We first arrived at the railway station at Lauterbrunnen in order to change trains to the little green and yellow cog train that would take us up the mountain to Wengen, our home for the next seven days. After leaving Lauterbrunnen station, the cog train curves left almost immediately, climbing up the side of the valley. This gives you a glorious view back down the valley towards the mountains that contain the famous ski resorts associated with the Eiger, Jungfrau and Schilthorn. Further up the mountain, the view changed and we were staggered by the sight of an imposing waterfall, falling into the valley beside the township of Lauterbrunnen. You know something is impressive when the rest of the tourists on the train stand up, move to one side and start shooting photos out the windows. This 300 metre waterfall is called the Staubbach Falls and is the first in the long line of apparently 72 waterfalls stretching down this trough valley.
On the day we investigated the Valley of the Waterfalls, we started off by climbing the valley wall on the opposite side to Wengen in a gondola that took us well up the mountain. We then changed vehicles to a train that chugged slowly along the plateau to a village called Murren that sat perched on the end of the escarpment. At this point of our journey I thought we were way too high as the sheer cliff facing us on the other side of the valley on the opposite side of the valley seemed to go down for ever. As we were walking from the Murren train station to the next Gondola, we were nearly run over by small children riding bikes to school. It was clearly a much larger village than I thought was possible in such an inaccessible place. There was a ‘road’ up to Murren from Lauterbrunnen but it would take a person of immense courage to take its torturous path.
But we were not yet finished climbing to the heavens. As the sign beside the next Gondola indicated, we were at 1907 metres high and the next stop took us up to 2677 metres. It was at this stop we could take what the locals laughably called the ‘Thrill Walk’, a glass bottomed narrow walkway pinioned to the side of the cliff where the view downwards goes on forever (or about 2670 metres! It is was not the place for acrophobics tempted by thoughts of throwing themselves from a great height; the fall would take too long and give too much time for reconsidering foolish decisions. Sensibly I ignored this challenge and we immediately jumped on the next gondola going further up another six hundred metres of snow covered cliff faces. We finally arrived at Piz Gloria, the top of the mountain where there was a revolving restaurant where we could eat our soup and gaze out into the mists on the top of Schilthorn.
The Piz Gloria has an interesting back story with a vague link to Australia. The original half-finished ski resort on the top of Schiltorn mountain was found by the movie makers preparing for the shooting of the James Bond 1969 extravaganza, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. It was the perfect setting for the evil genius planning to destroy the world so the producers offered to finance the finishing of the site so they could use it in their movie. It was a key point in the timeline of the James Bond movie series as Sean Connery had decided to give up the role and so a new actor had to be brought in. Mysteriously the producers chose one George Lazenby, an unknown Australian actor. He told the world that he didn’t want to get typecast so he quit the James Bond role at the end of this movie. He wasn’t seen again in any further movies and a quick look at his acting performance in this movie, fifty years later, gives a clue as to why his service were never in big demand.
Riding to the top of mountains in Switzerland is fraught with weather issues, particularly if the clouds have descended too low. This was the case at Schilthorn as we searched for a view from the highest platform where we could answer James Bond quiz questions and flirt with George Lazenby cut-outs. It was then time to head back down Schilthorn in two gondolas to the village of Murren. Getting down the rest of the mountain to the ‘Valley of the Loud Waterfalls’ was via a different pair of gondolas from Murren to Stechelberg.
After surviving the descent down the sheer mountainside from Murren, we alighted from our transport right beside a waterfall of immense proportions and noise. This was the Murrenbach waterfall and it had been measured in 2009 at 417 Metres. The sign in the carpark at Stechelberg stated the measurement had been done from the roof of the gondola we had just come down in. How this was done was not explained; perhaps some foolhardy surveyor had the gondola stopped at the right point, climbed out on to the roof of the gondola and dropped a line to the floor of the valley? Who knows what people with no nerves will do to figure out whether it was a free-falling waterfall or a ‘cascade’ or whether Murrenbach was the highest waterfall in Switzerland? All I knew was that it was an amazingly beautiful work of nature and the same could be said for the rest of the four kilometre walk back to Lauterbrunnen beside the rushing river, the Mountain side and the waterfalls.
The claim for this valley is that there are 72 waterfalls over its length. Given that we didn’t start at the end of the valley, we certainly didn’t see the full 72. Given that I am not sure what the conventions are for deciding whether a cascade with four branches at the top or at the end of its journey down the cliff-face makes it one waterfall or four, it is hard to tell how the count would work. The point is that there are so many waterfalls in this valley leading down to Lauterbrunnen that the numbers become meaningless.
There are even waterfalls that are hidden behind rock faces and crevices. We passed the sign in the image to the right pointing to Trummelbach falls, which may not be the highest in the valley but it’s certainly very famous. Given the distance back to the train station and the possibility that the tunnels needed to view the falls may not be open, we kept heading forward. But to give you an idea of what we missed here, here is the description from ‘myswitzerland.com’.
“Loud thundering and roaring in the interior of the mountain, gurgling, foaming and churning water: these are the Trümmelbach Falls. They are Europe’s largest subterranean water-falls and are located in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, often called the valley of 72 waterfalls. The Trümmelbach Falls are the world’s only glacier waterfalls that are accessible underground by lift, galleries, tunnels, paths and platforms. They alone carry the meltwater of the glaciers from the Jungfrau down to the valley – up to 20,000 liters of water per second. The water carries with it over 20,000 tons of boulders and scree per year and causes the entire mountain to shudder and make a thundering noise.”
We were far from the only people who have found the waterfalls of this valley overwhelming. Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), considered the greatest German literary figure of his time, traveled in this region in 1779 and wrote a poem entitled ‘Song of the Spirits over the Water’ in response to his pleasure at viewing the valley’s water-falls.
The soul of man Resembleth water:
From heaven it cometh, To heaven it soareth.
And then again To earth descendeth,
The English Romantic poet Lord George Byron, whose Swiss travel path we crossed on our visit to Montrieux a few days earlier, also visited this valley in 1818 and waxed lyrical about the wonders of the falls.
The waterfall that we had been viewing out the window of our train up to Wengen each day is the same waterfall that Goethe had been so impressed by back in the 18th century, the Staubbach Falls. To get up close and personal with these falls had been the major driver in deciding to take the long walk from Stechelberg to Lauterbrunnen. The falls were just outside the township and it was possible to see from the train, the paths that led up to the base of the waterfall. It was my goal to get as close as Byron obviously had so many years before. Unfortunately for us, but possibly better for the falls and tourists in general, they had closed off the paths that accessed the bottom of this amazing waterfall. There were not only paths heading up towards the falls, but back in the day they had clearly made tunnels in the cliff face that took tourists behind the falls. No doubt some major accident had caused the authorities to close the access to behind the waterfall, but the sight of the Staubbach Falls from our vantage point of the road was enough to cancel out any disappointment.
The famous Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland that featured in the fight to the death between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty are not in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Given that Reichenbach is only around 120 metres high, it is a good thing that Arthur Conan Doyle did not choose one of the waterfalls from this valley as a real or even fictional character could not have survived such a fall. It was two weary bodies that strolled into Lauteburren after a long walk that afternoon, satisfied with what we had seen along the way but disappointed we had run out of Swiss Franks to purchase a yogurt ice-cream that would have cured us of the ills of the trail.