Friday, April 30, 2021


The Aletschhorn rises above the Aletsch Glacier
5 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, best to bring snow traction
Access: Jungfraujoch Railway to trailhead with associated costs

Panoramas of ice and rock, of towering Alpine peaks rising above the mighty Aletsch Glacier, are usually the domain of alpinists alone. However, this cross-glacier walk from Jungfraujoch to Monchsjochhutte in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland makes such stark and stunning scenery available to tourists and casual hikers. The cog railroad to Jungfraujoch- a marvel of engineering and the highest railway line in Europe- does most of the work, bringing visitors to an icy landscape at a high pass in the Bernese Oberland. From here, a short path across the head of the Aletsch Glacier, doable for most hikers and made safe by maintainence, leads to an even higher pass with vast views over the glaciers and sharp peaks of the Bernese Oberland. It's important to note that this hike does involve crossing a glacier so some preparation can make your experience much more pleasant: it's useful to bring hiking boots as well as snow traction like Yaktrax or microspikes, sunglasses, sunscreen, and layers of clothing for staying warm on a glacier.

I hiked to Monchsjochhutte with my family during a trip to the Swiss Alps. Getting to the trailhead at Jungfraujoch is a fairly involved affair by public transport: it is not possible to reach Jungfraujoch or anywhere nearby by car. We spent a few days exploring the Bernese Oberland and I encourage you to do so as well, as this is one of the most scenic parts of the Alps. While traveling by car may be appropriate when exploring the eastern Swiss Alps or the Austrian Alps, it is far easier to travel by train in the Bernese Oberland. Many of the villages in the Bernese Oberland are car-free and there is a network of railway lines that connect the villages and many tourist areas in the Bernese Oberland. We enjoyed our stay in Wengen, a car-free village above Lauterbrunnen that was extremely scenic and provided easy access to the Jungfraujoch railway. We picked up the Jungfrau Travel Pass to use for unlimited travel on trains and cable cars in the area; this allowed us to qualify for a large discount on our Jungfraujoch tickets, which we had to buy separately. Yes, Jungfraujoch is an expensive experience; but if you time your visit for a clear day, it is a superb and unforgettable one as well.

We traveled by train to Interlaken and then transferred trains at Interlaken Ost to reach Lauterbrunnen; there, we transferred to a cog railway, which brought us to Wengen and then continued up the mountain to Kleine Scheidegg, a pass with a railway station that also serves as the starting point of the Jungfraujoch Railway. We boarded the Jungfraujoch Railway at Kleine Scheidegg: this cog railway began to climb up the slopes of the Eiger and then entered the mountain itself, traveling through tunnel the rest of the way to Jungfraujoch. The train made a brief stop at Eismeer, where we gazed out from windows set in to the cliffs of the Eiger at the mighty icefalls and crevasses of the Ischmeer Glacier. The train finally deposited us at Jungfraujoch, the terminus of the line and the highest railway station on the continent at 3450 meters. 

The Jungfraujoch station and the associated restaurants and stores were packed with tourists; however, we made a beeline for the large panoramic windows that delivered a view from this high mountain pass directly down the length of the Aletsch Glacier. The Aletsch Glacier is the longest and largest glacier in the Alps: it runs for 23 km until it terminates near the village of Reideralp, just a short distance above the Rhone River Valley in Valais. At Konkordiaplatz, three massive glaciers that originate from high alpine cirques combine into a single monstrous body of ice, one kilometer thick, that grinds its way unceasingly down an Alpine valley. With a combined volume of over 15 cubic kilometers, this glacier has no peer in the Alps; here is an ice age yet to end, a vivid example of the might and power of permanent ice. This was a view impossible to forget.

View down the Aletsch Glacier from Jungfraujoch
We spent a little bit more time in Jungfraujoch station before starting our hike to Monchsjochhutte, taking an elevator to the top of the Sphinx Observatory, an observation deck from which to study the magnificent view from Jungfraujoch. In addition to the views of the Aletsch Glacier, this deck provided views of the two giant Alpine peaks rising to either side of Jungfraujoch: the Monch to the east and Jungfrau to the west. Both peaks exceed 4000 meters in height, placing them among the Alps' tallest peaks; along with the Eiger, these two peaks are also the most iconic and omnipresent mountains of the Bernese Oberland. The Monch was absolutely spectacular from this angle, where we could see the mountain's rocky northwest face soaring from the green valleys of Wengeralp and Kleine Scheidegg below to its sharp, icy peak. The peak's southern slopes cradled the head of the Aletsch Glacier; we could see the clearly defined path to Monchsjochhutte stretching across the glacier here. Looking to the north, we gazed out over the greenery of the Alpine foothills; the valleys of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald emptied into Interlaken and beyond that, the hills died out into the flatter country of northern Switzerland.

