Any longtime Berliner knows that winters are for two things: Netflix and fleeing the city. We all have our own escape routes, some heading to Thailand or Mauritius, others sticking a little closer and leaving for Lisbon or Crete. And then there is that special kind of person, the wintersports enthusiast. These men and women actually seek out the colder spots in Europe, pleased as punch to get up early, spend several sunny hours on the slopes, and then zip down for an ungodly combination of carbs, booze, and Volksmusik called après-ski. Wanting absolutely none of that, but seeing the appeal of some time spent amidst majestic snowy peaks, we took up an invitation from the Jungfrau region and headed to Switzerland to see if we could not ski.
It’s not like we were planning to just huddle in front the hotel fire, eating our feelings in the form of bottomless cheese fondue (although); no, we would bundle up, go out into the snow, hike through the mountains, and yes: slay at Instagram. So we set off in Mary’s Opel Astra (more on this car below) well prepared with snacks and audiobooks aplenty, the experience of leaving before dawn and arriving in a radically different landscape later the same day as strange as ever. Our first stop, after a stopover in lovely but worryingly snow-less Rapperswil and Zürich, was the Hasli valley, some 10 hours away from Berlin by train or car. We were relieved: the brand-new Hotel Reuti where we’d be staying was surrounded by snow on all sides. Looking out over a glorious array of Alps, we breathed in the sauna-fresh pine scent of our balcony, laced up our hiking boots, and headed out on our first winter walk.
Now, you have to imagine that not skiing is very much an exception around these parts, though there were plenty of winter hiking trails available (25 kilometers in this valley alone), and crunching around in the snow, not seeing much of anyone, felt wonderfully out of sync. Changing for dinner later, buttoning up my shirt on the balcony in the day’s last rays, I heard the awkward clobbering of skiers clunking back in on those great big plastic boots. I smiled, feeling like we were somehow cheating the tourist industrial complex, enjoying this landscape in some slower, more profound way.
The next day we took off on a longer hike, taking the gondola up together with the skiers in their cheery neon gear and for the first time really crossing paths with our sportier counterparts. It was odd to see their slopes twist and turn, sometimes cutting across our trail, which was also used for sledding by Asian tourists and families with toddlers too young to be stuffed on skis. Among all that bleached white (note to self: just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can leave your sunglasses at home), the skiers looked like colorful kamikaze ants eager racing home to their queen. Our pleasures seemed far simpler; we just walked along paths gently sloping through all the bright alpiness, watching the dog roll around in the cold, leap like an oversized snow hare, and marvel at the very substance of snow. Because marvelous it is, and would be even more so had we set out in snowshoes to explore areas where skiers aren’t allowed. But we had our sights set higher, so after a hearty and delicious lunch on the Balisalp (where they miraculously served a cheesecake made with cheese fondue), we packed our bags and set out for Switzerland’s tourist equivalent of the Eyrie from Game of Thrones.
With steep dark mountain walls rising up on both sides and blocking the sun early in the afternoon, our drive into the narrow canyon of the Lauterbrunnen valley came as a bit of shock after the cozier, curvier brand of geology we’d encountered in the Hasli valley. Occasionally I would spy one of the area’s typical waterfalls lodged deep in the walls; watching them not so much fall as plummet down the narrow slits they’d cut through the stone over the past millennia, I’d shudder. It was the weather, we said to ourselves, but we weren’t staying to find out, instead taking another gondola to Mürren, a village poised at 1650m above sea level, home to 418 people and still inaccessible by car. (Until the arrival of the train in 1891, the villagers had been hiking up and down by foot for over 600 years.) As the gondola rose, the sun came out and the valley opened up beneath us and beyond. With the poor dog cowering on the floor, we gazed in awe at the mountain range we were confronted with in all its granite glory. Mürren, we’d learn, looks out on the forbidding north faces of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains, and our hotel room would too.<
After a lovely evening at the Chalet Hotel Alpenruh, we woke to find the weather changed for the wetter, as became clear when we trudged through rainy slush to the Mürren train station, from which we were planning to take a charming little train and gondola back down to Lauterbrunnen, where we would change to a more modern train that would ultimately take us to the “Top of Europe”, the continent’s highest train station, nestled at 3454 meters amidst the same Jungfrau mountain so intimidatingly looming on the other side of the valley. As we went higher and higher up the mountain though, the weather worsened, rain turning to wet snow and the few folks in ski attire looking ever more dejected, until the train headed into its final stretch, a tunnel painstakingly carved through the Eiger mountain itself by Italian ‘guest workers’ around the start of the 20th century. As we stepped out of the train during one of its short stops (not so much to let people on or off, as there was nowhere to really go but the restroom, but to let people’s bodies get used to the higher altitude), we found ourselves in the closest thing to a Bond villain’s lair I’d ever experienced: brightly lit, cavernous chambers chiseled from the mountain, with windows placed right into the rock, windows through which we saw nothing, only a whistling white. As some of our fellow passengers lit a quick cigarette, I realized we probably weren’t going to take any epic Alpine selfies that day. Instead, we’d get a lesson in the conditions of tourism in an age of globalization.
