Manfred was about to throw himself into the abyssSome mountains are more beautiful than others. The Jungfrau is such a mountain. She reaches 4158 meters above sea level and is the highest and most complex of the famous Bernese Oberland trinity also including the Mönch and the Eiger. Spectators who lay their eyes on the “Virgin” from the north easily lose their breath when they first see the three thousand meter high snow and ice walls. The Jungfrau has inspired poets and painters over the centuries.
In 1816 the famous British poet Lord Byron visited Switzerland and the Bernese Oberland. Let us listen to Byron's poem Manfred, the noble and wealthy aristocrat, about to toss himself from the heights of the Jungfrau.
“...And you, ye crags upon whose extreme edge
I stand, and on the torrent's brink beneath
Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance, when a leap,
A stir, a motion, even a breath, would bring
My breast upon its rocky bosom's bed
To rest for ever - wherefore do I pause?
...Thou winged and cloud-cleaving minister,
Whose happy flight is highest into heaven,
Well may'st thou swoop so near me...
...How beautiful is all this visible world!
How glorious in its action and itself!”
Luckily Manfred was saved from death by a chamois hunter, seen approaching in the background of the painting, clad in fur.
The Jungfrau and the Finsteraarhorn had a conversation about philosophical issues. According to the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev their point of view from 1882 was:
The Jungfrau speaks to its neighbour:
-What canst thou tell that is new? thou canst see more. What is there down below?
A few thousand years go by: one minute. And the Finsteraarhorn roars back in answer:
- Thick clouds cover the earth.... Wait a little! Thousands more years go by: one minute.
- Well, and now? Asks the Jungfrau.
- Now I see, there below all is the same. There are blue waters, black forests, grey heaps of piled-up stones. Among them are still fussing to and fro the insects, thou knowest, the bipeds that have never yet once defiled thee nor me.
- Yes, men.
Thousands of years go by: one minute.
-Well, and now? Asks the Jungfrau.
- There seem fewer insects to be seen, thunders the Finsteraarhorn.
Again thousands of years go by: one minute.
- Good, said the Jungfrau. But we have gossiped enough, old fellow. It's time to slumber.
The French author Alphonse Daudet created the classic comic character Tartarin de Tarascon. "Tartarin on the Alps" written in 1896, follows Tartarin and his friends on their hilarious journey in the Alps, including an ascent of the Jungfrau.
Unfortunately, low cloud and bad weather conspired against Goethe’s inspiration for another masterpiece on his visit in 1779. But no doubt the beautiful Jungfrau has earned herself place in the world of literature. Probably she also has lent herself to one or two stories of more trivial nature over the years.
The men of the early days
As early as 1780 there are contemporary accounts of a first ascent of the Jungfrau but without any convincing evidence.
South-East Ridge from the Rottalsattel (Todays normal route, PD)
On August 3, 1811 the brothers Johann Rudolf and Hieronymus Meyer were the first to set foot on the summit of the Jungfrau. They had started four days earlier from Aarau in north-west of Switzerland and travelled via Grimsel into Wallis. In the Lötchenthal they hired two chamois hunters, Joseph Bortis and Alois Volker. The group continued up the Aletsch glacier towards the Jungfrau. They spent their first evening at the foot of the Kranzberg. Their route to the summit the next day is thought to have been over Lauihorn and Rottalhorn to the Rottalsattel. Stepping onto the summit they wrote ”A few steps and we stood on the highest point of the Jungfrau. The place was about 12 feet in diameter.”
Eighty-five year later Gottlieb Studer wrote about the Meyers “This description does not match the one we have been accustomed to from the later climbs.” Many doubted that they actually reached the summit. To end the discussion of his father’s and uncle’s ascent Gottlieb Meyer together with Joseph Bortis and Alois Volker climbed the mountain again a year later in 1812. Their route was also via the Rottalsattel but this time they approached via Bergli and Obermöchjoch. No doubt was raised since a flag on the summit could be seen from the observatory in Bern. The Jungfrau was at that time called in the vernacular for Mrs. Meyer.
It took sixteen years, until 1828 to see the next ascent. Peter Baumann and six other men from Grindewald spent the first night high on the Eiger, continued over the Fieschergrat and stayed the second night in bad weather close to Grüneck. The next day they joined the same route to the summit as Gottlieb Meyer had used.
