Highs and Lows
Exploring the Mountain Adventures of Grindelwald
Written by Jenny Tough // Photography by Sam Dugon, John Summerton & Matt Green
Produced in partnership with Switzerland Tourism
Growing up in the Canadian Rockies, mountains have always been home. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, as did my parents, so I never grew up with the notion of ‘home’ being a literal house, but rather a feeling or a culture. And mountains, for me, embody all points of life.
I’ve made it my life’s passion to pursue mountains around the world, including my personal challenge to run across a range on every continent. Completing that challenge taught me a lot about how important mountains are to me, and how I am a full version of myself whenever I am in them. But his sense of completeness isn’t just about how they make me feel – it’s deeper than that. Time in the mountains can be a tangible metaphor for our own unique journeys through the adventure of life itself.
This is a subject I ponder during my time in Grindelwald, an area where mountain adventure can encompass a wide variety of different things. The air in Grindelwald is distinctly high Alpine. Clouds hang low, hiding the majestic Eiger from us for now. But I don’t need the high peaks just yet – the famous Grosse Scheidegg is on the agenda first.
The paved climb is closed to cars, except for a single local bus, making it a road cyclist’s dream. Tight switchbacks crawl up the steep mountain pass at a brutal average gradient of 7.5 per cent. While there is a lack of motorised traffic, herds of cows wander freely across the pavement, and I sheepishly request some space as I grind my bike in the lowest gear past them. The collective sound of their bells makes for almost postcard-perfect Swiss cycling. My legs are burning by the time we reach the top, but the rain is about to set in and I have a thrilling descent ahead of me.
On the way down, the cow traffic becomes a bit more thrilling as I reel around the tight switchbacks at a much higher speed. I clamp my brakes the whole way down, and the rain sets in as we exit the traffic-free zone and return to Grindelwald town. Ups, downs, herds of cows getting in the way, and a bit of rain just to keep things interesting – I am reminded that no endeavour is ever precisely as we imagine it will be when we begin, and that overcoming these little obstacles is part of the fun.
We wake to gloomy skies, but this time we’re using the Grosse Scheidegg bus to reach the top of yesterday’s col – with mountain bikes hanging on the back. It’s typically Swiss-efficient to ride to the trailhead, with room for several bikes to shuttle up to the top of the pass. From our start point, it’s still a long climb, now off-road, to reach the true top of the Grosse Scheidegg descent. The higher we climb, the cooler the air temperature drops, and moody clouds are closing in on the peaks. I try to climb as quickly as possible, especially as the crew are all on e-bikes and I don’t want to leave them waiting. After a lung-busting climb, we reach a small hut, already crowded with hikers who have ducked in to hide from the rain that has suddenly appeared. We park the bikes and rush inside to pull on more warm layers, especially gloves for the fast descent ahead. When the rain eases a few minutes later, we get back on the bikes. I’m giddy with excitement for this part of the trip.
From the top, it’s all glorious singletrack. The clouds part enough to offer sporadic views of the Eiger and his neighbours. It’s a stunning place, and I take a brief moment to marvel at the glaciers and peaks before clipping in and beginning the long ride down.
The singletrack is red-graded and just about at the cusp of my comfortable level in wet conditions. A mixture of mud, slabs, rock gardens, and swoopy berms take us back down to the village. We’re descending fast, hoping to beat the incoming wave of rain creeping across the valley. It’s one of the longest uninhibited descents I’ve taken on a mountain bike, and a true highlight of my time here – despite a crash near the bottom.
Easing off the adrenaline, it’s back on the gravel bike for an evening pedal. As much as I enjoyed the thrill of the singletrack, I love getting some actual pedal strokes in and – especially after my little crash – it’s nice to feel stable. Gravel riding is one of the true loves of my life, and I have spent many, many hours on this bike. It’s my favourite discipline for travelling long distances, enjoying big days in the saddle and traversing entire countries, or even ultra-distance racing. Today’s plan is slightly more chill than those experiences, but I still feel right at home when I clip into my gravel bike.
A quick tour through the main street of Grindelwald, and I’m on a smooth gravel track down by the river, riding between the trees. It’s remarkable to go from urban to nature so quickly, and one of the best things about this region. The rush of the river and the wind in my face are all I can hear now. We ride along the river, passing waterfalls and small farms, until close to sunset.
The best end to my time in the Jungfrau Region is to go back to my roots: high Alpine trail running. Although the clouds are low and menacing, we know exactly where the bucket list is: the Eiger. Along its incredible rocky flanks are myriad trails in varying levels of technicality. We find ourselves on one that depends on a series of hanging ropes to pull ourselves up smooth, steep slabs of rock. Running in between, along the ledges of this famous mountain, is quite literally a dream. Clouds below me cover the rest of Grindelwald, and I am isolated on one of the world’s most iconic mountains. Despite the crowds that flock here every summer, it’s amazing how quickly we can find peaceful mountain moments.
From the Eigergletscher station we are thrilled by views of the glacier’s seracs tumbling down bare rocky slopes. Our route takes us up the south face of the mountain, scrambling steep terrain towards the Klettersteig Rotstock. We reach a plateau and stop to rest. But before too long the weather swirls back in once again and we make the call to descend – a salutary reminder that adventure is in the fine line between safety and danger. It’s hard to imagine that, almost 90 years before, the Eiger’s North Face was the site of a drama that gripped the imagination of all Europe. Climbers dreamt of being the first to ascend the famous Nordwand, one of the biggest and most impressive mountain faces in the Alps, but equipment and techniques were rudimentary, and several young men died – notably in the 1936 disaster, in which five climbers died while trying to climb the wall. It was finally climbed in July 1938 by Heckmair, Vörg, Harrer, and Kasparek. This legendary ascent was immortalised in The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer. Today, with our lightweight gear and clothing that can keep us comfortable in any scenario, it’s a stretch to imagine a time when these mountains were far more formidable.
Heading back home and away from the Alps, I reflect once again on how the mountains have everything we need to prepare us for life’s highs and lows. There are long, gruelling tasks, filled with scary slopes and hazards. There are insanely beautiful views. There is the freewheeling reward for hard work. There are meadows and flowers and wildlife and fresh lakes to swim in and great trails to sprint through. Whether it’s for a few hours, days, or weeks, whenever I am immersed in mountains, I get to experience all of that.
I think the Swiss Alps are the ultimate mountains. They feel like the template that all mountains should be made from. The peaks themselves are beautiful, snow-capped, jagged, and wild. They’re the mountains that you would draw if asked to. Between them are rolling meadows, deep green lakes, and postcard-perfect villages. Look closer, and you’ll find that the Swiss Alps are criss-crossed in all directions with trails and tracks for explorers, wanderers, athletes, and enthusiasts. You can fill a whole lifetime playing in this region.