Deep in the valleys of Switzerland, the Jungfrau rises quickly from the lush valleys below, which display flora, lakes and waterfalls that will all but take those glorious landscape photos themselves.
Height: 4,158 m (13,641 ft)
Location: Bernese Alps, Switzerland
First Climbed: 3 August 1811 by the Meyer brothers and two chamois hunters.
Climb Time: 2 days
Best Time to Climb: June-September
INTRODUCTION TO JUNGFRAU
One part of the trilogy of mighty peaks that make up the Alps famous North Wall, Jungfrau (4,158m/ 13,641 ft) is a peak revered by climbers, skiers, artists and nature lovers in almost equal measure.
A dominating North Wall connects this jagged peak to nearby Mönch (4,107 m/ 13,474 ft) and Eiger (3,970 m/ 13,025 ft), while the narrow arête that cuts the sky as the mountain’s South-east Ridge makes it one of the most exhilarating, moderate difficulty climbs in the world.
A key ski region, the area around this peak includes a mountain hut perched on the edge of a glacier, a village on the edge of a valley and the highest train station in Europe, found at the end of a tunnel that goes through a mountain.
Standing proudly both in the geographical centre of the Alps and as part of alpine climbing history, this young maiden deserves our awe and our respect. And after reading this, probably a visit too.
HISTORY OF JUNGFRAU
Jungfrau translates as ‘young maiden’ or ‘virgin’, the last in a line of mountains affectionately known as the Ogre (Eiger), the Monk (Mönch) and the Virgin (Jungfrau).
While this was a mountain that was, for a long time, a long and arduous ascent, it has become one of the most visited peaks in the Alps. This change is thanks to the train that burrows into a mountain.
The 9.3 km (5.8 mile) Jungfrau Railway runs through the Eiger and Mönch mountains to the north, and its tunnel was completed in 1912 after 16 years of dangerous construction work. Passengers travel from Kleine Scheidegg at the foot of Eiger’s North Face to Jungfraujoch the lowest pass between Jungfrau and Mönch.
Europe’s highest altitude railway station at 3,454 m (11,332 ft) reaches Jungfraujoch via a steep climb, with inclines of up to 25%. It climbs some 1,393 m (4,570 ft) to and has two stations within the mountains with windows cut to stare out at the neighbouring peaks.
Travelling through a tunnel for 80% of the trip, these windows must come as some relief!
The area of Jungfrau and the glacier to the south, Aletsch glacier, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 2001.
The North-west Face also features in artworks dating from the early 19th Century to today. Often depicted as a looming presence over a green and colourful valley below, it is this mountain, along with Eiger and Mönch, that has clearly inspired both climbers and artists alike.
GEOGRAPHY OF JUNGFRAU
Part of a sequence of mountains that runs north-east to south-west, Jungfrau is the most southerly of three giantsnorth of the Rhone Valley known as the Berner Trilogy. It is also the highest of these three peaks, and the third highest mountain in the Bernese Alps.
To the north-east stand Mönch and Eiger. These three peaks form an enormous 10 km (6.25 mile) wall of rock and ice, made of some of the most dominating North Faces in the world. These peaks stare out over the Bernese Oberland (highlands) and the vast Swiss Plateau, which covers almost a third of the country.
These peaks were formed by the break up of the Pangea supercontinent around 65 million years ago.
The basin of the African plate once held the expansive Tethys Sea that stretched across to continental Africa. As the sea disappeared, it was subducted under the Eurasian plate forcing these mountains up, forming the Swiss and Central Alps along the fault line.
These peaks were uplifted during the latter of two phases of alpine orogeny. This occurred during the Tertiary Cenozoic era, just after the dinosaurs had vanished.
Valleys, faces and glaciers
This area is commonly known as the Jungfrau region, much of which is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountain is flanked by three valleys, Lauterbrunnen passing to the south, Grindelwald to the west and the glaciated and uninhabited Aletsch Valley to the east.
The Lauterbrunnen Valley is renowned for its waterfalls of which there are 72, including the Staubbach Falls written about by both Goethe and Byron and the Trümelback Falls, hidden inside the mountain.
The Grindelwald Valley has two glaciers (Upper and Lower Grindelwald) feeding into it as glacial streams north of Jungfrau. It finishes as it meets the Wetterhorn (3,692 m/ 12,113 ft) in the south.
The uninhabited Aletsch Valley holds the sweeping Aletsch Glacier (see more below)
Jungfrau’s North-west Face is arguably the most impressive side of the mountain, often depicted in artworks and climbers’ dreams. It is easy to see why: a sheer drop cascades down to nearby Interlaken, some 3,600 m (11,811 ft) below and 4 km (2.5 miles) to the west, with ice and snow encasing much of the higher reaches.
