In mid-March I spent about a week in the resort town of Grindelwald. It was a working trip; I didn't get a chance to ski or explore very much. Still, it was pretty spectacular there. Our hotel was near the base of the Eiger. Rather than email a trip report with a bunch of photos to my friends & family, I've finally figured out how to use a photo gallery plugin here. Very slowly, this is starting to look like a real website!
More, and photos, below the fold.
I've just read over what I've written and it's not exactly organized. Sorry about that. I might come back later and edit this to tighten it up.
Every winter, the head of my research group takes the whole group on a retreat. Each person gives a presentation about his/her work and we have some discussion about it. It's a good idea, the group is pretty large and is split between two sites. I got better acquainted with some members of the group I haven't seen much of before, and I got a better idea of what research everyone is doing. Our group also participates in a similar yearly event with other groups doing similar research at a few other universities in Europe. This year the events were planned together, so we first had a few days to ourselves and our events, and then the other groups arrived and we had the larger gathering. The result was that we all spent many hours each day in seminars. I can't say much about the research, though. Part of the point of the gathering was to have a chance to discuss the research freely amongst ourselves. But with all the seminars, I didn't really get a chance to hike around or ski down any of the surrounding mountains.
I'm used to mountains; I've hiked and driven in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado many times, but these were amazing. I remember one climbing trip in Colorado, in which we were driving up Clear Creek Canyon on Highway 6, which was closed to all traffic except climbers and fishermen due to a rockslide several miles up. Our driver had climbed for several years on the East Coast, but this was his first time at this location and he was just blown away. We ended up going about 10 miles an hour, with the driver hunched over the steering wheel trying to look straight up at the canyon walls. That's how I felt here. So I have lots of photos of the mountains (see gallery below), and I'm sure my photos entirely fail to convey just how ridiculously steep and imposing they were.
I'm not too clear on the geography around Grindelwald, but I'm pretty sure that what I saw out my hotel window was the north face of the Eiger. There's a map of the Interlaken region here (opens in new window). Grindelwald is towards the upper-left. People here keep talking about a trio of mountains, the Eiger, the Moench, and the Jungfrau. But from where I was the Eiger didn't actually stand out from the other mountains and I don't think I could see the Jungfrau at all.
The weather was all over the place for the first few days. When we arrived it was overcast. The next day was sunny and bright, and the next day it snowed and then was cloudy. After that, though, the days were sunny. At the level of the hotel it wasn't too cold either. I could sit out on the hotel's balcony in the sun and read my book or take a nap without a jacket. It rapidly gets colder at higher elevations, of course. (And upon returning to Zurich, I see that spring has finally arrived here as well! It's at least partly sunny most days, and there are flowers blooming all over the place.)
The day after we arrived, we took a trip to the Jungfraujoch, which is the highest railway station in Europe at 3450 m (11,330 feet). It's at the top of the saddle between the Moench and the Jungfrau. We got a tour of a research station located there, and also saw the Sphinx Observatory, at 3570 m (11,720 ft). By Minnesota standards, it doesn't get spectacularly cold there, but the winds were very very strong. The air pressure there was about 660 mbar, or 66% of air pressure at sea level (that also means we were higher than about 1/3 of the atmosphere, by mass). So we were all moving a bit slowly, but since we were at the high altitude for only a few hours, there wasn't time to get altitude sickness.
The research station is permanently manned; there are two couples that take turns there on 2 or 3 week shifts. There's room for many visiting scientists, but there aren't very many any more, we were told. The station still conducts research, but these days scientists just arrive to install their experiments, then hook them up to the internet and leave again. A lot of what they do is atmospheric research, since the station is high enough to be away from pretty much all pollution. They take pains to keep the air pure there. All power and heat is provided by electricity; there are no burners for natural gas or anything else. Smoking isn't allowed anywhere in the area. All this is on the scientific side. There's a touristic area too, with a restaurant, an ice palace, and other activities and sights.
Our guide mentioned that this January they once measured an air temperature of 0.2 °C. He went back through all the records of the station, and they have never before measured a temperature above freezing in January. The glacier that starts at the Jungfraujoch has also shrunk over the decades. I couldn't see it, but I was told that some ways down the glacier a hut was built several decades ago on the side of the mountain at the level of the glacier. Today, the hut is well above the level of the glacier. The end of the glacier is also receding. On top of the observatory there was an experiment placed by Mammut. It had several samples of textiles, I guess they were testing them for endurance when exposed to cold, moisture, UV radiation, etc. There was also an experiment by an Italian group that unfortunately didn't seem to be quite holding up to the conditions. There's more I wanted to say about the research station, but I can't bring it to mind at the moment.
One afternoon I took a couple of hours and walked around Grindelwald. It's a very small villiage, with something like 4000 permanent residents. But there could easily be that many more tourists there as well. I was a little disappointed that the center of the village felt much the same as a resort town in Colorado -- all hotels, restaurants, ski shops, and souvenier shops. I did see two American-style pickup trucks here for the first time in Switzerland. They were Nissans.
Our hotel was really posh. I've never stayed in a 4-star hotel before, and here we had the full package. Lunch and dinner were three-course affairs every day, which actually got a little annoying because they were also very time-consuming. But the food was just wonderful. Those who know me know that I am not a fan of fruit in general, but I think I'm becoming a little more tolerant of berries after so many of the desserts there featured them. I didn't think to bring a bathing suit so I didn't get a chance to try out the pool or sauna.
All of our travel was by train. It's about 2:40 between Grindelwald and Zurich (just over 3 hours if I include taking the tram to my apartment), and you have to change trains twice, at Bern and at Interlaken. On the trip out we had reserved sections of cars, which was pretty cool. Traveling up to the Jungfraujoch was also by train. We went first to the Kleine Scheidegg station, and from there took the Jungfraubahn up through about 9 km of tunnel. All the trains are electric, and most of the ones around Grindelwald are cog railways.
Weather instruments on the Sphinx ObservatoryThe instruments themselves, at the very top, are heated. Everything else gets these awesome snow tails.