You don't take skis anywhere near the biggest mountains unless setting off with a guide on a big ski tour to the south. The famous north faces are merely the backdrop to the much more modest hills at their foot. The highest point from which you can ski is the Oberjoch (2,486m), while the train reaches the Jungfraujoch (3,545m) one vertical kilometre higher. Maximum vertical descent is 1,450m (a 13km journey) from the Lauberhorn to Grindelwald and there's a total of over 200km of piste, with 40km covered by snowmaking. At 1,034m Grindelwald is low, with the main runs ending even lower at 950m Grund. Despite this it's reasonable to expect excellent skiing across the area for much of the season. If you're looking for good piste mileage through beautiful and varied terrain, without excessive challenge, this is the place.
Competent skiers looking for variety and exploration should plan a day trip to Murren's slopes (covered on the 'Sportpass Jungfrau' lift pass) as a change from the Kleine Scheidegg-Mannlichenaarea, between Grindelwald and Wengen, which is the area's biggest ski region. The other side of Grindelwald, to the north, is First - an area that's only convenient to reach from Grindelwald itself, and a very good reason to stay there rather than Wengen or Mürren.
Easily overlooked, these 50km of piste and eight lifts have some of the area's best skiing and superb views. First is easy to access from the village of Grindelwald and awkward from anywhere else (including from the other half of the local ski area on Kleine Scheidegg). A three-stage gondola - the Firstbahn - gets you rapidly up to the skiing. From Schreckfeld the area opens up with chairs and draglifts. This is where you find the most reliable snow conditions. The apparently modest high points - 2170m First and 2486m Oberjoch - do in fact give significant descents to the village at 1034m, but on these south facing slopes the low altitude can mean a short season. Snowmaking down to the bottom reduces the problem and descending to town, even in spring conditions, has a magical quality: from high alp through forest, across meadows and then village outskirts. There's a choice of black down to the gondola base in the village or lovely meandering reds that end at a remote café/restaurant from where buses return to the village.
This is the biggest single area, directly below the Eiger. There are 100km of piste and 22 lifts with a high point of 2473m at the top of the Lauberhorn, of World Cup downhill fame. Pistes descend to Grund at 950m (below the village of Grindelwald) and on the other side of the ridge to Wengen at 1274m. Trains run up from both Grund and Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg (2061m); gentle ski routes follow the tracks and elsewhere expansive, relatively easy red runs make up the majority of the skiing, most of which is on the Grindelwald side of the ridge that separates the two resorts.
As well as train access there's a gondola from Grund and a cable car from Wengen, both of which head for Mannlichen. Despite the north-easterly aspect, the lower slopes to Grund are sometimes short of snow. What Wengen wins through higher elevation it loses due to a sunnier aspect; downloading by train from an intermediate station is sometimes required.
Access to Murren's skiing (covered by the 'Sportpass Jungfrau') from Grindelwald is by train or road to Stechelberg, then cable car to Gimmelwald and on to the Schilthornbahn, or by train or road to Lauterbrunnen and cable car up to Grutschalp, continuing to Murren by train. Or you can cross the Kleine Scheidegg by lift and ski to Wengen from where a shorter train ride links to Lauterbrunnen and Stechelberg. Either way it's a trek with a lot of time spent on trains and lifts. On the reverse journey you can start skiing out of Wengen, but if your goal is First, it's better to take the train round to Grindelwald.
In typical Swiss style, little trains (usually red) grind up improbably steep slopes to reach spectacular tourist viewpoints from all three villages. This looks charming and can be an enjoyable ride if you get a window seat, but it's not a quick way up the mountain.
The railway climbs from Grindelwald/Grund to Kleine Scheidegg with a couple of stops along the way. From Grindelwald village you must first take the connecting shuttle train down to Grund, or get the bus. None of this guarantees the best start to your day unless you're very keen on trains, nor is it speedy. The only alternative to the train is the slow Mannlichen four-person gondola, also from Grund.
Once you're on the mountain there are 20 lifts spread across the large area. One of the most recent is the Lager quad chair; the fact that they can get away with a four-seater may be explained by the inefficiency of the rest of the lift system which restricts the rate at which people can reach the main slopes. This should at least ensure that it is never too crowded on the way down. From Wengen it's a similar story: slow train or busy cable car to Mannlichen.
