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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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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The Birdman Flies No Longer

The Jungfrau Winter Sports Region
Alpine Sports always carry an element of risk, none more so than base jumping, where people throw themselves off the tops of mountains and other high altitude platforms wearing an outfit called a wingsuit. This week that risk was brought to the home of Alpinism.

Ramón Rojas, known as the Birdman for his daring base jumps, has died while flying using a wingsuit in the Jungfrau.
Ramon was a 35 year old Chilean-born professional base jumper who only last month broke the world record for the highest base jump in history, from 4100m in Cerro El Plomo, Chile.

Apparently he was in training in strong winds for a competition in Lauterbrunnen when he died.

A Facebook page has been set up called “Ramon Rojas memorial to celebrate his awesome life”. His sister, Paula Rojas, writes: “My heart is broken but it gives me peace to know that my brother was happy doing what he loved so passionately. He was happy and will carry on smiling from where he is, with the rest of the birds.”

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