Gary Parsons experiences the Axalp adventure...pictures by the author, Mike Kerr and Henk Tito
A thought continues to swirl inside my head: "What on earth am I doing here?" It's half past four in the morning, and we have just met our intrepid guide at 'base camp' in Axalp village. Peter is an Axalp veteran now with eight ascents to his credit, having done every event since 1999. It's about minus two, the ground is hard with frost and the stars are bright in the night sky - incredibly bright too, a scale way beyond that you'd find in the comparatively smog-ridden skies in the UK. Mike takes great delight in pointing out the major constellations, but my knowledge begins and ends with the 'Plough', which apparently is the wrong name for it anyway.
Sunrise is still two and a half hours away, but the clear skies promise a good day ahead - bloody good job, seeing as we were up at three-thirty to make sure we made Axalp in time. We're only twenty miles away in Interlaken, but the late decision to come meant there was no room at the inn in Axalp itself, the rooms always booked up months in advance. The village is half-way up the mountain to the Ebenfluh range, a tight, twisting and narrow road giving our hired automatic Yaris its toughest challenge yet. From Axalp the road is closed - there are several ways of getting to Ebenfluh, but all involve some serious hill-walking and a rise of a further three thousand feet or so. As it's Tuesday, and a full day's exercise on the ranges for the Swiss Air Force, the action should start about eight-thirty, and the next four hours or so will be mainly filled with walking, scrambling across rocks and swearing, possibly.
We've heard that it can get quite warm if the sun shines, so as Trinny would say, what to wear? I'm sure I just saw the proverbial brass monkey with a welding iron dart through the torchlight, but the camera gear weighs enough on its own without water, rations and extra clothing. I want to get walking, as the exercise will keep the blood flowing, but even with four layers of clothing the chill seeps into your boots. We're waiting for some of Peter's Dutch friends to join us, so keep an eye out for the twinkle of head-mounted torches. My thoughts turn to a warm bed and the waitresses who served us in 'Hooters' last night…
We're on the move. As Mike & I don't have torches (ah - first example of a lack of pre-planning) we integrate amongst the group, carefully looking at each footstep we make. The ground is gently rising, but rocks can easily trip up the unwary. Progress is slow but sure - we've about two miles of walking to do, and have planned on an hour a mile being good. Ahead is a succession of twinkling torches, looking like a scene out of Fantasia, only there's no humming or singing to be heard - only the panting of several unfit middle-aged men and women. The late Edmund Hilary would be laughing his socks off.
Stops are frequent and short. The path gets steeper, but at no point could you say it was mountain climbing - it's just a bugger doing it in the dark. Do they have wolves in Switzerland? Or the abominable snowman? But there's no snow, stupid. Global warming has meant that there hasn't been any snow for the past few years, and none is forecast. The snowline is probably about ten thousand feet, and we're only going to about eight thousand. Mike's a bit disappointed as he wants to get some snow in the background of his pictures, but I'm quietly relieved as we'll be able to sit down and not suffer Ranulph Feinnes-style frostbite of the toes, though I'm sure he'd be a little bit more prepared.
The stars fade as the sun rises, and the horizon starts to take shape - heck, we're still in the valley, despite walking for a good ninety minutes. I can just make out the control tower at Ebenfluh, the one we've all seen in the pictures that abound on the 'net. It's not very far, perhaps half a mile, but is also about half a mile higher, it seems. I begin to wish we had some sherpas, mules or anything to carry the load. I'm not worn out, it's just the challenge ahead seems so daunting.
We get to a turn in the path - to our right it seems to point skywards, heading to the tower, now out of sight again. Peter points to the left, and below us is a small hilltop with a couple of blue portaloos. "Brau", he says, which is the lowest of the three vantage points for the ranges. From here we would be looking up at the action, not something we came for, so we press on up the hill. It's about a forty degree angle, but the well-worn path provides plenty of grip. Some take their time, some sprint up like mountain goats, and I guess you know which group we are in. Going too quickly would mean breaking out into a serious sweat, something we are trying to avoid, as we know we're going to be standing around for a loooooooong while on top of a chilly mountain.
