WHAT'S IT LIKE AT THE TOP OF THE JUNGFRAU?
What's it really like at the top of the legendary Jungfrau? Flic Everett reveals that what happens at 3,500 metres stays at 3,500 metres.
It was only on the way down that I realised we were fairly safe after all, and had been all along. We were in the wooden cogwheel train, rattling back down the rocky face of Eiger.
“So, amazing, huh?”
Asked the fifty-something American lady sitting opposite. She had crutches, an inhaler clutched in her hand, and at roughly 22 stone, she didn't emanate “outdoor sports”
“Yes, fantastic!” I agreed. “I'm just a bit worried about my husband.”
He- a trim, 11 stone veteran of 5 a side football, long, healthy walks and 'watching what he drinks in the week' was slumped on the seat adjacent, his cheeks still a slightly alarming shade of Farrow and Ball grey.
“Oh, honey,” she said, grasping my arm in that confiding Texan way, “Was it the alty-tood? I could hardly breathe up there, but you know what? You gotta just get through it,” she shrugged. “It's worth it, right?”
Then we talked about Princess Diana (“That beautiful woman. So wrong”) and her own much younger husband. (“Internet dating! Love at first sight, honey!”)
"I am as feeble as a Regency poetess, and I was pretty much fine..."
But she was living proof that the Jungfrau is worth the pain of altitude sickness. Not everyone is stricken- and there's no knowing who will and won't feel it.
I am as feeble as a Regency poetess, and I was pretty much fine apart from a brief moment of light-headedness in the loo, while my pigeon-coloured husband is Mr Fit, yet the minute he stepped out of the lift at the top, he reeled with faintness and had to sit down and be brought pasta and chocolate.
“This will help very much,” said our guide, Anne Marie. “Carbohydrate. Sugar. All is good.”
She also told us that there used to be a hotel up on the very summit of the Jungfrau, but they closed, because too many people were suffering altitude sickness overnight. The longer you stay, the worse it can be. Most of the people up there, however, seemed perfectly fine.
There's a full, covered complex at the top, with huge viewing windows like a Bond villain's lair, revealing the exquisite, snow-bound peaks and rock formations that pierce the clouds at 'the top of Europe.'
Inside is a large self service restaurant, a souvenir shop, an exhibition with a small IMAX type cinema showing the wind and snow whirling round the mountain, and the remarkable Ice Palace, a journey on foot through the glacier, which has been cut into large, glittering tunnels, and decorated with dramatic ice tableaux and sculptures.
All around us, families with children, slow-moving old people, and gaggles of tourists behung with cameras were exclaiming and pointing. Only one man- an elderly Chinese fellow- had to be led from the Ice Palace looking rather pale. Shortness of breath is the main symptom, along with lightheadedness and anxiety.
Ann-Marie prescribes a few drops of Rescue Remedy (which she had in her anorak) and a sit down. “You will be fine as soon as we get back on the train,” she said firmly, to my pale husband.
"...if looking out at whirling snow from the inside of a mountain doesn't thrill you, life can hold no wonder..."
Only after 2500 feet does altitude sickness become a possibility- and for most of the way up, the view is so staggering, you wouldn't notice if your head was hanging by a thread.
The black, looming Eiger, with its shining walls of snow, the dizzy drops as waterfalls twist and glitter down the mountainside, the soaring Alpine peaks alongside the little train as it crawls slowly up the steep incline...
The railway was built back in the late 19th century, and took twenty years to complete. (The Italian workers were allotted a kilo of pasta and a bottle of wine a day, which almost certainly helped them to withstand the plummeting temperatures as they climbed higher.)
Towards the summit, the train rattles through a tunnel in the Eiger itself- and passengers have to get out for fifteen minutes to acclimatise to the altitude.
There's a viewing window- and if looking out at whirling snow from the inside of a mountain doesn't thrill you, life can hold no wonder.
At the summit, there's not only a covered complex; there's also a research station and an outdoor viewing platform, where wind speed is measured.
On our visit it was 51 miles an hour, and the temperature was minus 12. It was possible to stand out there for roughly two minutes, looking at the staggering views down the valley towards Interlaken, before losing all feeling in your face.
It hardly needs mentioning that proper Winter wear is required up here- no matter how sunny and warm it may be down in the valley; up at the summit, it will be colder than you can imagine.
Of course, on the way down, my husband's altitude sickness gradually wore off (he was ready for a large cheese fondue within a couple of hours), the views are equally spectacular, and we disembarked at Grindelwald for a soothing hot chocolate and a wander through its charming streets of wooden chalets.
Perhaps a trip to the Jungfrau's summit sounds alarming and inhospitable, better admired from beneath. But I disagree- there is nothing so awe-inspiring and joyful than being at the very peak of a great mountain.
When ever other gimcrack tourist experience is described as 'unforgettable,' it's hard to convey its wonder.
But this is genuinely a lifelong memory of a place that people have risked their lives to experience just once.
And if my bold, Texan friend can get up there and live to tell the tale, then anyone can.
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