Hot-footing it in the breathtaking mountains of the Jungfrau region in Switzerland

Peter Martini takes a summer stroll from Jungfraujoch 'Top of Europe'

A section of the Eiger Ultra Trail race along the lower slopes of the Eiger

One of the leading Eiger Ultra Trail E101 runners after the climb up to Mannlichen

Elite runner Urs Jenzer nears the finishing line at the end of his 101-kilometre Eiger Ultra Trail race triumph

First published in Holiday reviews
Last updated
York Press: Photograph of the Author by

Peter Martini takes in the breathtaking mountains of the Jungfrau region in Switzerland - while his partner Bec takes them on

BEAUTIFUL meadows, hillside forests and, then, way too high for greenery, colossal masses of jagged snowcapped rock, rising high into the sky, piercing through the clouds.

Awesome, protective yet potentially furious, like gods standing over the hamlets and wooden chalets dotted across the valleys below.

These are the Swiss Alps, so big they make a mockery of perspective, so stunning you can barely look away.

The ones we visited were of the Jungfrau region, named after the biggest mountain there, standing 4,158 metres high - more than three times the size of Ben Nevis.

It’s superb for skiing in winter. It’s dreamland for hikers in summer.

It is also home, now, to an Ultra Trail race, a craze that is growing across Europe for runners bonkers enough to take the mountains on.

Yes, runners. They race up and down for miles and miles – 63.125 miles in this instance. Or 101 kilometres, as it says on the T-shirts.

This one is the Eiger Ultra Trail, taking its moniker from the most famous mountain here.

It’s also the reason we were there. Bec, and some friends from her running club, were competing in the E51, a shorter version of the E101 but still an ultra marathon, at 51 kilometres (31.875 miles) long – including steep, leg-grinding ascent of more than a mile.

Both races make a normal road marathon look like a walk in the park, yet the entry list of 500 for each was sold out six months in advance, with participants coming from every continent.

The Eiger’s imposing north face watches over part of the E101 trail, along tracks through scree, snow, fields and waterfalls. Obviously, runners don’t have to conquer the Eiger entirely, all 3,970 metres of it. Indeed, only the world’s best climbers can scale the north face – although quite a few have found they cannot, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The highest runners go in both the E101 and E51 is 2,681 metres over the top of Faulhorn - just twice the height of Ben Nevis - and back down the other side. E101 runners also then go up to Mannlichen, usually accessed by cable car, some 2,343 metres up.

Unsurprisingly, they look shattered when they reach the checkpoint station here, having zigzagged up through big wooden avalanche barriers.

These mountains all overlook the busy hive of activity that is Grindelwald, a friendly and pretty village where the races start and finish.

A haven for lovers of the outdoors, there are plenty of hotels, hostels and self-catering apartments. We were lucky to stay in its five-star, the superb Regina Grand, where the service is exemplary and the food divine. Handily located opposite the picturesque station, and staring straight over to the spectacular mountain range, it also has a pool, saunas and, among plentiful spa treatments, massage facilities – quite useful if you’re going to run a bit. It's also very reasonably priced.

Grindelwald, nestled in a beautiful Bernese Alps valley, is 1,034 metres above sea level - still some 1,647 below Faulhorn and 1,309 below Mannlichen.

Sat in awe of the peaks, you do wonder how the athletes, having started the E101 at 4.30am, keep going up such ascents, especially when it’s approaching 30 degrees under the Swiss summer sun?

Urs Jenzer, runner-up in the E101 last year, said it was simple here. “You just look at the scenery as you go,” he reasoned, explaining what takes his mind off the pain. “How can you not enjoy it?”

Others lauded in particular an "absolutely incredible sunrise" from the top of Faulhorn - though witnessing it does mean having to get up there in near darkness.

This year, Urs, a 44-year-old from nearby Frutigen, won in a ridiculous time of 11 hours 56 minutes, beating by 15 minutes the next elite runner.

Spare a thought, though, for the less superhuman athletes willing to take these races on. Some don’t make it. Quite a few in the E101 run down from the first peak, take one look at the next and decide to call a taxi.

Those that continue have a cut-off time of 28 hours. It means finishing before 10.30am the next day, having run through the night. Or, rather, walked, so as not to take a wrong step and fall down a mountainside.

From a few vantage points in Grindelwald, you can see head-torches wind their way along the Eiger, 20km from the finish. It's a bizarre yet beautiful sight.

We’d walked a stretch of the Eiger north face the day before, under a bright, hot sun. There’s an incredible view around every turn. There are also a few waterfalls. One is particularly dramatic, water loudly crashing off rocks. At night-time, without seeing it, knackered and bewildered having passed the 80km marker, it would be easy to mistake the noise for an avalanche.

Bec, meanwhile, having targeted ten hours for the E51, finished in eight hours 42 minutes. She was 23rd woman overall, out of 150. The winner, a 35-year-old German, clocked six hours 38, the last finisher, 20 years her senior, 11 hours 15.

Justifiably proud? “I’m knackered and my knees are killing,” Bec muttered as she somehow managed a sprint finish.

Later, she too eulogised over the scenery - but you don’t have to run around here for it to take your breath away. Quite literally, the higher you go.

Take Jungfraujoch, perhaps the jewel in the region's hiking crown.

A col between the peaks of the Jungfrau and Monch, it is home to the highest railway station on the continent - at 3,466 metres and labelled the “Top of Europe” - accessed only by a train that slowly winds its way upwards and through an absurd tunnel.

Step off the train and you can get dizzy due to the thin air. Step outside onto a viewing platform perching on a ridge and you can easily get stupefied by the views, too, of glaciers and valleys and the mountains that are all-powerful.

Do go on a clear day, though, as the train costs from 135 Swiss francs (£88) from Grindelwald - which seems pricey but you can easily spend a day up there in total wonderment.

We took a mile-long uphill hike through mountaintop snow to a hut serving welcome stew and even more welcome beer - and yet more views.

Ultra Trail? This place is ultra magnificent.

FACT FILE

Grindelwald, the Eiger and glacier village, is situated in south central Switzerland, about 70km south east of Berne. Get there by plane and train. It is the perfect departure point for top destinations in the Jungfrau Region.

For more information about Grindelwald, visit www.grindelwald.ch or phone +41 33 854 12 12.

Every year, great events such as the Eiger Ultra Trail take place there. For details about Eiger Ultra Trail, visit www.eigerultratrail.ch

Comments

Comments are closed on this article.

Send us your news, pictures and videos

Most read stories

Local Info

Enter your postcode, town or place name

About cookies

We want you to enjoy your visit to our website. That's why we use cookies to enhance your experience. By staying on our website you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more about the cookies we use.

I agree