Eventually the path flattens out and the welcome sight of four portaloos slowly emerges from the top of the hill. Never have I been so glad to see a blue sh*tbox! They're empty now, but Peter warns it's a different situation by Thursday afternoon. They have been flown in by Alouette from Meiringen, only a couple of minutes down in the valley below, a task that a fledging Swiss airman probably doesn't have in his vision when he signs up. "Your mission today is…"
We're on top of Tschingel, the main vantage point for the airshow during Wednesday and Thursday. Across to the east is Ebenfluh tower, on a third hill about a quarter of a mile away. We're going there today as it will be closed during the airshow, VIPs and military personnel only. Today it's open during the morning for the firepower demo, so our best chance for some action shots. We've now got to go down Tschingel and across the small valley to Ebenfluh, only I suddenly realise it's not a valley - we're on the top of a steep escarpment, the drop seemingly endless down to Axalp village below. As the mist clears the village takes its shape, as does the lake further down in the valley floor. It feels like the edge of the world - we're flying on a Hercules with the ramp down, looking at the world from ten thousand feet. I suddenly feel dizzy and pull away from the edge - only a post and rail barbed-wire fence stands between me and a freefall without a parachute.
Ebenfluh tower is buzzing with activity - Swiss military personnel dart in and out, seemingly oblivious to the hundred or so photographers milling around and on top of the tower. No 'Keep off!" or 'Eintrit Verboten!" signs here - it seems all are welcome. If you've made the climb, you're an enthusiast and should be made to feel welcome, it seems. There's a small tent to one side busying itself with warming hot-water boilers and getting the barbeques underway, coffee and Bratwurst will be available within an hour or so. It's still cold, as the sun hasn't yet breached the mountains to the south, but it's not far away and warmth beckons like a duvet on a cold winter's night. Of course we'll all be shooting into the light, but there's no real option as the south side is several hundred feet higher, ten times further to walk and most importantly of all, out of bounds.
It's certainly an international gathering - fortunately English comes into its own as Italian and Dutch meet, French and German, and so on. At the same time we realise how lucky we are and how limited our language skills are - nearly everyone can speak two languages, except the Brits. Much of this conversation is taking place while everyone strips to the waist - ooer, perhaps we've intruded into some foreign orgy of pleasure that's kept quiet? Perhaps I better move away - oops, there's some young lady down to her bra…fortunately as soon as they've disrobed, fresh clothes come out of the backpack and are swiftly donned. Caked in sweat, the discarded vests and trousers are then hung to dry on the fence, turning Ebenfluh into a middle-eastern sea of washing on the line. It seems their enthusiasm to get up the hill was both exercise and a journey rolled into one - our pace was such that we barely broke sweat, and are now almost embarrassed to admit it. Perhaps we're not as unfit as we thought, although my exercise at home is no more than raising the TV remote control occasionally or gesticulating at errant motorists with one finger.
As the sun breaks over the mountain, its warmth immediately lifts the spirit - it's looking like a fine day in prospect. You've been told that the weather can change in an instant up here, but at the moment the view is fabulous - to the north a carpet of cloud is bathed in warm sunlight, with mountain peaks popping out to trip up the unwary. It seems as though we can see all the way to Germany, the air is crisp and clean with contrails criss-crossing the sky above. It seems the airliners are as far away as ever, despite us being half-way to meeting them.
At eight-thirty the scanners around crackle into life - the first jets have taken off from Meiringen and will be here in a matter of minutes. We scan the cloud layer to the north and spot specks popping out into the azure blue sky, probably about five miles or so away. Eight F-5Es are airborne, the first wave of the morning's action. Anticipation now builds - where will they come from, what height and how far away will they be, what exposure will I need? We've been told that a 400mm lens is needed, but that was in the prehistoric days of film - with digital it shouldn't be so bad. I go with the 300mm f4, and stick the camera into Tv mode, something I don't normally do, but I'm guessing that against the rocky background the camera should be able to sort out the exposure. Being an Axalp virgin, I err on the side of caution and set the shutter speed at 1/500. "Chicken", I think to myself, but don't want to have come all this way and screw the shots with camera shake.
