This weekend, we travelled to the Bernese Oberland to celebrate Lucy’s 26th birthday. I had never been to German Switzerland before and it was really exactly as I had imagined. We drove along roads that meandered beside clear blue lakes; we skied through villages where brown cows strolled out of their barns to investigate. The chalets were built of a darker wood than we typically see in the Haute Savoie, and the people looked ruddier and more robust.
Lauterbrunnen, where we stayed, is an extraordinarily picturesque village located at the bottom of a chasm of limestone cliffs, behind which rise up the Swiss Alps, home to the Wengen and Murren ski areas.
We spent our first day in Wengen, which is notable primarily because the resort sits underneath the North Face of the Eiger. Indeed, to our delight, one of the chairlifts was even named after this formidable wall.
The Eiger is one of the world’s more famous mountains, thanks in part to the Clint Eastwood classic. In the film, Eastwood declares, “I tried to climb [the North Face] twice; it tried to kill me twice.”
Hyperbolic screenplays aside, the North Face is highly notorious; its German nickname is “Morderwall”, which translates exactly as it sounds. It is not just that so many mountaineers have died on the route, it is that the ways in which they have died have been so extraordinary; that their struggles for survival have been so epic. The climb has become a myth; its chapters named after the many rubicons that must be crossed, each one with its own allusions of terror: the Hinterstoisser traverse, the Death Bivouac, the White Spider.
I knew that the North Face was easily visible from Grindelwald – there are numerous tales of tourists watching climbers fighting for their lives through telescopes from the village – but I didn’t quite appreciate how close to the pistes it is, and it was surreal and rather shocking to think of mountaineers up on the face, perhaps feeling the onset of hypothermia or trying to shelter from potentially fatal rock fall, watching the jolly skiers on the slopes below.
Wengen is also famous for its tobogganing runs, one of which is 15km long. To service the sledgers, trains run up and over the mountain long after the pistes have closed, which afforded me one of my most wonderful experiences so far this year; that of skiing home at sunset. Watching the surrounding peaks light up in an array of reds and golds as we raced to get home before darkness fell, I felt as though this really was the magic hour; that time when you know that you must speed back to the light and the warmth and yet your heart cries out for you to stay in the mountains.
Our second day was spent in Murren, which is also famous, as its highest peak is home to a revolving restaurant, Piz Gloria, which served as Blofeld’s lair in the film of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The resort shows no reluctance about exploiting this connection (in fact, MGM helped finance the building of the restaurant); the cable cars have the 007 logo painted on the side, and the menu offers such delights as the ‘James Bond breakfast buffet’ and the ‘Spaghetti 007’.
We didn’t actually look round Piz Gloria, somewhat to my regret as I imagine the viewing platform would have afforded some spectacular outlooks (the snapshot above was taken very quickly at the cable car exit). But the cable car had been slow and we were all too impatient, itching to stamp on our skis and zoom down the same piste which Bond used to evade Blofeld and his henchmen…