I elbowed my way beside my husband through the crowds outside Sphinx Observatory at Jungfraujoch, Europe's highest train station. What could have been the highlight of our trip to Switzerland was starting to feel like a mistake.
We managed to cross the station, restaurants, and indoor attractions and finally reached the observatory, via a tunnel in the mountain. I paused to admire the boundless views of Aletsch, the largest glacier in the Alps. Around me were outstretched arms with smartphones and selfie sticks and backs turned to the scenery. The crowds left me more breathless than the views.
Such a place demanded a conscious look rather than a cursory glance. I could see the faint outlines of a trail in the distance, dotted sparsely with humans who looked like ants scurrying away. It led to Mönchsjoch, Switzerland's highest occupied hut –- which in the Alps is not a crude building but a place to eat and sleep. I could not wait to lose myself in that landscape.
Some people lingered in the snow field for photo-ops, but soon we were on our own with two of the highest mountains in the region — the Jungfrau behind us and the Mönch ahead flanked by the 14 miles of Aletsch glacier, which is forecast to lose almost 90 percent of its volume by century's end because of global warming.
Barely three colors –blue clear skies, white pristine snow, gray craggy mountains — painted the expansive landscape and lent an almost surreal air to the place. The snow crunching beneath my feet and sunlight reflected from its surface brought me back to reality.
Occasionally, we passed other hikers, the ones headed in the same direction stopping to catch their breaths, ones returning greeting us with "You're almost there."
Behind us, the observatory's gray dome, almost camouflaged by the rugged gray mountainside, made for a humbling view. About an hour later, Mönchsjoch finally appeared. Jutting from the mountain's edge, cradled between two worlds, the hut seemed much closer to the skies than the earth.
On our way back, we met a woman making her way there, poles in hand and her excited furry companion running ahead. I encouraged her with "You're almost there."
"Yes, I know. I work at the visitor center," she said, smiling. "I like to escape the crowds and step outside whenever I can."
She was a native of low-lying Holland, and her appreciation for these mountains was palpable, radiating the enthusiasm of a first-time visitor despite witnessing the view every day.
We chatted about her dog, the weather, and where we were staying. I mentioned the meager turnout on the trail despite the huge crowds indoors.
"Yes," she said softly. "Unfortunately most people don't step outside, even on a clear day like this. When in fact," she paused, "this is the real deal." She gently stomped her poles in the snow with every word.
As I looked around, it was impossible to disagree.