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To follow on from my dad and sister’s visit to Mulhouse, we had decided to make our way to Switzerland for a few days skiing. Now, Switzerland in general is known for being expensive, as is skiing as an activity or a holiday so surely skiing in Switzerland was going to be really expensive? I won’t lie, there are definitely cheaper places but the reason that we decided on Switzerland and not somewhere in France or even Germany is because of the accessibility by train. We only had Wednesday to Sunday and didn’t have access to a car so the place we settled on, Grindelwald, was perfect.
As I mentioned at the end of the last blog, my dad and Kirsty left earlier in the day than me to head to Switzerland as I was working until 1pm. I took my wee suitcase with me to work and left directly from there to go to the train station. The first leg of my journey was just to get to Basel, only 20 minutes and a route I know well at this point. I had a solid 20 minutes to change trains, plenty of time to navigate the station – I should have enjoyed it while it lasted… From Basel, I was on the train for an hour and a half to Spiez, a town on the shore of Lake Thun. In Spiez, I only had three minutes to make my connection. THREE MINUTES!!! I panicked when I first noticed that on my ticket, to the point that I googled what platform I was getting into and what platform I was leaving from. Thankfully I got into 2 and left from 3 so all that was needed was a quick hop across the platform. I went another 20 minutes further along Lake Thun to Interlaken, nestled between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, where there was no need for more panicking because I had 10 minutes to change trains. I was finally on my last train of the day, the one that would wind its way up through the mountains until it reached Grindelwald.
It sounds silly to say this but the landscape in Switzerland is just so… Swiss. It’s exactly what you would think it is, going from the rolling green hills to suddenly great sheets of mountain slicing their way up from the earth to the wooden houses littering the fields. The journey from Basel to Spiez was nice, with my first glimpse of mountains as we pulled into and out again from Bern. From there until Spiez was incredible though. All of a sudden these mountains popped up on one side, sliced through with deep ridges and dusted with snow, and on the other side was Lake Thun. It had this deep turquoise water, darker than the bright turquoise that you might find in the Caribbean. I actually found the area around Spiez much nicer than approaching or around Interlaken. Once we left Interlaken and started heading into the mountains towards Grindelwald, the view out of the train window started to remind me of walking through the edge of Moosch, a small village outside Mulhouse where I’ve gone hiking before. The houses started to get more and more scattered and the mountains more prevalent. We were travelling down a valley, green on either side but heading towards a wall of white.
I was met at the station by my dad and Kirsty, both waving frantically to make sure that I got off at the right station, Grindelwald Terminal rather than Grindelwald. I didn’t know there was another option! Our apartment was just over the road out of the station, couldn’t have gotten closer if we tried, but we went down to the ski rental shop before going over. The station is part of a big complex that has some shops, ski lockers and very usefully, also the two main lifts to get up to the ski slopes.
Along with Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald is part of the Jungfrau region, sitting in the Bernese Oberland mountains 1034 m above sea level. It is surrounded by mountains, most notably Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger. The Eiger is the smallest but most well known of the three mountains because of its intimidating north face. The north face is 1,800m high, making it the biggest north face in the Alps and one of the most challenging, and therefore tempting, ascents for climbers. It was first climbed in 1938 but since 1935 at least 64 climbers have died during their attempts. This has earned it the nickname mordwand meaning murder wall in German, a clever play on it’s actual German name, nordwand (north wall). The Jungfraubahn is the railway that climbs from Kleine Scheidegg, one of the main passes and ski stations in the valley, up to the Jungfraujoch, the saddle between Mönch and Jungfrau. It includes a tunnel that goes through the Eiger. It is the highest railway in Switzerland and Europe with the station at the top being the highest in the continent as well.