Guggi Route (D)
The Alpine pioneer photographer H. B. George and Sir George Young was in 1865 the first to use the classic glacier route starting from Kleine Scheidegg over the Guggi and the Kühlauenen glaciers to reach the summit of the Jungfrau. They were led by the three local guides Christian Almer, Hans Baumann and Ulrich Almer
Also to be mentioned is the great route via the north-west ridge of Silberhorn which was first used in 1865 by the headmaster of Eton College J. J. Hornby and T. H. Philpott together with Christian Almer and three other local guides.
Inner Rottal Ridge (south-west) (AD)
Early attempts were made to climb the mountain from the Lauterbrunnen side, i. e. from south-west (Rottal): In 1808 by a single hunter, in 1828 and 1829 by Fr. J. Hugi with his guides, and in 1860 by Lauener from Lauterbrunnen. The first successful attempt was not until 1864 when Leslie Stephen and two other Englishmen together with the guides Melchior and Jakob Anderegg and Johan Bischoff found a route up via a difficult couloir. It was not until 1885 the route used today was found by the hotelier Fritz von Almen and four other Wengen men.
North-East Ridge (D+)
The first ascent by the long and dangerous north-east ridge was accomplished in 1911 by Albert Weber and Hans Schlunegger, both from Wengen.
On Wednesday, July 13 1887 six young men arrived at Lauterbrunnen. In the evening they sat around a big table in the Staubbach Hotel. They were eating a steaming hot soup and discussing their plan to climb the Jungfrau from the Rottal. Another party appeared and they changed the subject since the wanted to keep their plan a secret. The first day they reached the Rottal hut. The peaks around were hidden in dark clouds.
At five o’clock next morning they were again on the move. As they closed the door someone thought it would be a good idea to leave a note of the party’s plan. Together with their names they wrote “On the way to the Jungfrau.” In a good mood they even captured a little marmot and one of the young men decided that the animal also should make the ascent. The marmot was rolled in a handkerchief and carefully put in the knapsack.
Curiosity about the expedition arose in the valley. Through telescopes in the morning six climbers had been seen low on the south-east face. At midday dense clouds piled up heralding a storm. The enthusiasm of the climbers was still high. By two o’clock they had overcome most of the difficulties.
Thunder roared in the valley, the wind howled as the six men made their way up the summit arête. One man stopped saying that he has had enough. Leaving him sheltered by some blocks the others continued. The summit was in fact no more than twenty meters away. But in the storm a meter transformed itself into a kilometre.
The stayed on the summit for only a minute, long enough to congratulate themselves to their victory. The tracks on the arête were already covered and like blind men they found their way back to the waiting comrade. “These storms never last very long”, someone said and they decided to stay where they were for the night. Clearing away the snow and piling up stones they created a small platform giving some shelter. They were just a few meters from the edge of the enormous precipice that ends on the Jungfraufirn. Six men and a marmot watched the wind blow and snow fall all night.
Their bodies frozen stiff they arose at six o’clock. “The marmot is dead”, someone said without getting an answer. “We shall be at the Rottalsattel in thirty minutes”, was heard from another voice. Eight o’clock they started down in two ropes, three men in each.
Camouflaged by snow the caravan advanced with cautious steps. The man in the lead stopped, before him, beside him, to the left and right there was nothing to see, nothing but total whiteness. One more step and it was too late. The snow collapsed and three men were dragged into the gulf. The other three ignorant of the tragedy beneath them walked the same way into the abyss.
Tschingel was trotting about
W.A.B. Coolidge was an outstanding mountaineer and an accomplished Alpine historian. He also had a dog, a beagle by name Tschingel, given to him by his guide Christian Almer. Tschingel accompanied Coolidge on a total of thirty peaks and thirty-six passes. In 1871 the dog climbed both the Eiger and the Jungfrau.
July 14 the whole party started off for the Silberhorn and the Jungfrau from Kleine Scheidegg. Coolidge wrote about his dog:
“Although bleeding profusely in each of her paws, she led the way over rocks and ice, finding her way wonderfully, avoiding every wide crevasse, in short, a born guide.”
They spent a bitterly cold night at the Silberlucke in a tent pitched on snow. They started rather late next morning to let the rocks leading up the Hochfirn get warm. Still Tschingel found the rocks a hard job. Reaching the summit there was already a Hungarian party who looked horrified to see a dog trotting about.
