Last weekend, having discovered that Grindelwald was a place, not just a Harry Potter character, I found myself heading to the Swiss ski resort.
The Ski Club of Great Britain (SCGB) had asked me to be the substitute for an injured colleague, and take a holiday group to the resort – shortly after they had persuaded me that “Grindelwald” actually existed.
It turns out that along with Wengen and Murren, Grindelwald is one of the three main towns in the Bernese Alps that make up the Jungfrau Ski Region – a region that hadn’t previously hit my skiing radar either. I did some research and found out what I had been missing.
Being a veteran skier with over 30 resorts under my belt, it seems remiss of me to have ignored a region of such historical importance to alpine skiing. I concluded that It wasn’t ignorance alone, but socio-economic factors that had led me to blank the Jungfrau out.
Swiss resorts have long been the preserve of wealthy blue-bloods and often of royalty. Along with Wengen and Murren, many own places in Davos and Klosters and generally move in different circles to those I frequent back in England. I’ve never been able to persuade my bank account, let alone any of my friends from serfdom to go skiing in Switzerland. If it wasn’t for the SCGB subsidising me I’d probably never have skied any posh Swiss resorts at all or met anyone who had and could tell me about them.
Grindelwald is nestled in the valley just below the North Face of the Eiger – a mountain that, thanks to Clint Eastwood, I had heard of. Breath taking scenery spreads out in every direction, but mostly upwards. The Eiger (3970m) is shadowed by its neighbours, the Monch (4107m) and the actual Jungfrau mountain itself (4158m) on which a restaurant and viewing platform have been built.
The building claims to be “The Top of Europe” by its marketing literature. I did point out to a local that Mont Blanc was in Europe and when last measured, was 4801m and therefore significantly loftier. Apparently “top of Europe” refers to the fact that it is the highest point accessible by railway in Europe.
The cog railway built in 1902 links the three resort and burrows its way through the Eiger to the “The Top of Europe” for seemingly no practical purpose. How did its builders plan to get a return on their investment, given that in 1902 alpinism hadn’t really taken off and the local farmers presumably weren’t interested in taking summit selfies?
In 2020 Grindelwald installed the Eiger Express, a monster gondola cable way, which takes you up to the Eiger glacier in 15min, so few skiers catch the cog railway up anymore. Although we did once for the novelty value.
The Jungfrau is undisputedly the embryonic home of skiing. Victorian aristocrats, who were very fond of forming Clubs, both in the Alps and in London, pioneered the sport of skiing. In a time before ski lifts and piste bashers were invented, the Jungfrau must have been popular because of the railway. “Build it and they will come”, must have been the constructor’s philosophy.
First the Kandahar Ski Club was formed in Murren by legendary wooden plank skier Arnold Lunn in 1924. Named in hour of his father who fought for the British Empire in Afghanistan, the Down Hill Only Club (The DHO) was formed in Wengen a year later to challenge the Kandahar boys to a jolly good ski race. Out of this, the oldest and longest amateur downhill race, the Inferno, was born.
The DHO name, was probably a dig at the Kandahar Ski Club who still needed to skin-up the slopes before skiing down them, the Murren railway station being below the skiing area. Both the DHO and the Kandahar Clubs now have their own ski schools/instructors and youth academies. And they now accept membership of any nationality or social background. The SCGB, was formed in London earlier than the DHO in 1902, by the very same Arnold Lunn. He really was ‘Mr Ski’ back in the late 19th century.
Not only has the SCGB taken me to places I’d never ski independently, it has introduced me to many folks from a range of diverse backgrounds. Although it must be said, most are middle aged and ski with a club because they don’t have anyone else to ski with. Either their spouse doesn’t ski or at least not anymore, and their friends have physically decayed more rapidly and stopped skiing. On my trip to Grindelwald the average age of the members skiing with me was 59!
Despite our collective age, we did all manage to ski the Lauberhorn World Cup run down into Wengen. It is the longest downhill race on the World Cup circuit (4.4 km) where racers often hit 100mph on the straight section. None of us managed to beat the course record of (2mins 24s), but then we did stop for coffee half way down.
I hope the SCGB sends me back next season. I really enjoyed Grindelwald, mostly because of the Jungfrau’s history but possibly because it was too expensive to get drunk, and unusually my skiing was unimpaired by hangovers.