To the south-east, the terrain is very different, with a curving 20 km (12.5-mile) valley housing Aletsch Glacier giving a gentler approach where you only reach rock requiring climbing around 3,500 m (11,483 ft).
In total, 80% of Jungfrau is covered in glaciers.
As well as the Aletsch Glacier, several other glaciers cover the eastern and southern sides, leaving this side of the mountain almost entirely covered in ice. Small glaciers line the north side of this area too, with the Giesen Glacier the largest of these. Only the near vertical North Face is left largely ice-free.
Most of the glaciers here are in retreat, but this creates new opportunities for flora to flourish where onceit was impossible to grow (see below).
Eiger (3,970 m/ 13,025 ft)
Eiger is arguably the best known of the three peaks that make up the dominating high wall of North Faces. Eiger’s North Wall is considered an ultimate climbing challenge. Called Mordwand, or ‘the murder wall’, it has claimed at least 64 lives since the 1930s.
The wall’s notoriety was sealed in 1936, when an Austrian/German expedition finished both unsuccessful and with the death of five members. One died during a training climb, the others when bad weather, rock falls, avalanches and a missing rope meant that none managed to get down from the wall to safety. The last of them, Toni Kurtz, died after several days exposed on the face, metres away but out-of-reach of his rescuers with one arm already frozen stiff.
The Ogre (other translations are simply ‘high peak’ or ‘own peak’) was successfully climbed in 1938.
Mönch (4,107 m/ 13,474 ft)
Meaning ‘monk’, Mönch lies between Eiger and Jungfrau. It is often used to prepare for climbing either of the other two mountains, offering a variety of routes suitable for whatever challenges may lay ahead of the adventurer.
The South-east Ridge routes introduces typical terrain found across the region, while the North-west Spur is a far more challenging and technical ice climbing prospect, used to prepare for the more technical climbs, especially on Eiger.
WILDLIFE OF JUNGFRAU
Covered in ice and vertical rock faces, much of Jungfrau is devoid of places where vegetation could thrive. Of the wider UNESCOWorld Heritage area, only 6% is forested with another 6% alpine meadows and the rest being undefined shrubland. In this last category are where most of the 700 species of moss are found.
Yet, as the glaciers retreat, new areas are being inhabited by plant life. This is particularly the case to the south-east of the mountain.
Between 900m (2,953 ft) and 1,300 m (4,265 ft, north-facing, 1,500 m (4,921 ft) south-facing), a broadleaf montane forest extends. Beech dominates the north side, while Scots pine is the most populous to the south. Lower down in the valleys sycamores, European ash, elm, silver birch and grey alder predominate.
Up to 2,000 m (6.562 ft) dwarf Swiss mountain Pine and Norway Spruce grow, including one such area above the Aletsch Glacier, on a moraine where the glacier once reached. Here, larch is also found, as well as Alpine roses and blueberries, growing under the protection of the trees.
Interspersed at this height and above are alpine grasslands consisting of variants of lower elevation flora, such as hairy alpine roses and hardy alpine grasses. Sedge meadows, acidic sedgebogs and alpine ferns also live in this high altitude world.
The mountain certainly doesn’t lack anything in fauna, with some 1,250 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and other creatures inhabiting the peak and surrounding area.
The most common are the four-legged climbers. These include the chamois, alpine ibex and red deer. Two of the first people to successfully ascend the mountain (see below) were chamois hunters.
Aside from this, mountain hares, foxes, ermines and marmots can be spotted, though the latter two animals hibernate through the winter. The lynx was successfully reintroduced in the 1970s after being wiped out by humans in the late 19th Century. However, this elusive creature’s current population, split between this area and the Jura Mountains near Geneva, still only numbers around 100.
Of the birds, the ones which feature most commonly in visitors’ accounts are the friendly Alpine Chough. Looking like the British blackbird, it has a distinctive yellow bill and can be seen around the high-altitude railway station, Jungfraujoch, hedging its bets that the tourists may drop a snack or two.
FIRST ASCENT OF JUNGFRAU
Jungfrau’s summit was first reached by two brothers and two hunters on 3 August 1811.
The wealthy Meyer brothers, Johan Rudolf and Heironymus, and two local chamois hunters, Alois Volken and Joseph Bortis, took the long route via glaciers and high passes to reach the summit. The two brothers also has a number of servants with them, though their names and accomplishments are, unsurprisingly, lost to time.
