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2017 Bernese Oberland Trip: Under the Eiger

Bruno Yates
Guided by Bruno Yates
It was a spectacular week of trail running through Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. The highlight came during Day 3, when we ran under the immense Eiger North Wall. Here's my story of how that day unfolded, with a little trip summary below. It was a pleasure to join this great crew!

It was the third morning of our tour, and I was a little uneasy. We had enjoyed a characteristically delicious and plentiful breakfast at the Hotel Gletschergarten, something of an institution in Grindelwald. In truth, one of the hardest parts of my days guiding with Run the Alps is having the willpower to resist all the tasty goodies at our breakfasts, so as to avoid paying the price of a too-heavy stomach on the trail shortly after!

Today, though, I was unsure how the day was going to pan out. A small slip on an innocuous section of trail on day one had left Hansi, a very experienced trail runner, with a pulled muscle in her calf. She had consequently pulled out of the classic run high above town, in full view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, to the Hotel Schynige Platte early on day two. But, feeling slightly better, she expressed a strong desire to join us and attempt the challenging Eiger Trail.

Ascending 1,300 meters to the Eigergletscher train stop — the last before the famed train heads into its long tunnel through the Eiger — we would pass directly below the infamous Eiger Nordwand, or north wall. Then, we would drop down to the historic collection of buildings at Kleine Scheidegg, and then onward to the car-free village of Wengen. It would, like the day before, be over 20 kilometers of trail running. And, if the previous days were anything to go by, the strong sun would have its say in the proceedings as well!

Our group was ready for the day! Carol and Moquan were relatively new to trail running, but had already proved that they had stamina and were psyched for the challenge of another big day. Hansi said she would be happy to just hike the route if, as yesterday, running proved to be too much for her calf. I was fully confident in her abilities in the mountains, but was naturally a bit concerned. I also felt for her sister, Lisa, who I imagined would both be eager to stretch her accomplished trail running legs, yet also keep Hansi company.

The Eiger trail in its entirety has just about everything a trail runner could wish for. There is the magnificent variety of scenery and terrain en route. Starting out from Grindelwald, one ascends steeply on a twisting trail, up through evergreen woods and bands of steep limestone. The route is punctuated with splendid views into the deeply-cut gorge of Gletscherschlucht below. After climbing 700 meters, one passes out of the woodlands and onto Rinderegg, traditional grazing land for the local cattle and at this time of year, awash with the colors of alpine flowers.

The trail becomes flatter and opens up a bit, allowing your legs to do likewise! As more height is gained, the vegetation thins out, the imposing Eiger north face looms closer overhead, and rocky terrain with great scree slopes and old patches of winter snow become the norm. Fantastic views are to be had on all sides, whether it’s picking out the historic routes of the first to climb the 1,800-meter high face, or merely picking out the running route that we had taken the day before, far across the valley.

As we climbed that morning, it became apparent that Hansi was doing just fine, still not quite able to run, but keeping the pace on the steep sections where it was necessary for everybody just to hike anyway! On the flatter sections, some of the team liked to stretch their legs, but we were always happy to pause and regroup, not the least because there were new photo opportunities around every corner! By late morning, Kleine Scheidegg trail station at the top of the col had come into view, below us.

After yet more photos at our high point, up close with the cascading glaciers of the Mönch and Jungfrau, we coasted down 300 meters to the Hotel Bellevue and much earned refreshments on the terrace. The hotel and neighboring train station are steeped in mountaineering history. It’s here where the early alpine pioneers set out for attempts on the Eiger and where wealthy gentry came to watch through telescopes as the spectacle and drama unfolded. If you ever find yourself passing through here, the historic interior of the hotel is well worth a look!

Meanwhile, a much smaller drama began to unfold a bit closer to home, as two enormous plates of French fries arrived at our table! I worried for my ability to run that afternoon, but fortunately the team spirit shone through, and we all rose to the occasion. In fact, Moquan seemed to regard it as something of a personal challenge to see how big a lunch he could eat… and still function on the trail! Over the course of the week, his other lunchtime menu selections included an enormous cheese “toastie”– a morsel of bread drowned in a sea of melted Swiss cheese, soup and bratwurst, a large potato pancake “rösti” with yak sausage and another rösti with egg atop it! The benefits of youth and a very high metabolism, it seems. Congrats, Moquan!

Post-lunch, beautiful single-track trail awaited, which led us away from the tourists of Kleine Scheidegg and across panoramic alpine meadows, before dropping down to scenic Wengen. As we descended, I could hear the occasional “Whoop!” behind me, as Hansi reveled in the flow of the trail, the breath-taking surroundings and, happily, the discovery that she was able to run downhill stretches without any major discomfort. I think Carol, Lisa and Moquan took an equal amount of pleasure in our run, with not another soul on the trail and uninterrupted views of the Bernese Oberland to our left. It did turn hot, but by the time the afternoon sun sent temperatures close to 85°F, we were in the closing stages of the descent, and a cool shower was not far off.

That evening, as we sat in the dining room of the Hotel Bären, I reflected on the day. The perfect mix of varied trails, world class views (the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site after all!), great company, fascinating climbing history, geology, flora and fauna had all made it a day to remember. Success was achieved! Everybody showed great team spirt, with a willingness to compromise and endure a little hardship along the way in exchange for some great rewards. They certainly rose to the challenge!

From the same dining room, tantalizing views of the Lauterbrunnen valley and Mürren hinted at what lay ahead. In fact, we were just getting started!

Here are a few highlights from each day:

Day 1: Schwarzwaldalp to Grindelwald. The weather cleared after a heavy morning shower and gave us spectacular close-up views of the Wetterhorn from Grosse Scheidegg, with the Eiger off in the distance. A lovely flowing section of single-track took us between beautiful Bachsee lake and a welcome refreshment stop at Waldspitz. (20km, 900m of ascent.)

Day 2: Grindelwald to Schynige Platte. We had close to non-stop views of the Eiger and the Bernese Oberland. Ten kilometers of fantastic and varied trail running took us on a gradual descent from the Faulhorn to Schynige Platte, the end of the cog railway to Wilderswil. A fun cog railway descent to Wilderswil was a nice touch to end the day. (22 km, 1,200 m ascent.)

Day 3: Grindelwald to Wengen. On our third day, we got up close and personal with the Eiger! Hansi overcame her calf injury, and the group enjoyed the rich history of Kleine Scheidegg — and the French fries! We had marvelously varied trails, both morning and afternoon. (21km, 1300m ascent.)

Day 4: Wengen to Mürren. We craned our necks to take in the multitude of 500-meter high waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen valley, before a steep, but pleasant climb up through conifers to the Berghaus Tschingelhorn. We enjoyed great views of the Jungfrau’s western flank over coffee, while Moquan tucked into his rösti and yak bratwurst! (20km, 1300m ascent.)

Day 5: Mürren – Schilthorn – Mürren. We encountered wilder mountain terrain as we neared the summit of the Schilthorn (2970m). Lisa stormed ahead engrossed in the climbing, and Hansi whooped with joy on the exciting ridgeline before the summit. From the summit station, we had 360-degree panoramic views. Another highlight was the lovely traversing trail across Sefina Alp, after sampling some homemade pie at the Rotstockhütte. Finally, we had a delicious and well deserved BBQ dinner to celebrate our achievements at the Hotel Bellevue (19km, 1400m ascent)

On the move, high above Grindelwald, Switzerland.