Coolidge and Almer were the first to climb the Jungfrau during the winter. January 20, 1873 they started from Grindelwald with a large number of porters since many blankets and a large supply of wood were needed. The plan was to sleep both ways at the Mönchjoch. Reaching Jungfraujoch on the second day a close examination showed that the best and shortest way was up a sort of hollow between the Kranzberg ridge and the SE-ridge of the Jungfrau. An avalanche guard was sent out to make the track. They crossed the bergschrund without trouble and gained the Rottalsattel. From here they saw that the final cone was of pure ice. Coolidge thought it impossible to continue but Almer said “Having come so far we must go to the top.” And so they did avoiding most of the ice by going along the rocks overhanging the west face.
The railway to the sky
Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a creative engineer from Zurich, spent a short holiday in the small village of Mürren. The year was 1893 and one day at the end of August he ascended the Schilthorn together with his daughter. The view was breathtaking and what affected him most was the sight of the beautiful Jungfrau. From that day the engineer became obsessed with the idea of building a railway to the summit of the Jungfau. The next night he made a sketch of his great plan. Starting from Kleine Scheidegg via the Eiger glacier the trains were to go in a long tunnel through the Eiger. Out into the open again, the trains would arrive at the Jungfraujoch plateau 3454 meters above sea level. The Jungfrau railroad was to be built mainly according to Guyer-Zellers first sketch, even if it did not reach all the way to the summit of the Jungfrau.
The construction work started in 1896 and three years later the Eiger Wall station was opened. This place has had significance in the mountaineering history involving a number of rescue operations on the North wall of the Eiger. Large windows are located not far from the famous Hinterstossier traverse about where Toni Kurz met his destiny in 1936. The price for a train ticket was often beyond reach for the climbers of the mid 20th century. There are stories of how they walked the narrow tunnel at their peril and escaped both being caught by the train and by the railway staff.
Two years later, the station Eismeer at about 3,160 m on south side of the Eiger was opened. Here the tourists can admire the glacier world through large windows. A narrow shaft leads out to the Fiescher glacier and to the starting point for climbing the Eiger by the Mittelegi ridge via the Mittelegi hut.
The Jungfraujoch Station, being the end point of the railway opened in 1912 and is at 3,454 meters the highest railway station in Europe. At the same time as being the end point for the trains it is the starting point for climbing the Jungfrau rising 850 meters above the station. This easy access has made it possible for many people to climb the Jungfrau, the Mönch and other Oberland mountains.
The sock could be seen through a hole in the sole
Harald Alm was one of the many who entered the train this August day in 1925. Under a cloudless sky the Jungfrau peak was glittering up in the blue. Harald felt bad about boarding the train for the first part of his way to the top. He justified the train ride with being ill-equipped for mountain climbs. His sport boots had been worn during solitary rambles among Tyrol Alps a month earlier and the wrinkled sock could be seen through a hole in the sole. Harald had asked if it was difficult to get to the top. "Yes – and you need a guide", was the answer. Hiring a guide for 50 Swiss francs was not an option. Earlier in the morning, he had at least managed to borrow an ice axe from the porter at the hotel.
The train finally arrived at the Jungfraujoch station. Harald followed the crowd of people and eventually came out in the open. He started to walk over the glacier. He was hesitant and thought about turning back but quickly shook off the idea. A rope of four came toward him. The guide looked at Harald and asked angrily "Alone and without a rope?" Harald who wanted to avoid invectives nodded and hurried on. He heard someone saying "He should be banned!"
Harald was forced to jump over several deep crevasses. The fear of the unknown had vanished and he felt safe when he trudged on in other people's steps. The sun warmed, the worn jacket went off and the shirt sleeves up. The difficulties began and Harald met a group of tall skinny Englishmen. "Are you alone? In that the equipment?" they asked surprised. With warnings hailed after him Harald hurried on and reached a place that looked like a celestial ladder. Half a chocolate bar gave him enough energy to continue. Heart drumming, face puffing and sweat dripping he reached the Rottalsattel. He felt dizzy when he looked over the edge down into the valley on the other side.
Further upward, Harald saw the summit emerge high up there just under the sky. It was now that the real difficulties began. The tracks led up a slope of ice. Later he met a group of men sitting on a ledge. They looked and saw a surreal sight: A lonely young man who came wandering over ice the ridge dressed in a sport shirt, wrinkled socks and shoes with holes in the sole.
