On August 1, 1912, the first cogwheel train clambered up the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland. K.V. Krishnan celebrates the centennial with a thrilling ride to the top.

Sipping coffee in an Indian restaurant with busloads of fellow Indians is one thing, but drinking masala chai to the tune of Bollywood song-clips from the many movies shot here is a unique experience. More bizarre is the realisation that I wasn’t in Mumbai or Delhi but instead perched upon lofty Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland.

A highlight of any Switzerland trip, tourists simply love the ‘Top of Europe’ experience. A vast ridge connecting the Jungfrau and Monch mountains, what is probably more interesting about Jungfraujoch is the journey to get there more than the destination. I had left sleepy Zermatt under the loom of the Matterhorn, changed several trains passing through placid Interlaken, the limpid waterfalls of Lauterbrunnen, and the sleepy villages of Wengen and Murren.

The exciting part

From Kleine Scheidegg starts the most exciting part of the journey by Jungfraubahn or the Jungfrau Railway. Located beneath the loom of the mountain trio — Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. A 50-minute ride through snow, ice and rock covers more than nine km, climbing up to 1,400 metres. The cogwheel train clanks through open terrain for the first two km to Eigergletscher station.

From there it heaves up through a long tunnel through Alpine rock weaving through Eigerwand, (Wall of the Eiger Mountain), and Eismeer (the Sea of Ice) before it crawls up the neck of Jungfrau — well, almost.

The train clanks to a halt at the highest railway station in Europe in Jungfraujoch at 11,320 feet above sea level, spilling out a herd of camera-toting tourists. They swoop down upon literally a small town chockfull of restaurants, Swiss-made watch stores and souvenir shops, exhibits like the Ice Palace — an endless grotto of ice sculptures, an observatory and viewpoints overlooking a unique wonderland of ice and rock.

From one of the many open-air vistas at the top, I could see the yawn of the Aletsch Glacier — the longest river of ice in Europe spanning over 22 km. On a clear day one can look at the faraway mountains of Vosges in France and the Black Forest in Germany.

However, there was something very special this year what with all the festivities and events lighting up this bleak landscape. Earlier this year, the mountain used to come alive at night with a spectacular illuminated projection of the Swiss flag upon the face of Jungfrau. Inaugurated on August 1, 1912, Jungfrau Railway, undeniably one of the greatest human feats in recent times, was proudly celebrating its 100th year.

Alpine Mountains have always fascinated climbers, and after the first ascent in 1811, several plans for building a railway or a cableway to the Jungfrau summit were laid out in vain. In 1893, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a 54-year-old industrialist, thought of a brilliant route to the peak from Klein Scheidegg. An electrically-driven cogwheel train would travel up from here over open terrain to the first station, the Eigergletscher, before entering a long tunnel.

Not an easy project

Construction began in the summer of 1896 and after two years of sheer manual labour, a two-km section was completed, topped by a gala celebration. The Eigerwand station was later opened in 1903 and the Eismeer station in 1905. A change in design meant that Jungfraujoch and not Jungfrau would be the last stop of the railway line. The final stretch from Eismeer to Jungfraujoch would prove to be the most challenging. Spurred by the idea of a bonus for blasting rock to reveal daylight, tired workers using an excessive payload of dynamite blasted away a huge chunk of the mountain and with the sun streaming in — a triumph of human engineering was finally realised.

On August 1, 1912, 16 years after construction began, a festively decorated train clanked the nine km from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch. Sadly Adolf Guyer-Zeller never lived to see his dream project completed — he had died of pneumonia in April 1899.

The train back to Kleine Scheidegg took a mere 35 minutes. As tourists gasped in amazement clicking their cameras at every turn, I wondered if they paused and spared a thought for all the genius and muscle that went into creating this engineering marvel.

I would gladly go back — if not for the charm of the mountains, just to take that thrill ride to the top all over again.

Tips

Given the excellent train system in Switzerland, you could make a day trip to Jungfraujoch, though I believe Interlaken to be very centrally located. The pretty village, Wengen, is a nearby option. A Swiss Pass will get you a 25 per cent to 50 per cent discount on the ticket prices up to Jungfraujoch. Take warm clothes — you need them at the top even in summer.