Grindelwald has three main areas for skiing, Kleine Scheidegg, Lauberhorn and Männlichen. As a ski resort, Grindelwald is great for beginners because it has blue slopes relatively high up, meaning the good snow isn’t kept just for those capable of doing black runs. After an 8 year break, it’s safe to say that that isn’t me anymore! It’s not just skiing though, there are also a number of tobogganing routes and winter hiking paths. Nothing sounds worse to me than winter hiking but we saw lots of people out enjoying them.
Männlichen was where we started on my first day of skiing since I was 16. It hadn’t been quite as long for my dad and Kirsty but still a good three or four years. Because we’d all had an extended break and because we only had a short amount of time to get back into it, we had decided to get things going with a private ski lesson. We took the bubble lift (Männlichenbahn) up from Grindelwald Terminal to Männlichen and I could barely contain my excitement on the way. We met our teacher, Mela, at the top. She was lovely and throughout the lesson was really encouraging. It was good to start things off with someone who could lead us down some runs and fix our technique. We went down a blue run that turns into a red following the Männlichenbahn down to the Holenstein mid station, the halfway point. It being the start of April we were approaching the end of the season so the snow in general was a little icy but not too bad to ski on. Earlier in the season, with better snow, it is possible to ski all the way down past Holenstein and right back to Grindelwald Grund.
We basically just went up and down the same run three times over the course of the two and a half hour lesson. Mela gave us some exercises to practise certain things, like short turn, bending our knees and leaning forward for body position, holding our poles in front of our body and keeping something between them, practising hockey stops (basically emergency stops), 360˚ turns and skiing backwards. I was so surprised by just how quickly it all came back. On the first run, I was a little slow and cautious but by the end of the lesson, it was like I never left! I was always a fan of a bit of speed and I felt that coming back a bit too. What also came back however, on a slightly less fun note, were the muscle pains. Skiing takes a lot of physical effort and after just a few minutes my thighs were screaming and I had some cramp in my feet. For me, it wasn’t too bad and was just part of the normal process of adjusting to your ski boots. Anyone that has ever gone skiing knows that the best part about wearing ski boots is taking them off! Kirsty on the other hand was suffering too much from her boots so stopped in at the equipment shop that is at the top of the Männlichenbahn to get them changed.
At the end of our lesson we stopped in at a cafe at the top of the bubble to have a coffee and some chips. In a bid not to bankrupt ourselves with Swiss prices we had brought some homemade sandwiches with us for lunch but it was nice to get a little hot food and drink as well. We actually decided to head home after our snack because we were all knackered after skiing again for the first time in years. We spent the rest of the afternoon in various stages of passing out, with just a brief trip out to the closest supermarket for provisions.
After a great, if short, day 1, I was ready to get back out there and have a jam packed day 2. The weather had other ideas though. The wind was supposed to be a little heavier today plus there was a chance of rain and was just generally warmer than yesterday. We headed into the station at Terminal to get our stuff from our ski locker and then had a look at the lift map. Because of the wind, the Männlichenbahn was shut and was going to be all day. But never fear, there was another option. The Eiger Express is a gondola that takes you up to the highest point you can ski, the Eigergletscher station.
The wind really picked up as we were going up in the gondola, to the point that we could hear it whistling through our bubble and could feel it swinging about. It really wasn’t pleasant so Kirsty and I distracted ourselves by singing In the Heights until our dad pointed out how inappropriate the song choice was! It was the longest 15 minutes of my life to get to the top but get there we did, only to find out that the Eiger Express was now closed due to high winds. We must have been one of the last groups to get on and got to feel the exact reason that it had been shut.
When we got to the top of the Eiger, there were a few options. You can change to a train heading for Jungfraujoch, via the actual Eiger (which we weren’t going to do because it takes 45 minutes to get up there and costs an extra 60 CHF per person). The next option is to just start skiing, either on a blue, red or black run or there is the train that goes down to another station, Kleine Scheidegg. We decided to take a minute to figure out what to do because none of us had been happy in the gondola and didn’t want to ski in wind like that. In the end we decided to get the train down to Kleine Scheidegg because the high winds meant that there was only one chairlift open. It’s all well and good to find a run to ski down but it’s no help if you can’t get back to the top again!
