In the Shadow of the Eiger
At 3967 meters the Eiger looms over the village of Grindelwald in central Switzerland like a vast slumbering giant carved from iron gray granite. As a mountain it has a fearsome reputation, its North Face is legendary and has been witness to some of climbing’s greatest tragedies and most gallant acts of courage. In terms of mountaineering, it is relatively easy to reach its peak. Trails lead up to the summit from the South, East, and West.
The Eiger was first climbed way back in 1858. But it is the North face — the face overlooking Grindelwald itself — that posed the real challenge and the greater of obstacles to overcome. It remained unconquered until 1938. Many people died in the race to be first to ascend it and many more have died since. There is something about it that draws people in. It has a dark and malevolent appeal that has always attracted the brave and the hardy, right up until this day.
Despite improvements in safety, including fixed anchor points, ropes, and more, climbing it still proves to be an inherently risky business. Unpredictable weather, sudden rock falls and the fact that for most of the day the face is shrouded in shadow cement its deadly reputation. Just standing and looking up at it fills one with a mixture of awe and dread.
Scenery That Will Take Your Breath Away
To see that mountain — to see that ominous face — was one of my main reasons for visiting Grindelwald earlier this summer. Another reason was the overall reputation as a great hiking destination. While I had no intention of climbing any face of the Eiger, hiking was definitely on the agenda.
The area is part of the Bernese Alps and is crisscrossed with trails principally used by hikers but now, increasingly so, by mountain bikers as well. The trails pass over many peaks, across ridges and through valleys, each one coded according to their difficulty green through red. They are well marked and key information about them can easily be found online or in a local guidebook. They are also well served in terms of rest stops and surprisingly, even places to grab a drink or some food. It is quite the experience to sit in a restaurant tucking into a delicious local dish at an altitude of over 2500 meters!
Most importantly, however, is the fact that all the trails (and I mean ALL) are well served by their breath taking views. There are vast panoramas encompassing towering mountains, imposing snow covered glaciers and glittering turquoise lakes. There are picture postcard Swiss villages far down below on valley floors, miles upon miles of grassy meadows as far as the eye can see. This is the home to wandering herds of alpine cows, the sounds of the bells around their necks is a sound that is so evocative of the area, it will stay with you long after your visit is over.
It’s the little things that you may not notice at first that really make being up in the Bernese Alps so unforgettable. To stop and study the beautiful and abundant array of flowers and plants that make their home high up in these mountains is the most wonderful of experiences. More often than not, they are not found anywhere else. And in certain areas, their fragrance will often fill the air.
A Hike to Remember
Early summer is a great time of the year to visit Grindelwald and go hiking in the Bernese Alps. Our trip brought us here in early July, well before the arrival of the real heat that is ushered in with August. Our hike started at Wilderswil, our destination Grindelwald. From the station, we boarded the funicular railway; chugging its way at a leisurely pace up some rather steep inclines to the Schynige Platte at 1970 meters. The views from the train were stunning, to say the least.
Our journey from the Platte down into Grindelwald was along a red trail, that led us through some quite challenging terrain. It was therefore essential that we had come prepared with stout hiking shoes, waterproofs, spare warm clothing and plenty of water and food.
As it turned out, despite some mist briefly descending upon us, the weather remained clement and we did not need to don our waterproofs or dig out the warm clothing. However, up in the mountains, the weather can change at any time of the year very quickly and conditions can deteriorate fast so it is not worth taking any chances.
The hike took around seven hours in total taking us up to its highest point — the Faulhorn Peak at 2680 meters — where we stopped for lunch and a much-needed cup of coffee at the Mountain Lodge that sits atop its crest. Along the way, we were quite literally stunned into silence with the scenery. Whether it was looking down at the Sägistalsee Lake in the opposite valley and beyond it the even larger Brienzersee far in the distance or up at the ever imposing Eiger and her twin mountain the Mönch. The views were ever changing as we passed around them.
From the Faulhorn peak, the path descends all the way down into the valley where Grindelwald sits. Passing the stunning and tranquil Bachalpsee Lake on the way, we were very tempted to dip our feet in its cool waters but alas time was not on our side! Spreading out in front of the lake in the distance is Schreckhorn Mountain, with a mammoth glacier resting about its shoulders — it is truly an awesome sight to behold.
We continued to the Grindelwald gondola cable car and made a quick stop at the Bergrestaurant, which does a roaring tourist trade with visitors taking the cable car up from the valley below. It is also home to “the first cliff walk.” Not for the faint hearted, this covered walkway takes you out and over the edge of a cliff overlooking Grindelwald down on the valley floor — if you are lucky, you may even see the occasional paraglider sweeping past; It is well worth checking out.
It was here, too, that I got the chance to really take a good look at the Eiger’s North Face through a telescope on the restaurant’s balcony. Seeing it up close was quite a humbling experience and a real highlight for me.
We could have taken the cable car down at this point (it takes around 20 minutes) but decided to continue walking down into the valley. From this point, the scenery changes from meadow to forest before emerging into the village at the bottom. It is also along here where you will find farms dotted about here and there, often selling local produce. We picked up some amazing cheese from one, patting the cows that had produced it on our way out!
Our hike ended at the train station in Grindelwald, where we jumped on the train back to Wilderswil — exhausted but happy.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
CamelBak Rogue Hydration Pack: It’s always important to stay hydrated when hiking, but carrying a water bottle the whole way can get tedious. The CamelBak provides hands-free hydration and holds up to 70 fluid ounces.
Walking in the Bernese Oberland: There are so many different hikes and walks and trails in the Bernese Oberland, that having a guide can be handy. This book details over 100 different routes you can take if you ever find yourself hiking in the Bernese Alps.
Marmot Men’s Precip Jacket: When hiking in the Bernese Alps, the weather can change at any moment. This lightweight waterproof jacket is a great to have along on any hike. It also comes in over 20 different colors.