THE North Face of Eiger mountain is often in the news, as experienced climbers attempt and sometimes fail to reach its 13,026-foot summit. To me, it was always a far distant, legendary place. So imagine my surprise when it was pointed out to me on my first skiing trip to Grindelwald. The huge, sinister North Face is a shady, almost vertical rock face in the Jungfrau region of Switzerland's Berner Oberland. It's part of the famous Eiger-M"onch-Jungfrau triumvirate of peaks that dominates this popular ski and mountaineering area.
A long cog railway from Grindelwald to the Kleine Scheidegg-Eiger Glacier ski area passes right under this imposing peak. But after the Eiger Glacier station, on the way to the Jungfraujock (the pass), your trip becomes truly fantastic. The train goes right into the North Face. It takes a rising serpentine turn through a very long tunnel, occasionally stopping to let passengers leave the train and look out through large openings cut into the North Face rock. It's mind-boggling to realize that right here climbers perform their desperate feats. Alone they face rock falls, cold, and exhaustion - while the safety of a comfortable train is so close.
These thoughts leave you once you arrive on the Jungfraujock, a plateau equipped with telescopes and a large cafeteria. From here you look over to the Jungfrau (13,642 feet) and down on the Aletsch Glacier (Europe's largest) to see the white, sparkling vastness. I promise myself to come back in spring or summer, when this marvelous mountainscape is accessible.
The Kleine Scheidegg-Eiger Glacier-M"annlichen massif is Grindelwald's largest and most developed ski area, with cog railways, cable cars, a gondola, chairlifts, and surface lifts. Grindelwald has 43 uphill facilities, with descents of varying skill levels: easy, intermediate, and expert, plus the famous Lauberhorn World Cup race course. For me it was a great thrill to ski for the first time on a glacier - the Eiger Glacier - off a cog railway without a strenuous climb.
The Grindelwald resort is very cosmopolitan - each year 40,000 visitors come from all over Europe, including Germans, French, Italians, Austrians, Belgians, and Dutch. Canada sends about 1,000, the United States about 15,000, but Japan sends even more - about 23,000. Many of the signs are in Japanese.
Below the Eiger Glacier is Grindelwald's ``ski circus,'' which allows skiers to go uphill on one conveyance, ski down to the start of another, and so on, skiing all day without repeating the same run twice. One of the best descents is from the M"annlichen (vertical drop of 4,259 feet) to Grindelwald Grund, where you can get back on the cog railway.
To get to the First ski area (across the valley from the Eiger) you ride, sitting sideways, on an ancient, three-section chairlift, looking out into beautiful mountain scenery. There are restaurants with sun terraces at the stops. But above this area, look out. There comes a rather hairy 15-minute ride up and down and around corners on a Schlepplift (similar to an American Poma lift), which takes you to Oberjoch at an altitude of 8,098 feet.
Within the Grindelwald orbit is the charming, small resort of M"urren, another of Grindelwald's ski areas. It's well known in Europe and worth a visit. Nearby is the cable car to the Schilthorn, but it's the one lift in the area that doesn't honor your regional lift ticket.
There weren't any long waits in line at Grindelwald's uphill facilities. The very long stretches are covered by nine cog railways. You need to arrive 10 to 15 minutes before their punctual departure to get a seat. At the end of the line, the trainload of skiers splits up, some heading for a ski school group, some for the restaurant, others for one of the other lifts, so there's no problem. Getting on a cable car, you never go through those ugly mob scenes that I've seen in some other Alpine resorts.
Alpine ski touring is also popular. For this you climb on your own power rather than on a lift, in a small group with a guide, to reach the remote passes and lonesome peaks. Then you ski down on vast snowfields through quiet woods. One-day tours start in mid-February, and touring from hut to hut, the Haute Route, a strong skier's greatest experience, is organized in three- to nine-day trips in late April and May.
Among the many great services Grindelwald offers is a ski day nursery, where the little ones can play, ski, nap, eat, and give their parents time off.
The town fathers of Grindelwald (pop., 3,600) have done very well in preserving the ambiance of the place. There are no high-rises, no colossal hotels, no shopping malls - just a short main street with a mixture of hotels, restaurants, shops, and services.
There is every kind of apr`es-ski entertainment, though, from folklore to discos, and much to do for the nonskier. Curling is popular, as are indoor and outdoor skating, sleigh rides, sledding, heated indoor swimming pools, hiking trails, and bus excursions.
Grindelwald has 9,500 beds in a wide range of comfort and prices, starting with Massenl"ager (rustic dormitories) for 8 Swiss francs per night (about $11). There are rooms in pensions (guesthouses) that serve breakfast, apartments and ch^alets to be rented by the week, two- and three-star hotels, and luxury hotels with rooms costing 200 francs a night (about $275).
Unfortunately, the current exchange rate is poor and likely to get worse. But if you pay for a package trip at home, you do not have to worry about the rate. Also, with a prepaid package, you pay less for everything than an independent traveler would.
A week in Grindelwald - transfers, seven nights' lodging, breakfast, and dinner - will cost, depending on the type of hotel, from $435 to $865 in the Alpine Experience Program of Swissair (higher at Christmas). With it comes a round-trip air fare (New York-Zurich) of $528 and very reasonable add-on fares from other cities.
One could also consider a TRAVAC package, which includes air fare on Balair (a Swiss charter company with departures every Friday). Six nights at a three-star hotel with half-board will cost about $850. with slight variations depending on time of year. This is quite a good deal. If there are three or more in your party, you would do well to rent an apartment or chalet. A ski pass for a week for the whole region costs 182 francs (about $250).
Finally, local hotels offer very good packages. They are called Swisski Arrangements and include seven nights lodging, breakfast, a seven-day all-lift pass for the region, and ski bus. Combined with a Balair charter flight, these represent good values.
If you go
Swiss National Tourist Offices can be found in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. Alpine Experience Programs and Alpine Chalet vacations can be arranged through Swissair offices in New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. For Swisski Arrangements and apartments, contact Tourist Office, CH 3818 Grindelwald, Switzerland, telephone (41) (36) 53 12 12. TRAVAC has offices in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Los Angeles, and Miami.