He balanced his way step by step with the abyss yawning below. A sound was heard, was it the wind? The sound increased, there was an avalanche! Harald thought his the last moment had come, but he managed to hold on and saw snow rush past into empty space. The next challenge was a rock cliff. His predecessors had slid up on the right side but that was impossible to do alone. The only option was to get around the other side where it was a nearly vertical block with small cracks. Once out there, Harald could not go up as yet another descending party blocked the way. Harald was hanging over the precipice for a while to let the others pass. One of the men stared at Harald as if he had seen a ghost rising from the abyss.
Harald was alone. The sun melted the ice and water found its way through the hole in the sole. The slope decreased and a heap of stones with a pole ended the climb. Harald Alm was finally on Jungfrau’s proud summit.
“I must go to the toilet!”
The night began to turn into day when we left the Mönchjoch hut in order to climb the Jungfrau along the normal route. There were snowflakes in the air but no wind this morning in August 1995. It was hard to walk uphill not being rewarded by the views of the Oberland mountains. Suddenly the steep snow changed to soft ice. "We have to put on crampons", said Ueli. "Too steep, better to cut steps", I suggested, thinking mainly of myself. During the next half an hour Ueli cut perfect steps that took us up on safer ground. Larger snowflakes surrounded us limiting the visibility even more.
Under the Rottalsattel we increased the tempo to get across as fast as possible. I had previously on several occasions seen from Jungfraujoch down below several ropes of climbers up here under the avalanche prone saddle. They had looked like small dots on a seemingly vertical wall. This day nobody could see the only two dots that were ascending the Jungfrau. We climbed up on the saddle on steep and soft snow. Once up new challenges waited us in form of a maze of snow bridges. On photographs the last part up the south-east ridge to the summit looks steep but short. Steep yes but short no. After a while we came to a section of rocks covered with wet snow. Once past I decided not to look up until Ueli said, "We have climbed the Jungfrau."
He never said anything. Just step by step. Sometimes the snow crust broke and the leg went down over the knee. I refused to look up and to my dismay we had to negotiate more snowy and slippery rocks. Eventually the slope eased off and we found ourselves on a pile of stones where there was no way up in any direction. We shared a mug of hot sweet tea, took some useless pictures in the cloud at 4158 meters and turned back down again.
From the Rottalsattel we decided to go direct down to Jungfraujoch. We more or less ran down this steep slope since it was no place to linger especially late in the day. Down on the glacier I proposed for the first time a little break. "Please Hannes I must go to the toilet", said Ueli looking unhappy. We had no break and the reason for the choice of the direct and fast route down became obvious.
Eventually, I could discern a small crowd behind a fence. When we got closer it turned out to be the panorama plateau at the Jungfraujoch. Tourists in ordinary walking shoes were trying to admire the glacier world. However, the only thing they saw this day was two mountaineers emerging from the mist and a large sign saying "DANGER".
Six soldiers died
In the early morning of July 12, 2007 twelve soldiers and two mountain guides left the Mönchjoch hut at 3657 meters where they had spent the night. Half a meter of fresh snow had fallen the previous days, but this day saw wonderful mountain weather with a clear blue sky.
It normally takes four to five hours to climb Jungfrau along the South-East Ridge via the Rottalsattel. The easy access allows many people, even less competent, climbing this normal route. Many accidents have been reported over the years. Between 1966 and 1981 twenty-five people died while trying to climb the Jungfrau. The soldiers on their way this day were said to be experienced climbers.
Nine o’clock the group passed under the Rottalsattel and continued upwards. Six soldiers roped together in two groups of three were in the front. They made their way up along a more direct line than is usual. About one hour later the two front groups had reached 150 metes below the summit. The other six soldiers and the two guides followed 100 meters lower down. The weather was beautiful.
Suddenly fresh snow dislodged just above the first group. The avalanche caught the six solders and they fell to their deaths 1000 meters down on the Rottal side of the mountain. The other six soldiers and the two guides escaped unharmed.
In the aftermath many questions were raised: The avalanche risk being 3 on a scale of 5; was it irresponsible not to cancel the climb? Was the avalanche triggered by someone falling? Was the route chosen too dangerous? And many more.
The two guides were on trial in a Swiss military court for involuntary manslaughter and for not observing military regulations. As of November 20, 2009 they were acquitted.
Related SP pages:
Mountain page by kilimanjaro1
Route page by Fred Spicker
Trip report by late Cyrill
Thanks to desainme for comments on the original text.