Scaling the heights

PHOTO: The Nation/ANN

The cogwheel tourist train trundling up Mount Eiger made an unscheduled stop in the tunnel to discharge a group of novices who were out for a spot of climbing on the vertical north face of the mountain.

There in the semi-darkness of a dug-out beside the rail tracks, we received a quick tutorial from mountaineering instructor Beat Hofer. The most important rule was never to be untethered from the black safety line at any time.

Wearing helmets and strapped in a harness at the waist, we moved to a door that opened at the mountain side. A cold blast of wind swept past at the exit called Stollenloch.

Hooked to the safety line, we stepped out halfway up the 3,970m limestone mountain and moved gingerly on the narrow ledge along the vertical drop.

Perched on the Eiger's famous north face, which ranks as one of the most challenging and dangerous ascents, the view of the Alpine valleys far below and the mountains from the edge was exhilarating - the thrill that mountaineers get.

Since 1935, at least 64 climbers have died trying to clamber up the bare north face. Thus its German nickname, Mordwand, literally meaning "murderous wall".

And there was our instructor Hofer, dangling on a lifeline with his back to the valley 2,000m below and nonchalantly reassuring us: "This is safer than base jumping and paragliding."

As he spoke, we saw the tiny figure of a black-suited base jumper with arms and legs spread wide apart like Spiderman plummeting down the mountain, only to open his parachute just moments before he hit the ground.

Mountain climbing is a safe sport but it is not for weak knees, and you need strong fingers to cling onto the crevices for dear life as you scale the steep walls. It is easier climbing up than coming down.

But rappelling is fun as you hop to descend from the heights. Just be mindful of loose and brittle limestone shards.

Not counting the roughly 200 climbers who scale the north face of Eiger each year, regular tourists go up the mountain by train to enjoy the spectacular views of the Bernese Alps.

Next, we hiked on the Eiger Trail at the base of the north face. The 6km walk through an undulating landscape of Alpine vegetation and gravel paths provides time to enjoy pastoral Switzerland's beauty as the calm and quiet of the mountains embrace you.

Lake of inspiration

Inspired by Swiss Tourism's latest attraction, the Grand Tour of Switzerland, we began the trip in the Olympic city Lausanne beside picturesque Lake Geneva, which has inspired poets and writers for ages.

A hotel plaque says: "In this house Lord Byron wrote The Prisoner, thereby adding one more deathless association to the already immortalised localities of the lake."

The 1,600km Grand Tour by road or rail takes visitors to many parts of Switzerland. The road network is superb and well connected for those who travel by car or motorbike. Equally good are the Swiss trains as they are co mfortable, swift and punctual.

The fun for us began with a scenic train journey past vineyards, through pine forests, creeks and green meadows to ski region Glacier 3,000m high in the mountains. We rode on the classic Golden Pass train with wood-panelled coaches, gold trimmings and deep velvet seats.

In the final segment up the mountain, we rose to the heavens in a gondola to catch the majestic views of the Swiss Alps from a long suspension bridge that connects two summits. At 3,000m, this is the highest point in Canton Vaud, venue of winter sports from October to May.

An added attraction here is speeding downhill in an open Alpine coaster, touted as the world's highest toboggan run.

In Thun, we saw a pretty town bedecked with fl owers by the turquoise lake where the German composer Brahms used to live. At the wooden sluice gates, surfers rode on the mighty torrents down the river Aare. Crystal-clear water from the retreating glaciers melted by the summer sun rushed down the rivers to fill the lakes.

In the Swiss Alps are found many peaks of satisfaction, mostly natural, but one notable summit is inspired by Hollywood. Schilthorn has adopted the 007 secret agent for James Bond diehards. All things Bond, including a hefty chunk of Skyfall steak, are found here on this 2,970m-high peak. If you are lucky enough to get a window seat in Piz Gloria, the 007-themed revolving restaurant, you can see Switzerland's famous mountains, including the Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger, in the 45 minutes that it takes to rotate 360 degrees.

There is also a panoramic viewing platform, where you can get the same gorgeous views on a clear day.

Guide lines

- I flew on Swissair to Zurich and boarded a train to Lausanne to start the tour in the Lake Geneva region.

- The Grand Tour of Switzerland is tailored for travel by car or motorbike. Trains are a good alternative but you have to arrange for local transport to some popular spots. Go to www.MySwitzerland.com/grandtour

- Switzerland's currency is the Swiss franc (CHF1 = S$1.46).

- To climb the Eiger's north face (Stollenloch) with Eiger Vision, the cost is CHF3,000 (S$4,400) for five people. Check out the details in www.eigervision.ch or contact beat@eigervision.ch

- You will need waterproof hiking shoes, warm clothes, strong knees and a bit of nerve.

Go to sgtravellers.com for more stories.

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