Permanent Tourist

The personal website of Mark Howells-Mead

Kleine Scheidegg to Lauberhorn

If you’re going to walk in the Alps, it makes sense to do so where there is a good view. There is an unlimited number of routes to choose from wherever you go in Switzerland, and we know many of them – from afternoon strolls to feed the ducks to muscle-burning scrambles up scree-covered slopes.

The Jungfrau Region – encompassing the mountains surrounding the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen Valleys – is one of my favourite destinations for walking. It’s nearby, very accessible, and chock-full of walks, views and what German speakers call Kulissen – literally “backdrops” or “scenery”. Add the German adjective gigantisch to this word and you get what you’ll find in the region – from the deep chasm from which Tolkein drew inspiration for Rivendell, to the infamous Eiger North Wall – a beacon to climbers for well over a century.

Lauterbrunnen Valley
Small farm buildings high on the slopes of the Lauterbrunnen Valley

Heading into the mountains from Interlaken and Wilderswil, the deep valley splits at Zweilütschinen and leads either side of the Männlichen ridge to the final destinations of Stechelberg – by way of Lauterbrunnen – and Grindelwald. Kleine Scheidegg (which loosely translates as “small pass”) is at the southern end of the high ridge, directly below the Eiger–Mönch–Jungfrau massiv at 2,061 metres above sea level and just short of 2,100 metres below the highest peak there: the Jungfrau.

On the northern side of the small hamlet is the peak of the Lauberhorn, made famous in the world of winter sports as being the starting point of the longest race on the Ski World Cup circuit. That was my goal for a walk this past weekend, when I tool advantage of an unforecast patch of sunny weather. Lunch wrapped in foil and comfortable new hiking boots strapped on, I set off with my camera to get a shot I’ve been after for a while.

My goal wasn’t set for sporting reasons, but inspired by the position of the peak and a view of the hamlet below huge walls of rock and ice. The classic landscape view of the three peaks, used heavily in advertising, is photographed from a few miles further back at Schynigge Platte. I have photographed these peaks from a similar viewpoint at Männlichen several times and that view is probably my favourite in the world.

However, I was convinced that a photograph intended to show the imposing height of the rock faces would be better captured from an unimpaired view. When the local tourist authority installed a panoramic webcam on the Wixi ski lift, I could see that I was right. It was immediately to my list of photographic viewpoint goals, albeit lower down the list due to the steepness of the path leading to it.

Effort over the past couple of months in improving my fitness meant that I knew I could achieve the peak and so after catching the train up from Grindelwald on Sunday, I struck out on the lesser-used hiking path from the station, immediately leaving the ever-present tourist chatter behind. The steepness of the path and the thin altitudinous air means that the peak is all but deserted until winter snow arrives, from whence it is covered by skiers from all over the world who take the easy way up and the slippery way down.

The path is probably used as an access track by heavy-duty four-wheel-drive vehicles to get to the high-alpine pastures and to the upper ski lift cabins until the snow arrives, so it’s a wide and gravelly route. The path winds kindly across the mountain due to the steepness and the yellow hiking signs advertise a 30-minutes walk, to the Wixi cable car station. From there, the path continues steeply for another twenty minutes or so to the summit. The views behind you as you walk encourage you to keep stopping and turning around, and help to make the timings on the yellow signs less accurate… for a change.

Once past the highest ski lift (there are several on this peak), the geology of the last leg of the walk is very reminiscent of Welsh and English peaks. It’s formed of dark Bündner schist and flysch rock, lying over much of the path in thin, slate-like pieces. However, once reaching the summit – at 2,472 metres, 411 vertical metres above the train station – the orderliness of the Swiss is immediately apparent as three new wooden benches are lined up along the fence, affording comfortable spots to sit and enjoy the panoramic views.

Tschuggen and Männlichen with tiny, intrepid hikers

Looking south, my photographic goal was of the trio of peaks and their glaciers, dwarfing the hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg far below. To the east, the town of Grindewald; west, the village of Mürren clinging to the edge of the Lauterbrunnen Valley; in the north, a huge view across canton Bern, all the way to the Jura mountains. Nearest to me, the isolated, higher summit of Tschuggen stood tall and proud and the tiny figures of more adventurous walkers on the top of the incredibly steep point told the usual mountain hiking tale. There is always a bigger summit just a little further on.

A few years ago, I would’ve questioned whether I’d begin getting fitter as I got older and whether I would continue to get to peaks like this one. I’d almost certainly look at a peak like the one I was standing on and think, “I’ll never get up there”. I did so whilst watching the couple of tiny figures on the Tschuggen, but then I realised that I thought the same thing about other supposedly insurmountable peaks only a few months ago. Yet here I am, writing the story of how I proved myself wrong.

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