Zermatt has its celebrated Matterhorn. But Wengen and Grindelwald have, in a way something even more colossal and intriguing: a ringside view of no fewer than three giants – Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the last of which gives its name to the region.
Traditionally, the Mönch (Monk) is there to separate the young maiden (Jungfrau) from the evil Ogre (Eiger). This glorious triumvirate (all around 4,000 metres or more – at least 13, 000 feet) seem to have marched right down to the outskirts of town, so close do they seem.
It comes as no surprise to find the district was hugely popular long before the advent of winter sports. It was part of the “grand tour” undertaken by many Victorian “celebrities”. Byron, Shelley, Thackeray, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Brahms, Turner, Mark Twain and even Queen Victoria visited the region.
While Wengen and Grindelwald are joined by their mutual ski areas, Mürren is separated by the steep-sided Lauterbrunnen Valley. But like the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, the three resorts are complementary, and, indeed, linked by the mountain railway with which they share so much of their history. Grindelwald has its own separate, quite extensive area too, called First, pronounced as in “Fierce”.
It was the British who pioneered skiing in the region, particularly through Sir Arnold Lunn, who is regarded as the key figure in devising the modern slalom in 1922. (It is said that a Norwegian skier, new to the concept, had to be persuaded to demolish a ramp of snow he had built with the idea of jumping the course).
Much earlier, however, according to one quaint account in Grindelwald: “The first skier, an Englishman named Gerald Fox appeared in 1881. He fastened his skis already in the hotel room. He put his long stick in the snow and glide away. In squatting vauld he glided down the slope, the wooden stick like a folding boat balancing….”
But it is Lunn who really takes the credit. In 1924, he and others started the Kandahar Club in Mürren. The following year, the Down Hill Only (DHO) club was formed across the valley in Wengen. It was so called because the British, encouraged by Lunn and his father Sir Henry, had persuaded the railways, as early as 1910, to keep running in winter, thus providing skiers with the first mechanised uphill transport. Hence they were able to boast that unlike other skiers who had to climb uphill first, they were among the elite “downhill only” brigade.
The formation of the DHO precipitated the start of a friendly but sometimes intense rivalry between the two British ski clubs. The anecdotes are legendary. I once asked a DHO member how one joined. “Well, old boy” he replied, “first of all you’ve got to be the right sort of chap. Then you have to ski with one of our members. You go to the top of the mountain, I light a cigar, you ski down – and if my cigar’s still alight, you’re in.”
The Jungfraubahn (Europe’s highest rack-and-pinion railway) up to Europe’s highest station at the Jungfraujoch travels right through the Eiger to get there. Trains halt at two stations, Eigerwand and Eismeer, within the Eiger, to enable tourists to gaze out of the windows at an incredible scene. Above and below is part of one of the most savage and notorious mountain faces in the world – the sheer North face, with great slabs of ice and cornices clinging to the rock. It seems utterly surreal to be staring out, from the safety of a railway station, onto a mountain face where so many heart-rending dramas have claimed so many lives.
In 1929, the late and much lamented Jimmy Riddell once reached the finish in Mürren’s celebrated Inferno race from the Schilthorn down to Lauterbrunnen so unexpectedly quickly that he had to go searching for the time keeper in a local restaurant – without even taking his skis off.
On another occasion, Riddell explained how, on a day when a major white-out prevented race-training, he and other young racers had ripped open their duvets and emptied the down feathers to create make-believe “snow” at Mürren’s Hotel Alpina and organised a ski race down the hotel staircase.