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The "cathedral roof" of the Bernese Oberland

The railway to the Jungfraujoch has taken some of the challenge out of the climb to the summit (picture: Heimatmuseum Grindelwald)


The Jungfrau, or maiden - one of the highest mountains in Switzerland at 4,158 metres - was climbed long before most other 4,000-metre peaks.

Two Swiss brothers from canton Aargau first climbed the Jungfrau in 1811. Seventeen years later, during another successful ascent, the climbers were well-equipped. They carried three ladders, 84 fathoms of rope, a gun, and an iron flag.

The Jungfrau, along with the two other members of the alpine trio, the Eiger and the Mönch, have tantalized intrepid travellers to the Bernese Oberland for centuries. Looming above Grindelwald and the villages of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the mountains' northern routes are perilous in the best of conditions.

In 1811 Johann Rudolf Meyer and Hieronymus Meyer, sons of a respected mapmaker, decided to traverse most of the country from north to south to make an attempt on the Jungfrau.

Once in the Bernese Oberland, they began their roundabout trip to tackle the peak from the south. They journeyed over the Grimsel Pass and onto Brig in canton Valais accompanied by chamois hunters as guides. Turning north again, they crossed a first series of glaciers before arriving at the Lötschenlücke (Lötschen Gap).

They had circled the high plateau of snow and ice, capped by 4,000-metre peaks, and found themselves within striking distance of the Jungfrau summit. They bedded down for the night, "as well as possible, beside and on top of one another, to keep warm."

On the following day, they set out to explore the terrain, and more importantly, to identify the mountain. After bivouacking in frigid conditions a second night, they succeeding the following day in becoming the first ever to reach the peak.

Even though they planted a black flag on the summit, their claim was not believed, so members of the Meyer family set out the following year to uphold the family name. Once again, the Meyers succeeded.


It was several years before a scientist from Solothurn, Franz Joseph Hugi, took up the challenge. In 1827, Hugi was studying the rocks of the Rottal area on the south-western slopes of the Jungfrau - a region, according to folklore, inhabited by ghosts and evil spirits.

Superstition or, perhaps, poor planning - something kept Hugi from success. A group of British climbers were also unsuccessful the same summer.

The various unsuccessful attempts however only added to the mountain's allure. To the north, the Bernese were determined to attack the summit from their side of the mountain - where no one had succeeded before.

According to legend, an ancient pass over the glaciers connected the Bernese Oberland village of Grindelwald with the Valais. An employee at Bern's natural history museum, Caspar Rohrdorf, fascinated by the story, decided to find the pass.

Pouring over maps, he focused on the foot of the Jungfrau and set off for Grindelwald where, after spending a few weeks making observations, he assembled a team of 12 guides and porters.

Rohrdorf's party, weighed down by stone and wooden augers, ladders, axes, 84 fathoms of rope, a gun, and an iron flag, made it as far as the Jungfraujoch before having to turn back.

Guides left Rohrdorf behind

Rohrdorf returned to Bern, leaving his equipment in Grindelwald for another try at a later date. But his guides had other plans and set off secretly with his gear. Following the route Rohrdorf had carefully chosen, the seven Grindelwald men left their village for what was to prove a four-day adventure.

They climbed up over the Fiescher Glacier to get behind the Eiger, then crept slowly across the Upper and Lower Mönchsjoch before making a break on the third day for the summit.

It was an arduous, long climb and as they finally reached the top in the late afternoon, they found there wasn't enough room for all to stand, or to plant Rohrdorf's iron flag. The seven had to work quickly with their shovels and axes to flatten the snow and ice on the narrow peak.

With storm clouds moving in, the flag was secured and eventually seen from the valley below. The men's feat was celebrated from Grindelwald to Bern, despite the breach of faith with Rohrdorf.

Hanging on a slope

It would be another 13 years before someone would set foot on the Jungfrau again, but this time it would be a Briton - the leading scientist and mountaineer, James David Forbes, and his Swiss colleague, the leading zoologist and pioneering glacier researcher, Louis Agassiz.

Forbes' effort would also have a greater impact than previous ones, for it was the first ascent of a major peak by a British climber, which he would describe dramatically in his book documenting his climbs. It signalled that the British were coming.

His description of the harrowing ascent of the Jungfrau is still compelling: "Our position seemed rather frightful, hanging thus on a slope of unbroken slippery ice, steep as a cathedral roof...we were surrounded by mist, so that we occasionally only saw our immediate position, suspended really appeared as if a gust of wind might have detached our whole party."


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