Vis à vis with the Eiger

Posted on: 04 Aug 2015

I arrived back in Switzerland to a heatwave, with temperatures up in the mid-30s. Apparently it had been like this the entire time I was away, too. With a 4 day holiday planned (spectating at the Eiger Trail Ultra, where a friend of J's was running, and a couple of days' walking), I hoped it would be cooler in the mountains.

Friday 17th July: after a lovely train ride over the Brünig Pass, we collected the Mobility car at Interlaken West station, and drove the couple of kms to the hotel at Unspunnen. Booked as something of a stopgap as our hotel near Grindelwald was full on the Friday night, I was soon absolutely won over by its shabby charm. Dating from 1906, that golden age of tourism, it still retained its aura. Our room, in the smaller of two linked buildings, was still as its Edwardian guests would have experienced it: single-glazed windows, with their ornate brass fastenings; creaky wooden floor; no bathroom, but the original basin (hot and cold water - that would probably have been a luxury then.) "We can't afford to renovate it," the man at the desk explained. (Thank goodness!) - though the rooms in the other building have been modernized. There was more: a long, airy terrace, where we sat and had a drink when we arrived; the dining room (with genteel affectation labelled 'Salle à manger' despite being in the German-speaking part of Switzerland) with its parlour palms, moulded ceiling, and Art Nouveau panels over the doors; and the absolute pièce de résistance, the toilet! Since a picture is supposedly worth a thousand words.............!




Only one thing has substantially changed since 1906: the view. Then, I imagine, the guests would have looked out onto a green valley virtually untouched by civilization, and the mountains beyond that. Well, the mountains are still there, but the nearer view is now occupied by a motorway, a vast garage, and an electricity sub-station!

Despite that, I loved the place. Anyway, if it's good enough for Emma Pooley, it's good enough for me! (I spotted a signed photo of her behind the desk - she stayed there when she ran the Jungfrau Marathon.) The Italian waiter also runs, though he said ruefully that he's put on a bit too much weight to do it justice these days; and so, apparently, does the owner. A very runner-friendly establishment!

Anyway, enough eulogizing about the hotel, and on to business. After reviving with a cold beer on the terrace, we decided to go in search of the pre-race pasta party (surely there was one?) in Grindelwald. So through Wilderswil and up the winding but busy road we drove, located the race HQ near the station, and were just about to go and queue for a plateful of pasta when shouted greetings caught our attention. We hadn't really expected to see Georg, but there he was. I've mentioned him before, I think. Despite being in his mid-sixties, and having a medical condition that means he is unable to process food properly, and therefore has to eat almost constantly to maintain his already skeletal weight, he has run innumerable ultras. He ran this same race (101 kms, and over 6,000 metres of ascent!) last year, and despite falling and cutting his chin so badly that it had to be stitched by a medic at one of the checkpoints, he carried on and finished. I think he must have incredible toughness under that rather reticent exterior. We had a brief chat with him, but the runners had to go to their pre-race briefing, so we said we'd look out for him the next day. Pasta eaten, and very little going on now - presumably most of the runners had now retired to bed in preparation for the early start - we decided we might as well head back to the hotel and do likewise.

Saturday 18th July: Slept okay-ish, despite a hot night, and a mosquito that came visiting (and bit me.) Breakfast in the 'Salle à manger', packing, a wistful goodbye to the Waldhotel, and back to Grindelwald again. Despite having planned the day with military precision to be at particular points of the race at particular times, things soon fell apart due to our failure to find a car park - all the ones we saw seemed to be private ones for hotels and restaurants. We eventually located one right at the top end of Grindelwald, drove frantically around trying to find a space, and it was only by a stroke of luck that we eventually spotted someone leaving. We then sprinted the length of the village (which is long) back to the station, to get the bus up to Bussalp. Stroke of luck no. 2: the bus was late. I had already given up on it, but there it was - we just made it. The journey was spectacular, winding up and up on a narrow little road, disgorging us finally outside the restaurant at the top. Two dropped-out runners were waiting there to make the return journey back to Grindelwald. The race didn't actually come past here, it was higher up, at Oberläger, so we had a half hour trek over steep alpine pastures to reach it. A crowd of runners were clustered round the feed station there, fortifying themselves for the long slog up Faulhorn, and the highest point of the race. We walked back along the route for a while, dispensing encouragement, and keeping a lookout for Georg, but when the last little group had passed, with the tail runner bringing up the rear, we realized we must have missed him. Back at the feed station, the helpers were packing up, so after helping ourselves to a few leftovers, we went back down to the restaurant, taking the road this time - a bit longer, but kinder on the knees. Expecting a bus, we waited and waited..........and here the next planning failure presented itself: the 2 hour midday gap in the timetable. Oh well......... this is a restaurant, at least we can have lunch! (Quiche and salad, very good.)