Coming from Valais, they crossed the Beich Pass over the Oberaletsch Glacier in the Lötschen Valley. Next, they traversed the Lötschenlücke to reach the western branch of the Aletsch Glacier. They then gained the summit from the south via the Rottalsattel, before returning from whence they came. Much of this route is now the Ordinary Route, though the long approach is now bypassed.
With some debate surrounding the validity of this extraordinary (and long) journey, the two sons of Johann Rudolf set out to achieve a second ascent in 1812. The younger of the two, Gottlieb, did just this on 3 September along with two chamois hunters, reaching the peak from the eastern side.
However, a more direct route up the mountain from the valley of Lauterbrunnen was not opened for another 54 years. Geoffrey Winthrop Young and Christian Almer, guide, climbed to the summit via Schneehorn (3,402 m/ 11,161 ft) and the depression between Jungfrau and Silberhorn (3,695 m/ 12,123 ft), known as Silberlücke.
They descended via the Aletsch Glacier.
CLIMBING GUIDE FOR JUNGFRAU
Most of Jungfrau is glacier and ice climbing, though there are some sections of rock, which will feel like a real climbing treat! Mönch is often used for preparatory climbs and to help acclimatise.
Typical approaches come from the south and east via the Jungfraufirn Glacier. Thanks to the Jungfraujoch Railway, the long approach via the Aletsch Glacier is no longer necessary. This means the route (below) is completed in a day, though two days are required in total as the train is taken the day before to allow an early enough start.
Most summiteers begin their attempts from Mönchsjoch Hut (3,658 m/ 12,001 ft), perched on the upper Aletsch Glacier a short way from Jungfraujoch station.
The Ordinary/Normal Route starts from here with a descent to and traverse of the Jungfraufirn Glacier to reach Kranzbergegg. Head then towards Rottalsattel (3,885 m/ 12,746 ft), the saddle to the south-east of the peak. Here you gain the ridgeline that eventually leads you to Jungfrau’s summit.
The whole route is not considered particularly technical, but the next section, the South-east Ridge, is certainly the biggest challenge. It is on this section where most accidents occur; unsurprising as the arête is one of the longest and narrowest in the Alps. If there is soft snow on top or high winds blowing, this ridgeline should definitely not be attempted.
Steps may need to be cut into the ice to help the traverse. This can add significant time to the ascent and requires some expertise of ice climbing to achieve safely. The summit itself is a frozen plateau, a great relief after the difficulty of the finalsection.
Descent is via the same route.
Other Jungfrau routes are considerably more difficult, typically demanding more climbing expertise than the Ordinary Route. Here are the main ones, described in brief:
• Inner Rottal Ridge – Coming from the south-west, this involves climbing from the Lauterbrunnen side of the wall. Today’s route was first cut in 1885, with the first successful attempt of this side of the mountain via a different route came in 1864.
• Guggi Route – A more difficult challenge. This is the glacier route from Kleine Scheidigg over the Guggi and Kuhlauenen glaciers.
• North-east Ridge – Arguably one of the most difficult and long routes up Jungfrau, it was opened last of all in 1911. Consisting of bergshrund, an icy arête and some truly “exhilarating climbing”, this is a clear favourite of experienced climbers, but not one to take lightly.
INFORMATION ON TREKKING AROUND JUNGFRAU
For those looking for a challenging few days, the three peaks of the Berner trilogy can be ascended over the course of four days. First Mönch, then Jungfrau and then two days climbing Eiger before descending into Grindelwald.
Certainly a great challenge to take on for those with sufficient experience.
Silberhorn (3,695 m/ 12,123 ft), which is to the north-west, is another mountain that is popular to climb. In particular the North-west Ridge Route, first cut in 1865, is popular among experienced climbers. From the summit, panoramic views of the Berner Trilogy can be enjoyed.
Alternatively, for those wishing for a less lofty adventure, try visiting the “Five Most Beautiful Lakes” hike, each with its own short day-hike (that can be linked into a multi-day adventure). From a lake perched on a valley’s edge (Chlosterseeli) to one nestled at the end of a valley (Sägistalsee), these are a pretty spectacular bunch.
The Jungfrau region is also renowned for its world-class skiing. Come winter (October-March), skiers and snowboarders outnumber hardy climbers and keen hikers. In total, five resorts serve the area: Adelboden, Grindelwald, Meringen, Mürren and Wengen.
The Jungfrau region hosts some major skiing events, including the International Lauberhorn Races. Endurance races in the area include the Eiger Bike Challenge in August, a brutal triathlon and a marathon.
The villages of Mürren and Grindelwald, as well as the larger town of Interlaken (west of the mountain) are the best locations to access the mountain and region, whatever time of year you visit. Mürren is a car free village, perched 800 m (2,625 ft) above the valley below.