The Top of Europe and its Sister MountainsDouble Click on the Graphic above to
see the Alpine Range in all its Majesty
SOUNDS LIKE A BLAST FROM THE PAST, but the clarity of my recalling a series of events that occurred over six decades ago remains undimmed because it instilled in me a determined attitude in altitude beyond my wildest dreams that still informs my psyche.
In my early teens I was daunted by heights after unsettling bouts of acrophobia: They had been quelled and then uprooted during my school summer holidays spent with young male members of my family on climbing some of the lower ranges of the Himalayas that included those encircling the Vale of Kashmir. But a Swiss “stroll” – not “roll!” – spent a world away on a student trip organized by my high school in Kent, England, almost undermined my hard-fought determination.
I was one of two dozen boys who had signed up with our local school group of would-be mountaineers: We would be scaling the heights of the Alps and thereby following in the pioneering footsteps of the first post-war expedition the youthful group had mounted in 1948. We assembled at London’s Victoria Station to catch the boat train en route to Switzerland. The journey to Ostend passed uneventfully and calmly. Then after a walkabout there, we were off on a 12-hour journey, confined to the air-tight compartments in the carriages that were fitted with hard wooden seats.
We were glad to stretch our legs at Basel at six the following morning, when a certain Herr Zellweger, who was awaiting our arrival on the platform, greeted us and helped the school contingent through the border barrier into Switzerland. In the station buffet we quaffed portionen of hot chocolate before boarding the train for Interlaken. Soon we ran into heavy snow squalls, but by the time we reached the well-known Swiss town there was a fine drizzle falling from a low obscuring mist, which made the adjoining Lake Thun look cold, forbidding and uninviting.
Interlaken and Backdrop
We reached our ultimate well-appointed destination, the Pension Schoenfels, in good time before lunch: The hotel is situated almost a stone’s throw away from the River Aare, which connects Lake Thun to Lake Brienz. Thereafter we set out – many of us in shorts in spite of the weather! – for the little village of Saxeten over in the next valley at 3,700ft. The climb up the winding cart track was steep for our very first afternoon, but was good training for the stiffer climbs that were yet to come.
The next morning proved to be cold and wet, so we repaired to downtown Interlaken and made mental notes of the things we hoped to buy on our proper shopping expedition later in the week. With the barometer rising and after a meal we set out on foot up the valley to Lauterbrunnen. We reached the meeting point of the Black and White Luetschinen, aptly named Zweiluetschinen, in less than an hour and rested awhile before intrepidly tackling the steep climb off the roadside and through the woods to Isenfluh – an abrupt climb of about 1,400ft. that made us perspire freely! Then after viewing dumbfoundedly the Staubbach Falls we hurried off to catch the 6.30pm train back to Wilderswil.
The next morning dawned fine with a deep blue sky and hardly any wind, so we started off on a really hard climb to the Schynige Platte, 6,770ft. – as per the signpost a mere
4 3/4-hour effort, but that was in ideal conditions. The steep path zigzagged up through pine woods and at about 4,000ft. we reached the first snow, which made the avenues through the trees look like a virtual fairyland. When we arrived at the Schoenegg Hut at about 5,000ft. the trees ended and a great expanse of deep hard snow stretched out before us.
The view on the south side that met our eyes as we passed over the brow of the crag was magnificent: There before us in the bright sunshine was the whole range of the Alps – the lovely Jungfrau, Eiger, Moench, and Lauteraarhorn along with all the others. That cheered us no end and we lunched in a sunny spot three-quarter an hour from the summit. There I was complimented for making the difficult climb in ordinary shoes. For the record, I had forgotten to pack my boots in Kent and had telephoned from Victoria that they be sent on. Nevertheless, my climbing time of 4 1/4 hours was not to be sneezed at. In the evening back at the hotel, I took time out to compose what my schoolmates referred to as “a musical saga of our adventures” – a Swiss ‘Stroll’ Skit!
On Tuesday, snow was falling again, but as the barometer was rising we decided to risk the weather and travel up to Grindelwald by train. The town is situated in a large rock-basin about 3,200ft. above sea level. Mountains tower on all sides – some to over 12,000ft., believe it or not!
A pity that heavy snow clouds obscured the view some of the time, but occasionally we gained an inviting glimpse of glistening peaks, as we walked up to the Hotel Wetterhorn (pictured alongside) where we ate our packed lunch and downed copious jugs of hot chocolate to combat the freezing cold as best we could.
Eventually we hiked through the Alpine woods to the foot of the upper Grindelwald glacier, reaching down to 4,400ft. We crossed the valley below, then struggled up to the Chalet Milchbach.
There we had a good view of the bluish-colored ice and could see a herd of ibex like tiny dots up on the Wetterhorn. On the way back we spotted some chamois as well. We reached Grindelwald with enough time for a spot of tea before catching our train to Wilderswil.
On Wednesday, we walked passed the Staubbach Falls, the highest in Switzerland: The water drops no less than 980ft. in a single leap over and down the vertical rock and becomes a fine spray before reaching the bottom – hence the name!
Next, we saw the Truemmelbach Falls, which are actually inside the mountain: We took a lift up 200ft. and went through an opening in the mountainside. The water swirls and roars through huge cracks in the rock at a terrific rate and is finally arrested by a pool at the bottom. In spite of developing clouds, half way back to Lauterbrunnen, we were blessed with a sudden clearing that permitted us to get a beautiful, awe-inspiring view of the Jungfrau and its ‘sister’ mountains alongside.
Our last day, Thursday, was one of the warmest we’d experienced. After shopping for mementos, such as music boxes and watches, we had dinner earlier than usual. Then, remarkably, just before checking out, my boots arrived by post with a price-tag of 2s. 6d, which I had to pay before I boarded the coach with my school chums. We reached Basel around midnight, and left Herr Z. happy after we assured him that he was famous in England – at the very least in the County of Kent!
The wooden seats were as hard as ever, and – as the sun was up at about five o’clock – sleep was a trifle short. However, we arrived at Ostend dead on time. We boarded the ferry boat and indulged in a sound sleep thankfully during a calm crossing. We finally reached Victoria just before 9 p.m. and so ended an enjoyable holiday with myself regaling in a positive attitude toward altitude.
References: My Diary; Dartford Grammar School Newsletter.
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