Swiss Alps: Climb to Juangfraujoch hits new heights

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Walking in the winter wonderland.
Walking in the winter wonderland.

In the absolute heart of the Swiss Alps, my ticker skipped a beat a two in the Jungfrau region. Home to the "big three" peaks of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau (all higher than Mt Cook), these glacier-encrusted behemoths enjoy a rarefied place in mountaineering legend.

Year-round snow amplifies their majesty, and the day-return rail jaunt to Juangfraujoch is second to none, for its intimate, high-altitude encounters.

Jungfraujoch is the highest railway station in Europe, situated on a saddle just beneath the summit of Jungfrau, encircled by swirling glaciers and the tallest turrets in this icy alpine wilderness.

The train on its way to Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe.
The train on its way to Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe.

From Interlaken, it's a compellingly picturesque two-hour ride up to the station.

Under a china-blue sky, with a landscape dappled in glistening snow, as church bells tolled, I departed Interlaken Ost station, darting across the valley floor, bookended by lakes Thun and Brienz, before entering the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

The train began its particularly steep ascent, hauling us up to Wengen, gracefully positioned on a snow-white mountainside, with unobstructed views of the glacier-encrusted giants, piercing the skyline.

Lauterbrunnen sits in a steep valley studded with 72 waterfalls, the highest of which plunges 300m just behind the village.
Lauterbrunnen sits in a steep valley studded with 72 waterfalls, the highest of which plunges 300m just behind the village.

The train is the only means of transport. Higher and higher we climbed as those quintessential alpine chalets implausibly continued to speckle the landscape, cast under a Narnia-like spell.

As the altitude level crossed 2000 metres, my train reached the railway terminal of Kleine Scheidegg, before the final haul to Jungfraujoch on a cog-wheel railway, zipping you up to over 3500m above sea level, after burrowing through the tunnel in the Eiger and Monch mountains.

The railway took 16 years of back-breaking and dangerous slog by 3000 men before its triumphant opening in 1912. Just imagine if you could train up to the similarly lofty heights of Mt Cook!

On arrival at the station, I headed to the Sphinx Observatory building, which looms like a fairy-castle, in the sky and surrendered to the blindingly beautiful alpine wilderness. The monstrous Aletsch glacier, the longest ice stream in the Alps, unfurled its grandeur, guarded by 4000m-high peaks.

On this eternal blue-skied day, the horizon-wide views reached as far as France and Germany's Black Forest.

Outside on the terrace, whispers of icy breeze swept across my face, as I was left breathless by the celestial view (and the thinner air) in this pristine high-alpine world. I soon noticed my lungs working harder to suck in enough oxygen.

There's a variety of on-site attractions including the wraparound panorama film, an Ice Palace featuring sculpted ice art, a hands-on Lindt chocolate shop, a fabulous gallery showcasing the history of the railway construction including a giant snow globe, and a spree of outdoor activities. Sledges, snow tubes, skis and snowboards are all available for hire.

The Sphinx astronomical observatory is above Jungfraujoch named after the rocky summit on which it is located.
The Sphinx astronomical observatory is above Jungfraujoch named after the rocky summit on which it is located.

Stunning stops en route

The chalet-studded village of Lauterbrunnen, just 30 minutes from Interlaken, is ethereally beautiful, like stepping into a storybook.

In this valley of 72 waterfalls, backed by vertiginous rock faces, the granddaddy is the sublime Staubbach Falls, which plunge nearly 300 metres, right behind the village.

Lauterbrunnen is a fabulous gateway into the Bernese Alps, liberally laced with a plethora of captivating hiking trails, spanning all levels of fitness and endurance.

After revelling in this extraordinary alpine world at Jungfraujoch, it was time for the homeward run. Day-trippers have various route options and I decided to return to Interlaken via Grindelwald.

Grindelwald is an old-school alpine resort and so movie-set perfect.
Grindelwald is an old-school alpine resort and so movie-set perfect.

On the steep descent from Kleine Scheidegg, cameras soon lunged as we looped past the jagged features of Eiger's North Face and more sprawling glaciers, as snow-covered pastures and geranium-wreathed chalets of Grindelwald entered the frame, backed by the piercing limestone peak of Wetterhorn.

This old-school alpine resort is so movie-set perfect, it felt just plain wrong not to abandon the train and stay a night or two.

As the low-angled sun started to droop low on the horizon, we glided through more charming mountain hamlets, like Schwendi, Bunglauenen and Schynige Platte.
After a pixel-burning day of unabashed sky-high scenic splendour, I was soon back in Interlaken, dog-tired, but utterly contented.

The riveting Jungfraujoch rail journey is operated by a private railway company, not covered by the likes of a Eurail Pass. There's a wide range of excursion options. For full information and to book online, head to www.jungfrau.ch

TOP TIPS

Planning a magical trip to Switzerland? The official tourism website is a trusty one-stop-shop, myswitzerland.com

I flew to Zurich with Cathay Pacific who operate ultra-contemporary A350-900s, the newest aircraft in the world, from both Auckland and Christchurch.

The cabin air quality is decidedly better, I experienced minimal jetlag, the refreshed CX Entertainment system kept me suitably engaged with excellent movie selections and live news channels, plus in-flight Wi-Fi. cathaypacific.com

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