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Switzerland's Jungfrau and Zermatt Serve Up Winter Adventure

The night sky was so bright the tangle of stars seemed to strangle the darkness. Behind me, what looked to be falling stars were meteoring down the trail from Gross Scheidegg. The 6,434-foot mountain overlooked the postcard-like Swiss village of Grindelwald, now a small constellation of lights more than 3,000 vertical feet below. I waited as the descending lights zipped past me, the signal for me to hop back on my sledge, add my yelps to the crazed cacophony, and rejoin the chase.

The Swiss call it tobogganing, but the ride is on sledges, shortened versions of sleds. The route from Gross Scheidegg weaves over an ice-covered, snow-banked 7 kilometers of road toward Grindelwald, ringed by 10,000-foot peaks.

It's traditional to have dinner before a night-time run, so our group had dutifully spent several hours at the Berghotel slurping delicious, cholesterol-rich cheese fondue. We vigorously tried to clear our clogged arteries by quaffing Swiss wines, beer, and coffee fortified with apricot schnapps. It was after nine when we ventured outside and straddled our down-the-mountain conveyances. We steered by swinging a leg in the desired direction, gaining speed as we laid back, eyes to the stars. Literally and figuratively, sledging is a blast.

We "Bond" in the Jungfrau

That morning we had traveled by a series of cable cars that climbed as steeply as raised hands to the Schilthorn, a 9,748-foot tall mountain surrounded by even loftier peaks. Grindelwald and Schilthorn are part of a broad area known as the Jungfrau Region. Restaurants strategically dot the Alps, and the Schilthorn features the Piz Gloria, an upscale eatery that revolves 360-degrees each hour. The Schilthorn and Piz Gloria are featured in the film, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," starring George Lazenby. The film’s action scenes include a mad-cap ski chase from the Piz Gloria toward Murren, the village below.

Web of ski lifts
Networks of ski lifts weave like spider webs in the Swiss Alps

Like James, my friends and I had "Bonded" at the Piz Gloria during a sumptuous meal that featured locally harvested mushrooms. "007" is remembered on everything from napkins, to excerpts from the movie, to the black diamond 007 Run which steeply wig-wags from the restaurant to other less intimidating ski slopes.

On another day, it was a poky cogwheel train that took us from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg, a 6,672-foot elevation resort at the base of the Eiger. A second engine that could, the Jungfraubahnen, powered us along an angular cliff, then tunneled through the Eiger and the neighboring Monch to deposit us at Europe’s highest railway station (11,333-foot elevation). One passage led to an outside walkway. It opened to an aerie overlooking the broad-sweeping Aletsch Glacier, with the 13,026-foot Eiger perched above.

Kleine Scheidegg
Kleine Scheidegg,
shadowed by the Eiger

Ice cave
Skiers enjoy refreshments
inside the ice caves at Jungfraujoch

Maybe it was the thin mountain air, but our smiles were ear-to-ear as, ski boots clunking, we slip-slided through an ice cave decorated with wondrously carved ice sculptures. Our grins were even sillier when a waiter appeared and poured naturally chilled glasses of wine. He watched us bemusedly as, like clumsy swans, we waltzed up to the bar for a refill.

Snow biking, sledging, and hiking

The oddest travel was by velogemel, or snow bicycle. Velogemels are esthetically dazzling. They look like bicycles but have beautifully crafted wood-frames, two metal runners, a steering bar and, instead of pedals, a small crosspiece for resting feet on downhill glides. Velogemels are used in Grindelwald by mail carriers, doctors making house calls, schoolchildren, and other winter walkers.

Winter walking over packed snow is a Swiss pastime. On weekends, especially, townspeople take sledges and velogemels up ski lifts. They hike the trails, often to restaurants that cater exclusively to walkers. The sledges and velogemels provide let-'er-rip rides back to town on routes like the one from Gross Scheidegg.

Velogemels, unique snow bikes

Earnestly Imitating Hemingway

"They stacked the skis against the side of the inn and slapped the snow off each other's trousers, stamped their boots clean, and went in. Smooth benches backed into the dark, wine-stained tables were along each side of the rooms. Two Swiss sat over their pipes and two decies of cloudy new wine were next to the stove." Ernest Hemingway, Cross-Country Snow.

"Cigarette smoke shrouded the second floor chalet room, which was moist from bodies crammed too closely together and sweating with the alpenglow from a day of skiing." — Ernest Hemingway.

We had moved on to Zermatt, Switzerland’s best known resort. We sat by a slightly opened window at Restaurant Blatten, sucking in breaths of fresh air. Absorbing the festival mood, we eavesdropped on staccato chatter that was, like the menu and drink list, indecipherable in German.

Zermatt, located near the base of the Matterhorn,
features historic wooden buildings

Long before I'd ever imagined strapping on a pair of skis, I'd read Hemingway's writings about skiing in the Swiss Alps. He captured a mood of wine-stained tables, snow-covered mountains, skiing, and an attitude. "There's nothing really can touch skiing, is there ... The way it feels when you first drop off on a long run ... It's too swell to talk about." — Ernest Hemingway.

It's something I wanted to feel ever since. And this afternoon I did. The dark beer tasted good, but sips of Skiwasser, a tart and sweet cherry liquor, and Gluvine, the warmed wine that had only been a sip of my imagination, were even better. This was aprés skiing, Swiss style.

Skiing Zermatt

Zermatt sits near the ragged-toothed Matterhorn, the country's 14,690-foot icon. Traveling a network of buses, gondolas, cable cars and T-bars, we spent nearly an hour working our way to the Klein Matterhorn station, at 12,529 feet. Whiteout conditions prevented us from skiing down to the Italian resort of Cervinia, but we glided through cloud-like powder snow to Testa Grigia, where several of us skied briefly across the border.

A day earlier we had explored another vast region of the moon-like, snow-barren slopes above Zermatt. From downtown we traveled 45 minutes by a cog railway to Gornergrat, where we zipped down spacious, freshly snow covered slopes to Riffelberg and Riffelalp. Then, we dropped into a valley and rode gondolas and cable cars up the other side to Blauherd and Rothorn.

That afternoon we skied a region ringed by protruding, horn-shaped peaks. Then, because there wasn't enough snow to ski from Sunnegga back to Zermatt, we found another way. From the snowy slopes we stepped inside a building and onto a device that resembled a giant escalator. In minutes the funicular train torpedoed down more than 2,100 vertical feet. We exited through a tunnel, just a short stroll from central Zermatt.

Gondolas provide a welcome lift

Slopeside lunch
A fine meal and sunny day

Powder! Photo:Ben Blankenburg

Switzerland is a Disneyland of transportation methods. Zermatt's transit network includes a mind-boggling 36 tows, 14 lifts, 17 cable cars, a cog train and the underground train that, altogether, serve 143 miles of downhill runs. Those downhill runs were the main focus of our travel, but getting there proved a large part of the adventure. T-bars, virtual dinosaurs in the U.S., tow Swiss skiers like a conveyor-belt on dazzlingly scenic 15 to 20-minute rides.

A Final Run Home

All too soon, the time came to leave the Blatten Restaurant. The evening sky was electric, shimmering with shivering tones of lavender, pink, crimson and ocher. We zipped up our coats, stepped outside, and, not eager to leave, listened as sounds of chatty voices and accordion melodies escaped into the night air.

"They opened the door and went out. It was very cold. The snow had crusted hard ... They took down their skis from where they leaned against the wall at the inn ... Now they would have the run home together." Ernest Hemingway.

Click here for details to plan your trip to Grindelwald and Zermatt, Switzerland.

            Lee Juillerat
            Article and photos

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