Skiing in the Bernese Oberland
The Bernese Oberland refers to the mountains in the southern part of the Swiss canton of Bern and if any area – with the exception of Zermatt and the Matterhorn – stands out as Switzerland’s most iconic mountain region it must be the glorious triumvirate of Jungfrau summits – Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
The most dramatic of these peaks form the centrepiece to what is arguably the most impressive skiing in the region and a trio of resorts – Grindelwald, Wengen and Mürren – enable skiers and boarders to be both at the centre of the action and the remarkable scenery. Gstaad is even more famous among the well-heeled although it doesn’t have the same mountain or skiing cachet. By contrast the idyllic resort of Adelboden is little known except for its annual World Cup races. And Meiringen and Hasliberg’s reputation is based more on its connections with Sherlock Holmes and meringues than particularly outstanding skiing.
Of the three Jungfrau resorts, Grindelwald is a small town with traffic while its neighbour Wengen (linked on snow and by rail) is largely traffic free. So too is Mürren across the Lauterbrunnen Valley (also linked by rail and cable car). There is ski history galore here: the Kandahar club was formed in Mürren by Sir Arnold Lunn in 1924, and originally organised the world-renowned annual Inferno ski race here. Its rival, the Down Hill Only (DHO) club was formed just a year later across the valley in Wengen – and was so called because members were able to use the mountain railways to avoid walking up to the slopes in the years before there were any ski lifts.
It was at the Reichenbach Falls in Meiringen that Sherlock Holmes fell to his doom in a death struggle with his infamous foe, Moriarty (only to be brought back to life after complaints from Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers). Now the resort is trying to attract winter visitors to match those who come in the summer to explore the Holmes locations. Adelboden and its neigbour Lenk are among the least known Swiss ski areas, but none the worse for that. In fact skiers and boarders who go there will find the atmosphere much less boisterous than many more famous resorts. Gstaad’s global reputation is based more on tradition than any special skiing. In the early years of winter sports it attracted many wealthy inhabitants and symbolised the more elitist side of the sport. Its own slopes are nothing to write home about but are helped by Gstaad’s direct links with Rougemont, and by the proximity of several other “satellite” resorts close by.
The Jungfrau region
The combined twin areas of Grindelwald and Wengen provide much the biggest ski area in the Jungfrau portfolio, with around 100 miles of mainly fairly undemanding runs. Mürren, out on a limb and a ledge in splendid isolation across the valley has around 33 miles of pistes but some excellent off-piste if you take a guide to show you where. Grindelwald also its own separate ski area, First (pronounced as in “fierce”). Postcards depict the region’s three famous mountains, which stand shoulder to shoulder above Grindelwald and Wengen (and can also be partly seen in glorious views across the valley from Mürren), as the ogre being kept from the maiden by the monk! But although they provide a stunning backdrop to the slopes, there is no skiing to speak of on any of them, save some ski touring from the Jungfraujoch (3454m), high on the shoulder of the Jungfrau. There are, however, some good off-piste runs near the base of the Eiger’s north face, particularly the celebrated White Hare. The railway between Grindelwald and Wengen meets on a high plateau – Kleine Scheidegg – from where you can ski back to either resort. From here there is also the chance to make an extraordinary (and expensive) rail journey almost to the top of the Jungfrau. The route takes passengers through the Eiger (with stops to enable them to gaze out from windows in the infamous north face) to emerge at the Jungfraujoch, where they disembark at the highest railway station in Europe. Mürren is dominated by the Schilthorn (2970m) which played a key role in the Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and lures skiers to its revolving restaurant and stunning views. Although the pretty, cliff-top village is steeped in ski history, and hosts the highly popular Inferno race every year, the skiing is not that extensive unless you want to explore the considerable off-piste options with a guide.
Linked both on snow and by train with Wengen, Grindelwald (1035m), dotted with some fine old luxury hotels, is more town than village and unlike its higher neighbour Wengen (1275m), reached only by train, you can drive there. This also means that although Grindelwald is much more bustling and has a more lively nightlife, it lacks some of Wengen’s alpine village charm; but not its outstanding scenery. The views of the Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn and Eiger are truly magnificent and seem almost close enough to touch. Apart from its important links with Wengen, with which it shares its main skiing, Grindelwald has a significant ski area of its own – First. Whilst it plainly makes sense to exploit Grindelwald’s links with Wengen, it is also fair to say that First alone provides some quite extensive slopes and would keep beginners, intermediates and even stronger skiers and boarders happy for more than just a day or so. Having First on their doorstep means some skiers will be disinclined to bother with the long journey to Murren, the furthest of the three-resort region, whereas those based in Wengen – between Grindelwald and Murren – have the more attractive option of exploring in either direction.
Wengen is the home of the celebrated Down Hill Only club – so called because Wengen and Murren, across the Lauterbrunnen Valley, could be reached by train in the winter months when the club was formed in 1925. This enabled skiers to avoid skinning up to the slopes and thus pack in hours more downhill than would otherwise have been the case before there were any ski lifts. Members of the club swear by Wengen to such an extent that some of them rarely bother to visit other resorts (except of course for neighbouring Grindelwald and Murren). Trains are still at the heart of Wengen. The train is the only way in or out of the resort, or to reach Lauterbrunnen en route to Murren. You can also get to Grindelwald by train if you don’t ski to ski to it – or return by train at the end of a day’s skiing. Like Grindelwald, with which it shares its slopes, the skiing varies mainly between gentle and strong-intermediate runs, with little terrain of real menace. The start of the runs down from the Kleine Scheidegg, the nominal meeting point of the two ski areas, has a backdrop which can genuinely be described as stunning, with grandstand views of the Eiger’s north face, as well as the Monch (Monk) and Jungfrau.