If you prefer getting up the mountain by ski-lift rather than train, you'll find some of those, like the Mannlichenbahn gondola from Grindelwald, are not the fastest either; it helps to take a relaxed attitude to your piste bashing or aim to stick to the faster lifts where possible. For an area of this size the total lift capacity of just 42,000 people per hour tells a story, but at least the ticket system is hands-free.
To get off to a good start from Grindelwald you can ride up from 08.00 and from 08.15 from Wengen. Avoid the worst of the queues from the valley stations at around 10.00am in high season.
Much needed improvements are planned for the system: the slow gondola will be replaced in a few years, along with the last of the T-bars which will be replaced by chair lifts.
One of First's many advantages is that you avoid the train. The main lift, a six-person gondola, rises 1000 vertical metres from the village in three stages. There are also three chairlifts including the Schilt quad and three drag lifts.
There are several options when you buy your pass: novices use points cards for the nursery slope lifts, while the Grindelwald-Wengen and Mürren-Schilthorn passes do what they say. There's also a Sportpass Jungfrau ticket which covers the whole region and an additional 'Top Ticket' for the Jungfraujoch - a journey which should be made, even by the keenest skiers (there's no way to ski down to the resort area from the top, so it's a tourist outing) on the first fine day in resort. You'd be crazy to come to the area and miss this trip; if you're fit and a reasonable skier, make it a part of the Lotschenlucke day tour off piste. But beware - it's expensive! There is also a 'Hike-and-Sledge Pass' for access to the extensive trails; again, it's not cheap though compares well with some resorts where non-skiers are priced off the mountain.
The good beginner area at the top of Kleine Scheidegg has lots of terrain to progress to and is at reasonable altitude for good snow. The long blue meandering back to Wengen is fine in good condition (not always the case) but often busy. Rather isolated, but something to aim for, the Mannlichen chair serves a blue; it could be reached direct from Wengen by cable car, making the return trip the same way. Wengen has a nursery area in the centre which has recently been extended. Both children and adults can have a reduced rate pass to cover just this area.
First's 'Bodmi' beginner area has its own draglift, but it's low and suffers from too much sun; once you've got your legs, the Oberjoch chair gives access to blues to each side though to make it all the way back to town involves a short red section or downloading between Schreckfeld and Bort.
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Grindelwald is also an area for long descents. Various routes back to Grindelwald, from Oberjoch or the far side of Kleine Scheidegg and also from Mannlichen, give runs of seven or eight kilometres through a mix of open rolling terrain and trees. First is an ideal playground in good conditions. The Grindel and Stepfi reds make wonderful trails through changing terrain, with impressive views across to the north faces. This is what skiing on piste is all about. There's also challenging mixed terrain higher up usually combined with easier, frequently blue, alternatives. Kleine Scheidegg/Mannlichen has huge terrain to explore: from the Kleine Scheidegg there are plenty of gentle blues and reds over what in summer is beautiful pasture.
The lower slopes on both sides of the village can get busy at the end of the day and also suffer from overuse and sunshine but in fresh conditions these are sublime routes. It might be a long, slow ride up, but it's worth it for the never-ending meander back down the route of the railway on a quiet sunny day. There's plenty towards Mannlichen too, with open skiing up top and charming tree runs lower down.
Nearer to home, from First's Egg lift, a black runs all the way down to the valley, following the line of the gondola for most of the way. From Oberjoch there is a tough black run, the Schwarzer Traum and a couple of itineraries. There are also enjoyable diversions through trees (though much of the forest is a protected zone).
On the Kleine Scheidegg/Mannlichen side there are just 19 km of black piste with very little truly steep stuff; the terrain is mainly rolling meadow which makes for easy, open skiing even when the pitch increases. The Lauberhorn World Cup descent is the obvious candidate for advanced skiers, though in practice this famous high-speed gliding course is a relatively gentle prospect when skied recreationally. But you don't have to be going insanely fast to appreciate the effect of the famous tunnel under the railway - at racing speeds it must be like threading a needle in a hurricane but with greater consequences if you miss. Unless you're late for lunch, break up the journey by checking the signboards along the way which have stories and info about the race.
Shorter and sharper, 'Oh God' has a nifty hump near the top: go over this with any speed and you'll appreciate where the name came from, or possibly realize that it's actually called something else that they can't print on the piste map in any language. In good conditions, the White Hare off-piste run at the bottom of the Eiger is excellent, but it's avalanche-prone. Also on this side of the mountain, below the Eiger glacier at the extreme south of the ski area, there are a couple more black runs whose effect is heightened by their proximity to the craggy rock face; the skiing here doesn't drop very low, so the snow's good but the runs are relatively short. For a controlled off piste experience there are two ungroomed itineraries - one under the Lauberhorn chair and a short one down to Wengernalp; the open terrain and lack of cliffs makes this is a great place to be after fresh snow, with lots of between-the-piste opportunities, almost all of it sufficiently gentle to be stable, and ideal for aspiring deep-snow skiers.
