The Top Of Europe

The morning had been spent avoiding the burning rays and surviving the sweltering heat. The rest of the day would be in opposition. We wrapped up against the blinding snow, the burning cold. Cloud hung in the air and filled the view. We stood on a plateau of pure, crisp, fresh white snow, watching as our breath condensed in front of our eyes. Although we could see no further than a few metres we could tell that we were very high; in fact we were at the top of Europe: welcome to Jungfraujoch.

We were used to train journeys throughout Europe, but we knew Swiss trains better than most. The sight which met us at Kleine Scheidigg was unlike that of any train station we had experienced so far. We alighted from the train to a scattering of low platforms, crammed with throngs of people. People of all nationalities. We fought our way through to the toilets, expecting some respite, finding more and more people. We looked at the queues for the next trains up and the next trains down, and our jaws dropped. We would never make it up the mountain. Then a whistle, a shuffle of seats, and the platforms cleared. All of a sudden we were disquietingly alone on this tiny, cold, mountain halt.

We had been told – I can’t deny that for a second. We had been told that if the weather was not up to scratch, then not to bother. If the visibility up to Jungfraujoch was substandard, then there was no point even trying to get up there. The whole point – or so we were told – of visiting Jungfraujoch was the view. 360 degrees of some of the most spectacular views in all of Europe; or nothing at all. There was no middle ground. The thing was, we had seen views. All week we had been up and down every mountain we could find. We didn’t need more views; we wanted experiences. We wanted snow.

We stood on the empty platform at a loss. We had half an hour to make a decision before the next train. We hated crowds, we hated queues and we derived no pleasure at all from popular tourist attractions. What were we doing attempting to board a packed train up a mountain, to stand on top of a mountain, people all around us, and no spectacular views? Plus it was expensive. Rationally, we should’ve boarded a free train down the mountain and gone back about our holidaying in peace. Back and forth our ideas went, up and down went our child’s feet as cold started to replace heat.

There is a place in Switzerland where you can board a train and it will take you up to the top of a mountain. Well, a saddle between two peaks. Jungfraujoch. At the back of the Sphynx is a plateau of snow, with a flag planted. While inclement weather tends to shut down the sprawling slopes before the Sphynx, the plateau can survive most conditions. And it is such a joy: snow as far as the eye can see, and a drop beyond that. Unless a blizzard hits: stuck on top of a mountain while wearing clothes for a train journey was never going to be the best match. We held hands and skidded, slid and crept our way back down the plateau (I know), holding on to each other for grim death. One wrong foot and we would fall, sliding back down the slope in a crumpled heap of hoodies and training shoes.

I had been looking forward to the chocolate shop. The brochure had promised interactive displays and tutorials in the manufacture of the finest Swiss chocolate. That appealed greatly, but what I really wanted was to see if I could find my favourite Swiss chocolate: a peanut butter ball. In actual fact I couldn’t find my hand in front of my face, the crowds were so dense. We fled, disappointed.

We expected very little from the Ice Palace. In that we had no expectations of what it was. I thought it may be some kind of kid’s attraction, with shoddy ice carvings. No. It had shoddy ice carvings, but that would be a shoddy description. Part of the Sphynx – the shape of the outcrop in to which the Jungfraujoch site had been carved – was a glacier. It hung in the valley, ready to carve mountains to dust. And then someone had the idea of carving the mountain in to the glacier. A path entered ice, unassumingly at first, and then veins start to appear. Dirt and bubbles remind us that this is a piece of living ice, millions of years old. Jaws dropped and breath condensed; we were truly lost in awe.

I had felt robbed when the train pulled in to the final station and we alighted. We were nowhere near as high up as we were expecting. We were about 100m short in fact. That’s a lot of feet. We made our way patiently through the paths of the mountain redoubt, slightly miffed. And then came the lift. Climbing more than 100m in less than half a minute, it was the “fastest lift in Europe”. Not only that, but it completed our total height: 3,454 metres above sea level, all by trains and a lift.

The viewing deck out of the back of the Sphynx is world famous: it has appeared in every single image of Jungfraujoch. But that was on a clear day. On a day filled with snow and cloud we could have been anywhere. Anywhere crowded with tourists taking selfies. Ice fell from the building – its upper levels used as a scientific research centre since the first half of the 20th century – and slid straight through the mesh of the floor. People struggled with the revolving door, but most made it out here eventually. All that could be seen was the whiteness of the cold, and a glimmer of rock below. Winds ripped against our faces and we decided to return indoors, silly smiles on our mouths.

Have a chocolate, the nice man said. So we did. For all the hustle and bustle of a tourist attraction, it was well organised. For all the poor quality of the weather, it put many people off the trip, so we had a far less cramped trip than we could have done. For all our indecision and vacillation, it was a great day out. We are usually just in it for the trains, and that side of the Jungfraujoch experience is beyond reproach. Who else can climb 3,400 metres up and through mountains, all by trains? No one.