Seen from the Wengen side of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the quaint and historic little village of Murren is perched on a clifftop ledge beneath the mighty Schilthorn and looks quite precarious, but you are unaware of this perspective when you disembark from the train or cable car after your journey up from the valley floor. If anything, Murren has an impressive skiing history, even more so than Wengen. The Kandahar Club in Murren was born here, courtesy of Sir Arnold Lunn in 1924, a year earlier than its rival DHO club (both dedicated to training British ski racers) and Lunn inaugurated the world-famous Inferno race – one of the longest and oldest of its kind in the world – four years later. The race now attracts racers from all over the world. The Inferno course takes skiers all the way down from the shoulder of the Schilthorn to Lauterbrunnen (except when shortened during poor snow years). Although Murren’s skiing is not as extensive as its Jungfrau neighbours, the race course is often steep and challenging, and even includes an uphill section. Until recently, Lunn’s son Peter, captain of the British Olympic team at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, who normally winters here, was a regular participant – even when he was well into his 90s. Like Grindelwald’s aficionados, he rarely skis anywhere else.
Adelboden and neighbouring Lenk offer a genuinely wide network of slopes, with more than 100 miles of mainly intermediate runs served by 72 lifts. Adelboden and Lenk tend to attract skiers in search of some after-hours tranquility rather than the razzmatazz found in some ski areas: the overall atmosphere is quiet and restful with low-key nightlife. Adelboden was the first place in Switzerland to receive accreditation as an Alpine Wellness Holiday Destination, with a variety of spas and saunas, and locally sourced food. But each January, Adelboden suddenly comes to life with a vengeance when it hosts a FIS World Cup giant slalom and slalom, which regularly draw some 30,000 spectators. Adelboden’s semi-pedestrianised centre allows horse-drawn taxis to collect you from the station: Adelboden’s neighbouring village of Lenk, six miles away, is the final destination of the Montreux Oberland mountain railway (MOB). The balconies of many ancient chalets in Adleboden overlook the high plateau of the Engstligenalp while the triple-peaked Wildstrubel massif (3243m) dominates Lenk’s horizon. The Adelboden ski region includes a number of smaller areas, including Elsigen-Metsch, Tschentenalp, Engstligenalp and Betelberg. Freestyle skiers and snowboarders will enjoy Adelboden’s Gran Masta Park (GMP).
It’s hard to believe this glitzy and exclusive resort – famous throughout the world for its high-society night life, legions of celebrities, and expensive hotels and restaurants – was once in a “poor mountain valley”. The valley includes an imaginary border between the German and French speaking parts of the canton, sometimes affectionately known as the “Rosti border”. Back in the 60s and 70s it was the place to be and the place to ski. In its day it’s been a part-time home or a vacation spot for Roger Moore, Yehudi Menuhin, Grace Kelly, David Niven, Peter Sellers and many other celebrities. It even featured in the film “Return of the Pink Panther” in which the revolving door of the resort’s most famous hotel, The Palace, proved a hilarious obstacle for Sellers. But the skiing is only so-so and rescued by surrounding resorts covered by the same ski pass. It is linked directly with Rougemont, which has some good skiing from Videmanette (2151m), with runs going all the way to Gstaad or back down to Rougemont itself. Ski areas nearby include Schönried, Saanen, Saanenmöser, Zweissimen and St Stephan – all of which can be reached by rail. One “secret spot” in Gstaad worth checking out is Wasserngrat, a single hill with just one chairlift. It’s not mainstream and many skiers and boarders don’t bother with it, so it’s often very quiet. After a fresh fall of snow it’s well worth trying, with a variety of runs that will take even good skiers a good five minutes or more to get down.
Meiringen is most famous for meringues (said to have been invented here) and its Sherlock Holmes connections. In recent years Meiringen has made a spirited attempt to persuade skiers and snowboarders to visit its slopes as well – to admire the superlative views as well as enjoy some entertaining but fairly straightforward skiing. There are 37 miles of runs. To get to the slopes, you take the gondola from Meiringen to Hasliberg, where the villages of Hohfluh, Wasserwendi, Goldern and Reuti sit on a sunny shelf. From here, gondolas take skiers and boarders to the ‘Alpen tower’ restaurant, where the panoramic view of more than 400 peaks and the glistening waters of Lake Brienz below is truly outstanding. Looking for a niche market, the ski area has promoted itself as a specialist freestyle location, and snowboarders and freestyle skiers come here to train and compete. Meiringen hosts freestyle events every year. Ski cross is also big attraction: the resort holds an annual ski cross World Cup week. There’s also an unusual opportunity for some backcountry adventures here. The Grimsel and Susten mountain passes attract backcountry tours along remote routes leading deep into the Bernese Alps and the neighbouring canton of Valais. Après ski includes a museum which features Sherlock Holmes’ “living quarters”. There’s even a Sherlock Holmes hotel.