First has a snow-park below Oberjoch with jumps, rails and kickers; there's a superpipe next to the Berme piste. Towards the Wengen side of the Kleine Scheidegg area, there's Jumper's Corner off the Wixi chair, and Jump Street, halfway back to the village, served by a draglift, with a halfpipe and jumps. Some of the blues in this area can be too gentle for boarders, so if you're not in the park, you'll want to be on the Grindelwald side of the mountain.
The busiest restaurant scene is at the top of Kleine Scheidegg, at the Banhof Restaurant and at the top station of Mannlichen so head to one of the many restaurants lower down the mountain for a more intimate experience. Also at Kleine Scheidegg, there's apres-ski atmosphere from very early in the day, with good music and frequently hordes of people in and around the teepee tent. The Lauberhorn Startbar at the start of the downhill course can also be lively, and the Spycher Bar at Mannlichen has a good sundeck for views onto the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau.
There's a bar or restaurant near half the lift stations on First. The top of the gondola has a quality restaurant, and there are plans to create a pizza bar up there at the expense of the ski school eating area (upsetting the ski school, mainly). The Waldspitz, on a beautiful walking trail, is a renovated old chalet with a small bar and food, as well as a few bedrooms, along with a lovely atmosphere and views. You can reach it by skiing off-piste from the top of Oberjoch or by hiking or cross-country skiing. At the Wetterhorn on the long red run home, there's a good restaurant and bar at the hotel for an end-of-day drink. The bus stops here but with good snow you can ski back to town. There are a couple more restaurants along this route - Blumlisalp and Pumuckl's.
The free ski bus is essential to get to accommodation up the hill or from the lift stations. In the absence of a humming night-time centre, and with a short daily transfer to the lifts almost wherever you start from, the best way to enjoy Grindelwald is in atmospheric lodgings slightly out of town that maximize your experience of the charming valley. In keeping with Grindelwald's popularity as a winter destination for non-skiers, the village has a walkable mix of shopping, tea rooms and restaurants, easy access to extensive winter-hiking and of course, exceptional views from every part of town.
The bars at Kleine Scheidegg, including a teepee tent, and the Lauberhorn bar by the start of the downhill are the main on-mountain spots, with the prospect of the long descent, either to Grindelwald or Wengen at the end of play.
The tiny Espresso Bar in the Hotel Spinne is always crowded. Loud music and a lot of beer, with a friendly atmosphere - the ideal meeting place after boarding or skiing. Nearby is a large plastic tent that thumps out apres-ski music. More sedate is the Gepsi Bar in the Hotel Eiger - cosy, with comfortable sofas and live music in high season.
The C&M is a cafe and restaurant in a wooden chalet towards the First end of town, ideal on your way home after skiing on this side of the resort. The Hotel Central Wolter has a cafe-bar with outside tables and chairs from which you can watch the world go by. Later into the evening, two of the best nightclubs are the Mescalero (at the Hotel Spinne) and the Plaza (Hotel Sunstar).
Day trip to the Jungfraujoch
However keen you are on skiing, don't miss the essential day out (any blue-sky day will do) for the ride to the Jungfraujoch. The train climbs through a tunnel in the Eiger to the highest station in Europe, on the Jungfraujoch at 3454m. There's a restaurant and café at the top, but it's the fantastic views over Europe's biggest glacier, the Aletsch that you go for, and the views from the windows of the the station halts en route through the Eiger. Plus the chance to brush up on your Japanese!
Additionally, the Jungfrau region's dedicated walking-and-sledging lift pass should be a hint: Grindelwald has the longest sledge run in Europe: a 15km route from the Falhorn above First which involves a 2 - 2.5-hour walk uphill. There's also an eight kilometre lift-served run and a total of eight toboggan runs giving over 50km of slopes of different grades. There can be as many as 1,200 sledgers a day. You can hire sledges at departure points and also get evening passes. Over 80km of walking paths put the resort in a league of its own for non-skiers. Some 50km are on First where you can also find some good out of-the-way mountain restaurants.