Isolated as it is, this region only came to economic life in the mid-19th century, when the first real tourists made their way to Switzerland, spurred on and up by newly paved roads, shiny new railways, and futuristic cable cars. These tourists more often than not were Brits, flush with imperial cash and crazy for the slopes. In 1911, Mürren would host the world’s senior challenge cup for downhill ski-racing, the “Roberts of Kandahar Challenge Cup”. Kandahar, you ask? Yes, the race was presided over by Lord Roberts, who in the Second Anglo-Afghan War won the decisive Battle of Kandahar. Nowadays, it’s called the postcolonial International Inferno Race, the largest amateur ski race in the world.
The area would remain a playground for wealthier Anglophones until the late 1960s, when a scout for the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the first in the series not starring Sean Connery) heard of a suitably megalomaniac building site that had ground to a halt at the top of the Schilthorn mountain towering over Mürren. Perfect for Blofeld’s lair! Paying for the construction of the gondola leading up to the site, the film crew (which aside from one-time Bond George Lazenby included Diana Rigg, currently chewing the scenery on Game of Thrones) took over the small town for months. But the era of glamor travel and grand hotels was over, and with the crumbling of the British Empire and the economic downturn of the 1970s, not to mention a lack of actual space to build the structures required for true mass tourism, the region seems to have fallen into a snowy slumber.
Until the early 1990s, that is, when Chinese people were allowed to travel abroad again. Unlike fancier and perhaps more familiar Swiss destinations like Gstaad and Chamonix (which perhaps feared their luxury brand being trampled by ‘barbarian’ hordes from the East), this particular local Swiss tourism board jumped at the opportunity, immediately flying over and marketing the shit out of the Jungfrau’s unique mountain railroad. This explains why we were the only Caucasian people on this train slowly heading up a mountain utterly swaddled by a blizzard.
Once we reached the terminus, we somehow found ourselves still inside the Jungfrau mountain – which considering the weather was probably for the better – and weaving our way through huddles of puffy jackets to discover a strange Swiss version of Disneyland featuring roughly hewn statues of Heidi’s grandpa, entire corridors sculpted out of the glacier ice, not to mention a terrifying tableau depicting the railway’s instigator, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, being struck by the idea of building the railroad as lightning flashes and the ground literally thrums with insanity. On brighter days, you can step out onto the glacier and go sledding or skiing even in summer, but all we found that day were windows white with frost and patient groups of tourists lining up for steaming-hot noodle soup.
We’d be luckier the next day, when the sun was out in full and we went up the Schilthorn, strolling through “Bond World” at 2970 meters and revolving in the restaurant with a burger and fries, but throughout we kept thinking about the sustainability of all this under the threat of climate change. That same morning, in fact, I had awoken rested and early to the sound of far-off bangs. Controlled avalanches, someone on the gondola would tell me, and though I’d of course known the skiers’ snow came at such a price, even encountered those snow cannons on summer hikes, seeing this high tech at work felt rather perverse, hubristic at the very least. Which is how our project, to come to Switzerland to not ski, began to seem more noble than frivolous.
After all, you don’t need snow for winter hikes and, if you’re willing to trust this non-snowboarding, non-skiing writer, it’s still beautiful, downright stunning even. And sure, I understand the pride a skier would take in ‘mastering’ a mountain, hiking a mountain gives you a similar sensation after all, but at what price? (Both literally and figuratively.) What is it about nature that we should wish to master if not ourselves? Oh well. Who was I to ask such grand questions, preoccupied as I was with the Facebook and Instagram notifications lighting up my phone like little confirmations of my existence; it really was a miracle that this car-less town had such solid wifi.
We spent three nights in Mürren, in the end, hiking around, going up and down ALL the gondolas, sipping, then inhaling a well-deserved Pflümli Schümli (pictured above; not making this word up, promise). The food was nice too, and we can especially recommend the absolutely delicious (yet not overwhelming) cheese fondue at Hotel Eiger, the tasty Chinese food at Tham, and the local cheeses and meats at the Monday market stand of Marktfrauen Gimmelwald, which also offers bread, herbal teas, and creamy white sheepskins to cuddle up with back home. Throughout, I’d keep hearing that familiar crippled hobble of ski boots, while we (and a few more fashionable hipsters from Shanghai and Tokyo) swanned around town in our best hiker chic, thoroughly enjoying our wintry escape. The greatest luxury, after all, is time, and that we had aplenty.
The winter season here lasts until the middle of April; so if the Berlin skies are closing in on you this winter and you feel like skiing (or not skiing), you know where to go.
As mentioned earlier, we were lucky enough to be driving an Opel Astra, generously provided to us by Carunity, a program initiated by (but not exclusive to) Opel that works like Airbnb for cars. Simply download the app and sign up to zip around the city (or the continent) whenever you feel like it, or share your own car when you’re not using it, of course. Yay for the sharing economy!
Text: Florian Duijsens, Photos: Mary Scherpe