Guess What, It's Bloody Freezing

Heading up a Swiss mountain? Unless you want to suck the blood back into the ends of your fingers be sure to take a fleece. In fact take ten.
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Heading up a Swiss mountain? Unless you want to suck the blood back into the ends of your fingers be sure to take a fleece. In fact take ten.

You don't get much more breathtaking than this

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The Hotel Metropole is the nearest thing Interlaken has to a skyscraper and is thus regarded as an eyesore in the town’s otherwise twee Swiss roofscape. So from our seventh-floor balcony we had the best view in town, one that didn’t contain us. Actually, most of it contained the ice-capped 4,158-metre Jungfrau hanging in the space between two nearby ‘hills’ – mountains themselves by Britain’s standards – and looking as unreal as the CGI volcano in Dante’s Peak. I wasn’t disappointed.

Something I hadn’t expected was a sky full of people. Paragliders drifting down from the high slopes above the town and landing in the park under our window. Local operators sold you fifteen minutes of air time flying tandem with a professional. From morning till evening, weather permitting, it’s a constant sight – eight human limbs hanging spiderlike from a bright nylon arc in the sky. You could hear the clients scream when the pilot manoeuvred a figure of eight that put the chute beneath them while they swung above it. Some waved as they passed within feet of our balcony, others looked like they were about to puke.

We climbed up to a gallery cut in the rock behind the falls, the water curtaining right in front of us.

A towered structure lit up at night on a lip 800 metres above the town was the Harder Kulm viewing point, reachable by the Harderbahn funicular. It offered great views of the Jungfrau and its sister peaks, the Mönch and the Eiger, and was the start of a 19-kilometre walking trail along a ridge to the next peak. Barely half an hour along it we were seeing chamois and other wildlife. That was far enough though; back to the restaurant terrace for lunch and a beer overlooking the lakes Thun and Brienz that give the town on the wedge of land between them its name.

The next day we took a train to Lauterbrunnen, twenty minutes away. Along the only road out of the village, cliffs rise up a thousand feet to the gush of the Staubbach Falls. On windy days the spray can allegedly be felt in the village half a kilometre away. We climbed up to a gallery cut in the rock behind the falls, the water curtaining right in front of us. Three hours later, returning to the village, the same gallery was in a dry place. Staubbach had changed its course ten metres to the left. Whether this is what inspired Goethe to write a poem about it, I don’t know, but if it was the sheer force of the current why didn’t he write about the Trümmelbach Falls, just forty minutes down the road? With a bit of not-too-tough climbing you get a dozen views of a dozen cascades pummelling not over the mountain but straight down through it. The tunnels and gullies carved over thousands of millennia were awesome and the noise inside the passages and galleries was thunderous. Although it was summer, I was glad I’d brought a fleece: 20,000 litres of snowmelt pouring past every second will cool the air plenty.

Walking the road back beneath the cliffs we heard a sudden noise – crrummpphh – and a sky person stepped on to the meadow grass not ten feet away with the composure of a passenger alighting at a bus stop. We realised this was no paraglider. She’d just jumped off the cliff-edge above our heads. I turned around to see another human body dropping out of the sky, the chute opening within a hundred feet of the ground. The cliffs at Lauterbrunnen are a magnet for base jumpers. ‘That is so dangerous,’ said my partner. It also looked like fun, but not for me. I wondered if they carried a reserve chute, and if so, what the point would be.

Even the exterior look of the complex with its industrial Pompidou Centresque design, would have made a better Bond villain hideaway.

We couldn’t come to Interlaken without going up the Jungfrau, and we wouldn’t have wanted to have missed the cog railway that dragged us up it. Adolf Guyer-Zeller, Edwardian-looking with a Jimmy Edwards moustache, built it with the labour of 300 men between 1898 and 1912 and it is an incredible engineering feat of inventiveness and determination. They use the train’s brakes to generate electricity. Amazing.

The peak I’d wanted to visit was the Schilthorn, capped by the circular Piz Gloria restaurant, famous as Blofeld’s headquarters in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but it proved too far to be practical or affordable. I’m glad now we went up the Jungfrau instead. Designated a World Nature Heritage site in 2001 and host to half a million visitors a year, it had the Ice Palace, an ice-carved labyrinth of passages and chambers with ice-sculpted bears, penguins and other minor wonders. It had three choices of eatery including an Indian, ‘The Bollywood’, beside marginally cheaper ‘hearty Swiss fare’; shops full of postcards, Alpine horns and lederhosen; access to a glacial plateau and the bitter elements outside; and although the weather had closed in, still plenty of sweeping views – and it was home to the Alpine chough. Even the exterior look of the complex with its industrial Pompidou Centresque design, would have made a better Bond villain hideaway.

A word of warning, though, be prepared for the 30-degree drop below Interlaken’s temperature. Take a fleece. And be ready for the altitude. A week earlier I’d bumped into an ex-student in London who told me she once went up there and fainted. She was Japanese and delicate, but not that delicate. As soon as I got out of the train I knew what she’d been talking about. It was like a standing-up-from-in-front-of-the-TV headrush that didn’t stop. Luckily, a lunchtime beer labelled ‘Rugen Braü – Lager Hell’ saw me through it.

Back at Interlaken we came face to face with the aftermath of what the hotel clerk called the town’s worst ever storm. The weather at the ‘the Top of Europe’ had been so fair while down here it had been so brutal. The roads were flooded, car tyres half-deep in it. Trees had been shredded by Ping Pong size hailstones – they were everywhere, piled in heaps, drifted up in corners, covering gardens in blankets of compacted ice. The park where the paragliders landed was steaming in the early evening sun like a Louisiana swamp full of ghosts, and while we waded ankle-deep through the stripped foliage, a half-drowned rat dragged itself round in circles.

This area was the homeland of Erich von Däniken and its climate was as dramatic as anything he dreamed up in Chariots of the Gods. It was right in the middle of the European land mass, where the collision of the Alps threw up a jagged, sky-bound terrain that produced these shifting weather patterns. It may have seemed a little less awesome back in the hotel when they told us the lifts were out of action from water damage. Maybe being up on the seventh floor wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. But the complimentary beer and sandwiches in the lobby would see us through the bad times, and Interlaken’s good times were so worth it.

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