High Up in the Clouds
(National Post, February 11, 2006)
For me it was a James Bond moment with a Chicken Little heart. Agent 007 made the Schilthorn Mountain towering above the town of Mürren in Switzerland's Jungfrau region famous. The aerial cableway and steep snowy slopes provided the spectacular stage for thrilling downhill skiing chase scenes in the film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". George Lazenby starred in his one and only 007 role in the film shot in the late sixties but his downhill was after the movie. The death defying was left to John Eaves, the legendary Canadian freestyle champion and stunt skier for all those terrifyingly difficult ski scenes in the Bond series.
I'm no John Eaves and neither are most of the other recreational skiers who find themselves at the top of the Alps at "Piz Gloria". This round building perched above the clouds served as the setting for much villainy in the movie. Today within the Schilthorn summit house above the revolving restaurant at the Touristorama, a 15 minute free video presentation is offered about the making of the movie, complete with clips extracted from the film.
After the video, I further delayed my descent by checking out the awe inspiring panoramic view of 200 mountain peaks from the terrace which doubled as a helicopter landing pad and curling rink in the film. I noticed just about everyone was taking their time before hitting these slopes and several parties were bolstering their courage with gulps from wineskins. Yet eventually all skiers must head downhill on the steep, narrow black diamond run, the only route to go. As I hurtled down into the clouds I didn't need imaginary villains chasing me to be shaken and stirred. It's challenging skiing for a non-expert but well worth it. Eventually the slope becomes gentler and broader, joining up with a fine selection of possible pistes. The Jungfrau region is skiing at its most glorious.
There are 44 modern lifts leading to more than 200 kilometres of ski runs and tracks, some up to 12 kilometres in length. In addition there are 100 kilometres of winter hiking trails and toboggan runs. Even the tobogganing is not for the faint of heart. The world's longest toboggan run starts at the Faulhorn at 2,600 metres height and travels for 15 thrilling, often steep, kilometres down to Grindelwald. A Jungfrau Sportpass allows access to winter sports in all three extensive mountain areas namely First, Kleine Scheidegg-Männlichen and Mürren-Schilthorn. The Alpine towns of Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren and Lauterbrunnen are all within this ski zone.
The most central spot for exploring the entire region is Interlaken, a pretty and historic town between the lakes Thun and Brienz that's drawn vacationers for over 300 years. I spent several nights at the swanky Belle Époque styled Lindner Grand Hotel Beau-Rivage which has the bonus of an excellent gourmet restaurant. Ski in, ski out is definitely not part of the picture here but the charm of the town makes up for that. It's off piste location also means "low season" prices compared to the peak season charges of the smaller resort towns at higher altitudes. So I did what the Swiss do. I started the morning catching a train, so precisely on time I could set my watch by it. Then switched to cog railways, cable cars and gondolas to reach the summits I wanted to ski. Occasionally I'd overhear some Americans grumbling about the trek but for me it was part of the adventure and a very scenic one indeed.
The other nights of my stay were spent in the glacier town of Grindelwald up at 1,033 metres with the Schwarzhorn, Wetterhorn and the towering north face of the Eiger as backdrops. This is a classic alpine town, though unlike Wengen and Mürren which truly cling to precipitous mountain slopes, it can be reached by car. I half expected to see the original Heidi skipping down its cobble stone streets past the wooden houses with steeply sloped roofs. The Grand Hotel Regina where I stayed was across from the train station and very close to the ski buses that headed regularly to the mountain cable cars. I had one of the posh renovated rooms but the hotel's main appeal to me was its extensive, elaborate spa the Alpin WellFit Club with swimming pools and multitude of different temperature saunas, steam rooms and cooling chambers.
My initial ski day at Grindelwald I headed up, up and up above the tree line to the highest reachable section of First. Spectacular rugged mountain peaks, rough and sharp edged against a clear deep blue sky were the visual reward. Beneath my feet powdery white snow in all directions. An appropriately named area, it turned out to be first among my favourites for all round skiing with lots of choice.
The Kleine Scheidegg area was the busiest of the three with a good choice of runs though the ski hills' snow was more trampled and iced. However the slope-side food was delicious and there was the additional possibility of taking the highest railway in Europe, the Jungfraubahn up to the Jungfraujoch that at 3,454 metres above sea level is know as "Top of Europe". Perched at this height is a small village with an Ice Palace, scientific research station, a post office, restaurant and the Sphinx observation terrace.
Ski travel Swiss style involves lots of trains and lots of hiking. Even when the day is done, you might well join a small group like I did and snowshoe an hour up a mountain trail to the Berghaus Marmorbruch, a rustic restaurant specializing in fondue. Housi Wüthrich our guide made sure we didn't get lost as night fell upon us. When we reached the Berghaus we were treated with a beautiful view of Grindelwald twinkling in the dark distance.
One can expect to eat hearty in the Alps. I always feel I've earned the right. Along with fondue of both cheese and meat varieties, the whipped cream topped desserts and drinks, rösti is everywhere. This grated potato pancake is so popular it's almost a national dish. I've seen it enhanced with bacon, apples, herbs, onions, cheese and even topped with ham and egg.
The most lasting memory however is nature itself. Those mountains are so majestically high, so gloriously extensive, they take the breath away with or without the James Bond moment.
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