Monch from Jungfraujoch
Returning to the station level of Jungfraujoch, we followed the signs for Monchsjochhutte to exit the station onto the glacier and start our hike. Once we emerged on the glacier, we put on our microspikes and started following the groomed, well-marked path to Monchsjochhutte. Near the exit from the Jungfraujoch tunnels, we passed a number of snow-play facilities for anyone who would be so inclined; we skipped these. We had amazing views as soon as we were on the ice: the Monch rose ahead and Jungfrau rose behind, along with the steep pinnacle of the Sphinx, where we had stood just a few minutes earlier.

Venturing onto the Aletsch Glacier below Jungfraujoch
The groomed path cut across the upper part of the Aletsch Glacier and we were initially treated to views down the length of the glacier. From here, we could see down to Konkordiaplatz, although we could not see the glaciers that flowed in to join the branch feeding from Jungfrau. Further down the valley, we could see that many lateral moraines traced the length of the Aletsch, each additional path of dirt marking an additional tributary glacier that had fed into this behemoth of ice. Clouds covered the Eggishorn, a lower peak separating the Aletsch Glacier from the Rhone Valley and the town of Fiesch, but far off in the distance a number of snowy summits in the Pennine Alps- the high peaks near Zermatt and Saas Fee- poked above the clouds.

Aletsch Glacier, the greatest glacier of the Alps
The groomed path initially ascended gradually and later more steeply towards a saddle on the east side of the Monch. While passing beneath the Monch, we had close up views of a glacier, its ice easily over 50 meters thick, hanging off the steep slopes of the Monch above us. From time to time, portions of this glacier would loosen and tumble down onto the Aletsch Glacier, a powerfully exciting sight that was also somewhat frightening as the glacial debris would fall towards the direction of the Monchsjochhutte path. However, the falling ice always stopped before reaching the actual trail. Falling ice is not the only danger to be concerned with: the Aletsch is an active glacier and there are crevasses on the glacier off the groomed path. A few crevasses had opened just meters away from the trail and footprints indicated some tourists had walked over to the edges of those crevasses; that is extremely dangerous as snow bridges may give away, so hikers should stick to the groomed path.

Climbing party beneath a glacier on the Monch
As we continued towards Monchsjochhutte, the grade on the glacier steepened. Seeing other hikers slipping or failing to gain traction in the snow, we were glad that we brought traction. As we approached Monchjochshutte, views of the main trunk of the Aletsch disappeared behind nearby mountains. Looking back, we still enjoyed spectacular views of Jungfrau and Aletschhorn.

After rounding a minor ridge of the Monch, the Monchsjoch- a high saddle east of the Monch- came into view. A final uphill push brought us to the pass between the Monch and Trugberg. We followed a groomed snow path from the pass up to the hut itself, which was slightly above the pass on the slopes of the Monch. The hut lies at 3658 meters- just over 12000 feet for us Americans- and serves as a launching point for climbers tackling the Monch. Day hikers can buy food and refreshments here; there are also dorm-style accommodations for those wanting to spend a night high in the Alps.

The primary reason to come out to Monchjochshutte, though, were the views. From the entrance of the hut, there were stark, wondrous views to the east across another lobe of ice that feeds the Aletsch Glacier. Across this great icy plain we could see many of the other great peaks of the Bernese Oberland: Mittelhorn and Schreckhorn, both of which rise above the valley of Grindelwald, and Klein Fiescherhorn, a dramatic rocky peak that rises over the Grindelwald Glacier and is at the northern end of a great ridge that culminates in Finsteraarhorn, the highest summit of the Bernese Alps. Here, the whole world seems to be made of just ice and rock. It is a cold, stark beauty, a landscape filled with harsh drama.

Mittelhorn and Schreckhorn
Klein Fiescherhorn and Monchsjoch
The Aletsch Glacier is at the center of the Jungfrau-Aletsch Protected Area, the first region in the Alps to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, despite these protections, the Aletsch Glacier- like most other glaciers in the Alps- is retreating due to climate change. While the volume of ice loss from the glacier has been great, the relative effect on the Aletsch has not been as extreme compared to other Alpine glaciers, largely because the Aletsch was so big to begin with. However, with forecasts for a warming climate, the glacier is predicted to shrink to less than half of its current size by the end of this century. The future of the Aletsch and of glaciers around the world will depend on how humans approach the problem of carbon emissions in the coming decades.

The Alpine world of the Aletsch Glacier between Jungfraujoch and Monchsjochhutte is unforgetably beautiful. If you are visiting the Swiss Alps and in particular if you're traveling through the Bernese Oberland, a train ride to Jungfraujoch and the hike to Monchsjochhutte must not be missed. Alpinists throw themselves at the steep mountains and cross great glaciers to find views like these; this is a rare place where just about anyone can marvel at this usually inaccessible world, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment