn had a lift dismantled in the face of global warming. Oh well, why let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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New Alpine Superpass for Vaud and Bern

Superpass for Adelobden-Lenk, Gstaad Mountain Rides and the Alpes Vaudois
A new pass is on offer this season, covering the major resorts in the Bernese Oberland and Vaud. The Superpass allows you to ski Gstaad Mountain Rides, Adelboden-Lenk and the Alpes Vaudois (which includes Leysin, Villars and Les Diablerets). That’s 188 lifts and 630km of piste, and includes runs as high as 3000m at Glacier3000 (and, incidentally, Glacier3000 has opened up a new walkway between a couple of peaks for a spectacular panorama view from this season). The prices are as follows:

Consecutive days
Full-price for Adults
Youths (1991-1998)
& Seniors (m: 1949, f: 1950)
Children (1999-2005)
4 CHF 242.- CHF 219.- CHF 143.-
5 CHF 290.- CHF 262.- CHF 173.-
6 CHF 333.- CHF 301.- CHF 202.-
7 CHF 377.- CHF 341.- CHF 228.-
8 CHF 421.- CHF 380.- CHF 252.-
9 CHF 456.- CHF 413.- CHF 274.-
10 CHF 488.- CHF 441.- CHF 294.-
11 CHF 517.- CHF 467.- CHF 311.-
12 CHF 542.- CHF 489.- CHF 327.-
13 CHF 565.- CHF 510.- CHF 341.-
14 CHF 585.- CHF 528.- CHF 354.-
15 CHF 605.- CHF 546.- CHF 365.-


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Mürren upgrades its facilities

Murren piste map
Many Swiss resorts have been busy trying to up their appeal for winter tourists. Car-free Mürren is one of the most distinguished of the winter sports destinations, and the Inferno run down to Lauterbrunnen is the oldest ski race in the world. It generally gives a feel of timelessness, broken only by its brief and famous hosting of the filming of the James Bond movie, OHMSS (where it played as a stand-in for St Moritz).

However Mürren seems to have been busy this summer improving the facilities for skiers and snowboarders. There is a new snowpark at the Gimmeln ski lift, upgraded lifts for both Gimmeln and Allmendhubel and a new toboggan run from Schiltgrat Station via Gimmeln back to Mürren.

I am a great fan of early morning snow, to hit the pistes before the runs are fully open and the corduroy slopes are pristine. You can do this at Corviglia and a few other places, and now you can do it in Mürren. Mürren Snow Sports School, for Chf35.00, allows early birds to explore the resort every Wednesday from 7.30am. It’s on my list!

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