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In the Shadow of Jungfrau: A Swiss Travelogue
 
By Josh Roberts, September 2001

Perched precariously on the edge of a 3000-foot cliff and looming over the waterfall-filled Lauterbrunnen valley, the Swiss village of Murren isn't your typical tourist destination. To get there, you board a rickety-looking cog rail that climbs the cliff face with the determination of an old-fashioned roller coaster. To move around town, you walk or bike - no cars allowed. And to reach any of the area's countless hiking trails, you simply step outside and choose a direction.

The village's reputation as a hiker's paradise sparked my interest in exploring the Swiss Alps, and my search for how to get started led me to Oregon-based Alpinehikers. As a regular weekend hiker, I felt ready for the physical challenges of the Alps, but the details of hiking in unfamiliar mountains convinced me to find a guide. Enter Troy Haines, Alpinehikers' pony-tailed owner and a former year-round resident of Murren, who won me over with his enthusiasm for all things Swiss and his description of Murren as "Yosemite with a Swiss village on top."

But even Troy's description couldn't do Murren justice. The village has just 400 year-round residents and more than 700 years of history to tell. There are breathtaking views that only get more impressive when you take to the trails, but just as remarkable is the entirely man-made network of paths, cog rail trains, and gondolas that lead to and around the town. There's a resort feeling to the village that is a byproduct of the winter tourist season, but in the summer Mürren feels almost empty, and visitors share the town's streets and hiking trails with the locals.

Each day our small group - including a young couple from Pennsylvania, an American lawyer studying language in France, and our two guides, Troy and Johnnie - would choose a direction and set off into wilderness. We passed waterfalls and farmhouses, walked through fields of wildflowers, and ate lunch among the free-roaming cows. Some days we would begin by descending several thousand feet to the equally inaccessible village of Gimmelwald, while others would start with a steep climb from Mürren into a thick forest on a trail that cut directly behind a 100-foot waterfall.

But the highlight of our time in Murren was the eight-mile climb to Brunli Peak, which revealed spectacular views of the famous Eiger ("Ogre"), Mönch ("Monk"), and Jungfrau ("Maiden") peaks. The top of Brunli Peak encompasses about 50 square feet and is home to one of the many red and white signposts that dot the alpine trails. There's also a small wooden trunk and a weathered notebook containing the names, dates, and comments of others who have reached the top. ("Great climb!" wrote someone a few months earlier. "Where's the bus down?")

The next morning our group said goodbye to Murren and took the cog rail funicular to Lauterbrunnen, where we boarded a train to the car-free village of Wengen on the opposite side of valley. We started our hike in the residential outskirts of Wengen and crisscrossed west through a steep and heavily wooded forest until we reached a wide-open dirt road at the top of the valley. Each turn revealed new views of the snowcapped Alps. After a picnic lunch, we left the road and continued our hike along a winding path to Grindelwald, our home for the remainder of the week.

Our final three days of hiking each began with a quick bus ride or cable car climb on the Firstbahnen gondola, where from the lower stations the options for hiking are almost limitless. Immediately we noticed that the trails were more crowded than around Mürren, but Troy and Johnnie would lead us off the beaten path to more isolated areas. One climb brought us high enough to walk across patches of snow before resting for lunch at an isolated lake with views of the Shreckhorn ("Terror Mountain"). Another walk brought us on a steep descent into Grindelwald, revealing dozens of mini-avalanches visible on the Eiger north face.

The most memorable hike from Grindelwald led us along the Grosse Scheidegg pass and on a trail to the gondola station at Schreckfeld. The wind and haze had reached unsafe levels, and the gondolas near the top of the mountain were left dangling in midair while parasailers took advantage of the weather and swept back and forth across the sky. Undeterred, we began our descent by foot until we reached the next station, but it had also shut down because of the wind. Troy placed a quick phone call and within minutes a minivan taxi wound its way up the mountain to bring us, the weary hikers, back into town.

Before going our separate ways the following morning, we all regrouped for one final dinner of veal and potato pasta at the Hotel titlee Post, where we recounted a week's worth of highlights. Not surprisingly, it kept us talking late into the night.

Originally published by Boston.com in September 2001.

 
 
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