Alpine Climbing in the Bernese Oberland
This trip is all about alpine climbing three moderate routes on famous mountains while being in one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. All easily approached via an unforgettable train ride.
Undoubtedly, one of man’s most impressive mountain infrastructure achievements is the Jungfraujoch Train. Starting in the idyllic Swiss village of Grindelwald, directly beneath the Eiger Nordwand, the Jungfraujochbahn is a cog train that first climbs to Kleine Scheidegg before entering a tunnel in the Eiger and literally climbing through the mountain to a station at 3454 meters. There, passengers disembark into a tourism venue like no other. The Station is built into a rock buttress at the head of the Aletschgletscher, Europe’s longest glacier which stretches below the station for 23 km.
The station is a combination viewing platform, souvenir shop, ice palace and of course food court, complete with noodle stall and Indian cuisine to satisfy the vast numbers of Asian tourists. But for the alpine climber, the attraction is the Sphinx Tunnel which is an exit to the glaciers. To access many of the 4000 meter alpine peaks of the Berner Oberland, one must first descend to their bases from the Jungfrau Station.
Their are countless peaks to climb or ski in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, but a popular trip is to take the train up, stay in the nearby Mönchsjoch Hut, and climb the famous Trilogy of the Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger. This is a 4-5 day trip that will have you in the alpine world the entire time. If the weather is solid for the three routes, they may all be done back to back before returning to the Valley on the Jungfrau Train. To score with the weather means a bit of luck. As luck would have it, we had that period in 2003 and did the Trilogy in one push. We have also been there a number of other times for quick in and outs, the potential is like the terrain, massive. For American alpine climbers seeking moderate routes in extreme terrain, this is the trip of a lifetime if you want a European goal to strive for.
The Experience – the oddities of which will surely have you curious.
Day 1 : Train to Jungfraujoch, exit station, climb the Mönch (4107 meters) on the way to the Mönchs Hut.
Day 2 : Climb the Jungfrau (4158 meters) from the Mönchs Hut.
Day 3 : Back to the Station, descend train, exit train at the Eismeer Station within the Eiger (you’ll have to inform the conductor), climb south face of the Eiger to the Mittellegi Ridge and the Mittellegi Hut.
Day 4 : Climb the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge to the summit (3970 meters), descend south to the Mönchs Hut and then to the Jungraujoch Station make last train to Grindelwald.
Day 5 : Relax in Grindelwald, eat a rösti and drink a beer while staring up at the peaks you just climbed.
Now let me preface the actual story by saying that this project, while not difficult, is extraordinarily serious. The weather in the Bernese Oberland can go from pleasant to severe in minutes and there are extremely dangerous objective hazards in the climbing (glacier issues, route finding, and loose rock). I highly recommend a UIAGM Mountain Guide if you are not entirely accustomed to climbing in the Alps and in this terrain. More Guide info at the end of the post.
Climbing the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge
What makes this experience so special is that you are on a kind of mini, and somewhat luxurious, expedition. While it is only 4 days, it is busy with go-go-go and heavy on logistics. Of course it is possible to extend the trip with extra hut nights, especially for the return to the Mönchs Hut. Instead of hurrying to make last train, one can stay the night. However, multiple nights up so high with possible sleep issues may have you longing for lower elevations.
The Mönch and the Jungfrau are fairly straightforward – I won’t go into details as there is better info available. But, the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge is a story all on its own for the process to get up on it and down is like no other I have seen. You may not be doing the Nordwand, but the experience of the Eiger is still quite unique when doing the Mittellegi.
The first step to get to the Mittellegi Hut is to get off the Jungfraujoch Train at the Eismeer Station. This is a stop inside the Eiger. Here you will step off the train into the darkness and the train will roll away leaving only the climbers behind. A large steel door leads to a steeply descending passageway. With headlamps on we entered. Ahead was a blinding light which became a sunlit glacier as we got closer. The tunnel ends at a balcony complete with cute Swiss railing. Here you will be in the world of ice, seracs and steep, loose rock.
The beta given to us was to rope & helmet up – then run like hell across a big open section of glacier beneath the south face of the Eiger. The reason is immediately obvious as gravity is working its magic on the rotting rock and melting ice. Once to the other side, the climb begins to the actual ridge and the precariously perched hut.
The Mittellegi Ridge is rated alpine D, with sections of rock to about 5.4. Nothing is mentioned about the approach to the hut. My memory is climbing hard rock with mountain boots and a pack on. I could be wrong, but I seem to remember a significant length of 5.7 laybacking, made desperate in my La Sportiva Nupstes. I also remember no belay anchor for the second (rumor has it that this has been remedied) and most clear of all, thinking that reversing this whole thing in poor weather would be hellish. But we did it. After passing the technical section we diagonaled into the hut on rising sloping ledge systems made dicey with loose rock and bullet like flying stones. The hut was a welcome end to a stressful and odd day.
The Mittellegi Hut itself is a wonder as it is perched literally right on the ridge of the Eiger. Look north and you look straight down the Nordwand. It is a location you will never forget. Rising immediately from its balcony is the Mittellegi Ridge that ascends into a pyramid of black stone, the Eiger’s summit.
At dinner we sat with an old Swiss couple. When I say old I mean in their early 70′s. They amazed Janine and I with the fact that they have been climbing the Eiger every year for a very long time. They amazed us even more as they quickly dropped us in the following morning’s darkness. Such is the European mountain culture.
The route itself is relatively simple. Route finding means following the crest, or the climbers in front of you, or in some areas, the fat, fixed ropes. If the weather is good it is low stress climbing, the views are unmatched, and the only real concern is to make that last train. But the climb, as we found out, is only part of the day. The descent is complicated, long and slow if you do not know it. It was somewhere during the descent that stress to make the train kicked in.
While staying at the Mönchs Hut we had seen two Italian climbers stumble in just before dinner. They collapsed at our table and stared like zombies at their plates. I asked what they had done. “Mittellegi”, was all they got out. I just remember thinking that they either epic’ed in a big way or were way out of shape.
But I was starting to get it as we descended the Eiger, it is huge. Thankfully we did not epic and we not only made last train, we made it in time to get a bite to eat in the station before boarding.
Once back in Grindelwald, there are few more amazing views to be had from a town, especially views up to mountains that contain some of our greatest memories.
Where to eat in Grindelwald
Don’t miss great food and ambience at Cafe und Mehr (C&M) : sit out on the deck and take in the views of where you have been.
Need an English speaking Mountain Guide?
Cosley Houston Alpine Guides are Americans based in Chamonix and know the Alps like locals.
Howie Schwartz of Sierra Mountain Guides works in the Swiss Alps and Berner Oberland each summer.
Swiss Alpine Huts
The Mittellegi Hut and Mönchs Hut : Like all huts, a reservation is mandatory before arrival. Huts are about CHF60/night and includes a bed, dinner and breakfast. A great rate. But, be prepared for some expensive water and miscellaneous food & drink as it must all be flown in by helicopter.