Back on the bus, now an hour behind schedule. Runners from the 51 km race were already beginning to arrive at the finish, so I stationed myself there to applaud, while J. went to retrieve the car. He picked me up, and we drove the few kms back down the road to our hotel, near Burglauenen: from 'Edwardian faded splendour' to 'Alpine chalet'. After checking in, I walked the ten minutes or so back towards Burglauenen station, where the race came down from Schynige Platte and crossed the road towards Männlichen (or Grindelwald and the finish for the E51), while J. sorted out a problem with the car. It was now brutally hot; even the spectators sought what shade they could find. I stood with a little international group (a Danish family, a couple of Americans, various others - apparently there were 50 nationalities represented in the race) at the foot of a long hill, applauding till my hands were sore. Suddenly I spotted the familiar gaunt figure of Georg, and gave him a shout - he turned, waved, and was gone again. He still looked good, but some of them looked very weary. J just missed him, arriving about 3 minutes later. As the arrivals began to thin out, we walked a bit further along the route to the next checkpoint, where the runners had the chance to take a rest (cut-off time permitting), change clothes, refuel, or (as some did) drop out. The proximity to a railway station must have been a real temptation, especially in the knowledge that having come all this way down, the route then went all the way up again......... and then ultimately back down once more.

Time for the next stage of the plan: back to the hotel, collect the car, drive back up to Grindelwald, park at Grund, and get the cablecar up to Männlichen to catch the runners as they came up from Wengen. No parking problems this time, and soon we were on our way up, floating above the E51 runners as they absolved the last few kms of their race. This must be the best-value cablecar in the world - a good half hour's worth. It felt cool and airy at the top, after the stifling heat of the valley. We stood for a while at the viewpoint, watching the runners toiling up through the avalanche barriers (it's insanely steep - a real killer),


shared a bottle of apple juice on the restaurant terrace, then set off along the aptly-named Panorama Weg towards Kleine Scheidegg, eyeball to eyeball with the 'Dreigestirn' of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau. Runners passed us at intervals, some still with the energy for a bit of banter - I particularly remember a trio of cheery German lads joking 'only 30 kms to go, we're nearly there!' and looking forward to breakfast; 'No -' corrected one of them, 'a shower, THEN breakfast!' This is one of the kinder parts of the route, flat or gently downhill, and I think they really appreciated it after the toughness of the preceding 71 kms.


Shortly before Kleine Scheidegg, under the looming North Face of the Eiger, this more relaxed state of affairs came to an end as the route turned sharply to the right and headed off on a loop up the Lauberhorn. Here a marshall with a clipboard was checking their numbers. We posted ourselves on a rocky outcrop near the foot of this new ascent, and clapped and cheered every passing runner. This being the Lauberhorn, there were one or two joky remarks along the lines of 'Oh, I've forgotten my skis!', and most of them managed a remark or a smile, but there were also some seriously exhausted-looking looking ones. We gave them all the encouragement we could muster. We had estimated that, on the basis of his time at Burglauenen, Georg might come through at around eight o'clock, We decided to give it till half past, but then we would have to set off back to Männlichen before it went dark. Just in case, we had a dynamo torch with us, so inbetween applauding, I was winding that up.

Half past came; still no Georg. "Another few minutes........." I had noticed there was a photographer just a bit further up the hill, so I walked up to see if he might mistake me for a runner. (He didn't........ but took my picture all the same, though it doesn't seem to have appeared in the list.) And just as I was chatting to him - here came Georg! - still looking good.