Kleine Scheidegg is actually the same height as Männlichen and it is possible to use the runs and lifts to work your way over from one to the other, not that that was something we did or really wanted to do. We took the blue run down from there to the chairlift that was open but the blue was actually quite difficult! For anyone not familiar with difficulty levels for ski slopes, green is a learner slope, usually wide and flat. They aren’t very common in Austria and Switzerland, Grindelwald doesn’t have any. Blue is a beginner slope and red is intermediate. The reds can sometimes be challenging the whole way down or be relatively easy for most of it but have one more difficult section. Black slopes are expert slopes – much steeper and much more challenging! This particular blue run wasn’t steep at all but it was really narrow which none of us liked. There was a red run starting from the same place and ending at Arven as well so we gave that a go and it was much better despite a fairly steep section in the middle that was a bit mogully.
In general, the snow today was much wetter and heavier than the slightly icy snow we’d had the day before and this wasn’t helped by the fact that everyone else that wanted to ski today had also flocked to the area around Kleine Scheidegg and the only chairlift that was consistently running. The slope got worse with each run we did and Kirsty was really struggling with cramp in her feet and shin splints, made worse by the bad snow. We stopped for a little break at the restaurant in Kleine Scheidegg and got some little pizzas to share while we figured out where we stood. It was frustrating because we all wanted to ski more but the weather was really working against us. We got the train down from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald Grund, another small station a short walk away from Terminal (15 minutes with ski boots on, 5 minutes without). It was really cool to wind our way down the mountain, at much closer proximity than in either the Männlichenbahn or the Eiger Express.
After a frustrating but ultimately out of our control day 2, day 3 was exactly what we were all hoping for! It had snowed during the night and still was when we left the house. Most of the lifts were open too which was encouraging to see after yesterday. We started by heading up the bubble to Männlichen but were met with a new issue – visibility was really low because the snow was still coming down. None of the runs had been pisted either so there was a thick layer of powder. We hung around until it cleared a little, although it was still not great. We took the run that we knew well from our lesson on day 1 but it was still really difficult to get down and very tiring. Powder is great when you know how to ski on it, which we all used to but not anymore. We didn’t even make it down to the midstation and we were already exhausted and not having fun. We got a chairlift back up to Männlichenbahn (side note, it had a cover that you could pull down to protect yourself from wind and snow. Great for staying warm, less good if you’re claustrophobic!) and went into the cafe again to regroup.
The final decision was to get the bubble back down and brave the Eiger Express again. Thankfully the wind was a lot lighter than yesterday so we were able to get to the top without fearing for our lives. We got down to Kleine Scheidegg and went down the same red run as yesterday and it finally felt like things were clicking into place. The snow was still quite thick but manageable plus it was a slope we were familiar with. I even began to enjoy the steep section with moguls! The other two tried a path that skirts around that bit and were happy with that. We were bombing up and down there several times, happy as Larry with just a few pauses to go to the bathroom and for falls. It was absolutely the best part of the whole week for all of us. It was a shame that this only came on the last day but at least we got a good day in at the end after a rockier first two days.
The next day we headed home, back to Mulhouse for me and home to Dunblane for my dad and Kirsty. It was so so so so lovely having them here (can you tell I had a good time?). I enjoyed being back on the slopes and it’s made me want to try and go more regularly next year. You can ski in the Vosges, the mountain range in Alsace, so it’s right on my doorstep and ever since I went to Andorra in October, I’ve been tempted to go back for some skiing! My favourite bit of their visit though was just having them in Mulhouse and showing them my life there. Sharing my favourite spots, giving them a tour of my apartment, introducing them to the local cuisine, it made me feel even more at home there because of how comfortable I felt doing it. It’s a good thing I like it so much because there were more visits coming up straight away!