Expedition to the Eiger

Our intrepid travelers started out by car. The fearful leader had spent hours planning the route, but at the town of Lungern, it fell apart. They retreated to Giswil and got on the train, slowing the progress of the adventure, but improving the probability of arriving…ever. Our fearful leader made more sentences in German and discovered they led to conversations in which she couldn’t participate. However, her decent grasp of passive skills — reading and listening — kept them from missing trains.

Later they laughed. “What if I said this morning, ‘Let’s go park our car in a random mountain village and then take a bunch of trains’?” 

I like to read climbing books and one of my favorite is Heinrich Harrar’s The White Spider which tells much abour Harrar’s climbing career but focused on his ascent of the Eiger Nordwand — the north face. A Swiss idiom for crazy is “He has a kiosk on the Nordwand” for good reason. And the name the of the mountain means “Ogre.”

The face is formidable looking and as a climb it’s pure pain. The rock is friable and the mountain makes its own weather. One story is that the ogre was pursuing the young virgin and the monk stepped in to protect her — in this range of three high peaks, the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau.

Our destination was the Jungfraujoch — the “Top of Europe” which is reached by at least two trains, one of which goes through the Eiger. This train has a big role in Clint Eastwood’s film, The Eiger Sanction. When I was there some 20 years ago, the train had simple wooden seats. There were two windows through the rock on the route where passengers could look out. The top, in 1997, had. a nice cafeteria, gift shop and outside viewing platform. Now the trains have plush seats, the windows in the rock have been expanded into areas with restrooms and first aid stations, and the top has a tour with elements of Disneyland. I was minorly appalled by this until I saw a sculpture of the man who had envisioned this railway and tunnel, Adolf Guyer-Zeller. In the sculpture he is integrated into a sculpture of the North Face, with one arm reaching out of the mountain; he is the “ogre”. The floor beneath him shakes and the room rumbles as if explosives are going off, red lights flash and fade. In many ways it is a moving work of art.

Now there is also the opportunity for people to walk around outside on a groomed trail in the snow, an opportunity that seemed mostly to attract Japanese and Korean tourists and their cameras. Our less-than-intrepid travelers were persuaded out (physically assisted!) by some happily enthusiastic Japanese men, but didn’t go far…

I don’t have words to describe the landscape so I won’t try. Surrounding the commercialism, the Tissot watches, the “Chocolate Wonderland,” the crowds of people from all over the world with their bags, cameras, and sleeping children, the innumerable honeymoon couples, is what Robert Service called “The Great White Silence … eternal truths that shame our soothing lies.”

Aletsch glacier

3 thoughts on “Expedition to the Eiger

  1. I know the area very well and spent many summer family holidays in Grindelwald, even before the new posh station was built to the Jungfraujoch. I will have to look through my photos and scan them into the computer to show you. I was not very good on the top of Europe and got very giddy due to the air pressure. they even have to boil water in a pressure cooker up there, otherwise it seems it does not work.

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