(In orange)

Having seen him on his way, we noticed how dark it was getting, and decided it really was time to be heading back. The number-noting marshall was looking a bit concerned as we passed him again........ though not on our behalf. He said they'd had word there was a big thunderstorm coming, and they were going to have to collect all the runners into somewhere safe and halt the race for a while. Oh dear, this was bad news, not only for the runners! - I felt an unpleasant frisson of fear as the memory of several scary experiences with thunderstorms came back to haunt me. 4 kms, general trend uphill, separated us from safety back at Männlichen: I set off walking fast. The first rumbles of thunder growled in the distance; the horizon began to flicker. I walked faster. Lone runners continued to pass; one of them, a totally unperturbed-looking elderly man, asked me the time, as he was supposed to put his head torch on at nine, but it was getting so dark now, I was unable to help. The storm came audibly and visibly closer - it was clear it was going to catch us. I began to intersperse some running with the walking. And here came the rain, hard and sudden, the lightning now disquietingly close. A final runner passed, a Japanese girl all on her own. She had that inscrutable air of calm that they always seem to have, but I wondered if she felt as scared as I did, and hoped she would be okay. For most of the way back, there was the (possibly illusory) comfort of some higher ground on our left, but the last bit was across a flat, open saddle where we would be the highest thing on the horizon......... and just as we reached it, there was the biggest flash of lightning yet, closely followed by a resounding crack of thunder. I let out a scream of sheer panic and began to sprint, crouching low over the ground. The cablecar station was just ahead now, only a couple of hundred metres away, but they were the most uphill of the lot, and it seemed to take forever to get there. But we made it! We weren't sure the cablecars would be running in these conditions. Apparently they were, if we wanted to go, but the sky was now in such paroxysms, we decided it might be preferable to sit it out in the restaurant for a while, rather than risk dangling in a little cabin out there in the storm. Another quick sprint across the terrace, then soaked and with nerves still jangling, we drank a consoling hot chocolate, watched the sky pulsating outside, and worried about the runners out in this: Georg & co., stranded somewhere between Lauberhorn and Kleine Scheidegg; the Japanese lady.......... At a neighbouring table, race officials were having a crisis meeting, with much consulting of computers and telephones; we earwigged a bit, and eventually gathered that they were collecting and holding the runners in a couple of buildings en route, they would send the train up again to retrieve them and bring them to Kleine Scheidegg station, and if conditions eventually permitted, they would release them on their way again via a shortened course. By now, things seemed to have calmed down a bit outside, and the deadline for the last cablecar journey (10.30) was approaching, so we went for it. It was now pitch dark, and it was an odd feeling to be floating through total blackness; lightning was still flickering all around, but more distant now, and I actually quite enjoyed the trip down. We originally planned just to collect the car and go straight back to the hotel, but then we had a vision of poor runners finishing, having run 101 kms, and nobody being there to welcome them or even witness their moment of triumph......... Our duty was clear! - WE had to be there! Down at Grund, the rain was teeming down; another sprint across the car park, then back we drove to Grindelwald, parked by the station again, and a final sprint to the marquee at race HQ - just too wet to stand outside by the actual finish. Various other bedraggled people were congregated there, presumably friends and family awaiting 'their' runners. I bought a beer, and had just sat down to drink it when an official came in and hesitantly made an announcement he knew was not going to be well-received: they were going to have to take the marquee down! - apparently it was getting so stormy, they were afraid the wind would get in under it and blow it away. (So now the runners would arrive to no welcome, no waiting family, no refreshment, no shelter - in fact, nothing at all!) No-one seemed in any hurry to obey his instructions to vacate the tent (which was indeed flapping and billowing wildly by now), so maybe he thought better of it - at any rate, the marquee stayed. A couple of soaked runners did come in, and were given medals and tee shirts with no ceremony; I think they were just too relieved to finish to care much. Towards midnight, with our intentions seeming a bit redundant, we decided to call it a day. Windscreen wipers flailing furiously, we drove back down to the hotel and our very welcome bed.

Sorry, I've enjoyed writing this a bit too much, and it's ended up 'rather' long......... Days 3 & 4 to follow soon.

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