Switzerland’s snow sports
Date Posted: 25/08/2011
For groups seeking snow fun, Switzerland’s Bernase Oberland and Jungfrau regions offer a host of winter sporting activities for adventure seekers of all ages and abilities.
The Eiger. One of the world’s most famous mountains and a name familiar to many, but quiz people further -what country is it in? why is it so special? - and you’ll often draw a blank.
Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland region is home to this immense hulk of rock. You may not have heard of the villages of Grindelwald, Wengen or Meiringen, but in the past mountaineering dramas regularly unfolded on the Eiger’s legendary North Face, and these gripping real-life stories made headlines around the world. Tourists flocked to the area - and still do today.
As far back as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these villages were fashionable holiday hotspots, attracting celebrities such as the author, Arthur Conan Doyle. He famously visited Meiringen and chose the Reichenbach Falls as the setting for an epic Sherlock Holmes scene - a dramatic fight with Moriarty, in which both characters plunge to their deaths.
In winter, snow sports are the big draw. The scenery is beautiful, and what an unforgettable experience it is to ski in the shadow of the North Face. To the left of the Eiger sit two even taller mountains, the Mönch and Jungfrau. The Schreckhorn and Wetterhorn to the right complete the chain. The peaks line up almost like a giant, ice-capped Toblerone.
There are three separate ski areas here, collectively known as the Jungfrau region, which have over 200-kilometres of pistes. Meiringen-Hasliberg, 30-kilometres to the east, is a self-contained ski area with yet another 60-kilometres of ski slopes. Travelling between all the individual ski areas is easy by train or cable-car, and there’s so little need for cars and buses that some of the villages are completely car-free.
For non-skiers, snowshoeing is an active alternative that takes only a few minutes to master. A local guide will help you to strap the lightweight contraptions over the top of regular hiking boots and then lead the way to the best trails. You may stumble around a bit at first but they’re very lightweight and most people soon get the hang of it. Your reward is the ease with which you can venture off the beaten track, exploring idyllic, unspoilt woodland trails, even through deep snow.
Step it up a gear for a very different Swiss-take on evening entertainment. A fondue and tobogganing evening is the perfect group activity. There’s a sense of anticipation and good humour as you take a train, bus or cable-car up into the mountains after dark. The skiers are long-gone, the ski-slopes deserted. There’s a momentary sense of isolation, but look closer and the lights from a nearby mountain restaurant beckon where groups can warm up inside with an authentic Swiss fondue dinner. Sharing a communal pot of melted cheese is a very sociable way to eat. It bubbles away on the table, and basket after basket of cubed bread is brought to the table as you skewer and dunk, skewer and dunk. Once you get stuck in, it’s very hard to stop - don’t even attempt to count the calories!
Eventually, when the last morsel of cheese has been scraped from the bottom of the pan, you’ll wrap up and venture back out into the night air where your carriage - or rather your primitive wooden toboggan - awaits. Not very glamorous it’s true, but the exhilaration is unbeatable. Sit down, enjoy the ride and you’ll experience the sensation of freedom and adventure as you speed toward the glittering lights in the valley below.
Where you turn-in for the night depends on your taste and budget. There are hotels large and small, modern and traditional. Wherever your priorities lie, there’ll be suitable accommodation for your group in one of the villages. The local tourist offices are on hand to give advice and make bookings.
Groups travelling in low season - January or March - can take advantage of reasonable prices and few crowds (especially if you travel midweek).