From meadow to glacier, the majesty of the Jungfrau region can sometimes take your breath away...especially if you find yourself climbing a particularly hilly pass
In a journey that had been chock-a-block with high points – both literal and metaphorical – my arrival at the Bietenlücke Pass was, perhaps, the highest of them all.
It wasn’t just that I’d finally made it up – though after 40 minutes of scrambling, slipping, swearing and sweating on a path I could both walk on and, by inclining my head a few inches, kiss at the same time, the relief at reaching flat ground again was positively tangible.
No: it was the view from the top of the pass, a vast panorama over a voluptuous landscape, with the peerless peak of the Jungfrau in the foreground, that truly took my breath away – or at least, what little breath I had left.
I’d always thought it strange that Jungfrau should translate as virgin or maiden – names which didn’t seem to suit such a colossal, masculine peak. But, meeting her face to face, it made sense. Because, while the Jungfrau may be a maiden of mountainous proportions, she is also staggeringly beautiful. Her lower slopes are embroidered with a lush, vivid strip of pine and pasture. These merge with a décolletage of sheer slate grey, above which rises a face of unblemished, snowy whiteness. Mark Twain put it best when he wrote: ‘It is a good name, Jungfrau – virgin. Nothing could be whiter; nothing could be purer; nothing could be saintlier of aspect.’
Seeing her for the first time, with the Mönch (‘monk’, measuring 4,099m to the Jungfrau’s 4,158m) standing by her left shoulder and, next to him, the notorious Eiger (‘ogre’, 3,970m), I couldn’t agree more.
This triumvirate of summits formed the centrepiece of my five-day trek in the Jungfrau region, an 18km-long pocket of two valleys hemmed in by mountains that seem to soar to the sky. They may not be the highest on the planet, or even on the continent, but these three peaks – perhaps more than any other in the world – have inspired writers, composers, artists and poets to new heights. They have caused Twain and Byron to wax lyrical, Mendelssohn to compose some of his finest works and Goethe to write some of his most evocative poetry.
Though untaxing, through pasture and pine forest, with no climbing skill required, the trek nevertheless took in the region’s highlights, from the pretty valley villages of Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen to the icy wastes atop the Eiger and the ice-bound, knife-cut canyon of the awe-inpiring Glacier Gorge.
I soon understood why artists are so inspired because, fanciful as it sounds, there is something magical about this alpine idyll – as if one has wandered off the edge of the real world on to the pages of a fairytale.
The gentle, rolling meadows that we passed through on the first two days, for instance, where cowbells clanged, streams gurgled and wild flowers bobbed their heads in the breeze, seemed the perfect residence for hobbits. The middle slopes of the Eiger and the Jungfrau that we reached on the third day were bearded with the kind of deep, dark woods that Hansel and Gretel would explore. Above the treeline, approaching the Eiger’s southern face, or in the echoing chasm of the Glacier Gorge, lay a wild, turbulent land of grumbling glaciers and enveloping mists: the abode, I reasoned, of wizards, ogres and monsters.
This sense of eluding reality is not entirely ridiculous when one considers that the great overlord of fantasy fiction himself, JRR Tolkien, took a walking holiday here in 1911, which he later admitted provided inspiration for much of the geography of Middle Earth.
But it’s not just the scenery that is fabulous in the Jungfrau region: there’s something enchanting about the whole experience. The magic begins the moment you alight at one of the region’s chocolate-box villages – hamlets that once again seem to belong more in the realm of fable than our humdrum, shabby world. In Grindelwald, geraniums tumble from the window boxes of cosy timber chalets. In Lauterbrunnen, the starting point for my trek, the gentle pace of life is juxtaposed with rushing, 280m-high waterfalls that plummet from the cliffs behind.
Although worth visiting in their own right, these villages serve as springboards to the mountain trails, with cable-cars, gondolas and cute little mountain railways leading up the slopes. Nor is there any need to return to the valley at the end of the day, with an excellent network of refuges – sturdy stone-and-wood huts – higher up. I came to love these huts, where I could finally take off my boots, unshoulder my rucksack and enjoy the delights of cold beer, hot food and a warm bed.
But it was the joy of trekking that truly lingered in the mind. The grandeur of the scenery, the fresh, clean air, the splendid isolation of high mountain passes where the wind bites at the skin and the isolation can feel oppressive: all combine to make you feel like you’ve slipped away from hectic modern life into a world that is more permanent – one that has been around for longer than mankind andwill continue long after we have gone.
This sense was reinforced when we spied local wildlife. Families of marmots whistled in alarm as we approached, before scurrying into their burrows on the grassy upper slopes. Nimble chamois (stripey-faced mountain goats) performed feats of acrobatics on precarious ledges. Death-black alpine choughs called and crowed as they soared and scavenged. And, gliding above it all, magnificent birds of prey – hawks, eagles and lammergeiers – scanned the mountainside for their next meal.
This was nature at its most untrammelled and beautiful, a world I visit all too seldom – but, curiously, one where I feel instantly at home. The landscape makes you feel glad simply to be alive yet, simultaneously, somehow more alive. For the Jungfrau region is not, after all, some fantasy world; it is merely the very best of ours.