All eyes are focussed on the west - I guess they know the procedure, so I scan the horizon. "There!" goes a shout, "where?" I think to myself. The F-5's not where I thought it would be - it's going vertical, now rolling inverted before pointing in our direction and barrelling towards the gap before us. In a matter of seconds it's gone, flashing before us in plan view before diving down to the left, seemingly right into the hillside. Then there's another, before I have time to swing round and frame it up. I quickly chimp, and am relieved to see I got the first one - three-quarter frame, bit dark and not brilliantly sharp, but the light is still dark against the valley. We're okay on focal length, but on the margins for exposure. Two more F-5s are on their way in, so no time to change settings - separated by about ten seconds, the pair flash past as did the first. It's a dry run, so no gunfire, but that'll happen soon. The eight F-5s run through, and I take stock on where they went - there seems to be a gap in the hills way to our left in which they dive into, but it looks like a letterbox from here - nutters!
A couple of minutes pass, then the F-5s reappear, this time climbing vertically from the north, before again rolling inverted and heading south towards the vast rock face before us. Streaking overhead, they are seemingly facing oblivion against the mountainside, but they pull up hard and head skywards before rolling over the crest and immediately disappearing out of sight toward the Jungfrau in the far distance. It is quite the maddest piece of flying I've ever seen, but I guess it's second nature to the Swiss pilots brought up in this terrain. Perspective makes it seem worse than it probably is, but the sight of an F-5 vertical with a rock face as the backdrop is quite breathtaking - pity it's too far for the 300mm to give it justice. In fact, the action is so frenetic I give up on trying to take pictures and just watch the insanity of it all.
A third pass beckons - this time it's from the south, and the target is away to our left against a rock face just beyond the helicopter landing pad next to the tower. Diving down, the F-5s roll over the target and dive into the valley below, as they know there is nothing to hit within the carpet of cloud. The guns are firing now, the tell-tale smoke appearing long before the 'braaaaap' assaults the eardrums. Some photographers claim to catch the shells leaving the cannons - all I can say is I'm lucky to catch the F-5s. Few shots are sharp, but I hope I'll do better later on…
It's been a frenetic twenty minutes, and the F-5s disappear for five before returning in formation. It's only nine o'clock, and already I feel breathless - is it the altitude, the action or a heady mixture of both? Immediately a pair of F-18s approach from the west, one sporting the 'Tiger Meet' pod underneath. We're hoping to see the Tiger-emblazoned J-5011 at some point during the week, but this is a nice half-way touch. The pair race round in a racetrack pattern, again diving through the gap that the F-5s used, but are less varied in their attacks. Vapour bursts off the Hornets as they are more aggressive in their turns, providing some spectacular pictures as the sunlight bursts through the self-made clouds. Looking like some ethereal phantom, each Hornet drags its cloud into the valley until out of sight, camera lenses all focussed on catching the shot, autofocus struggling against the challenge.
It's non-stop - as soon as the Hornets depart, another pair swings into view with a Patrouille Suisse F-5E alongside. The Tiger is pulling a target some two hundred metres behind, and the Hornets take turns to have a pot-shot at it in some wide circling turns overhead. This is where the wisdom of not being south-side becomes apparent, as the cannon shells ricochet off the mountainside. It's the least spectacular demo of the day, and interest fades after the fifth pass - time for some coffee and Bratwurst. It's with some care the short trip back up from the hospitality tent is made, but the warm coffee brings life back into hands that you didn't realise were as cold as they are, such has your attention been diverted.
The morning passes with Alouette movements, another round of F-5s and F-18s, each time the light getting better until the whole valley is bathed in sun. From midday the Cougars start to ferry VIPs and more Bratwurst ready for the afternoon's airshow rehearsal, due to kick off at half-one. It's also a time to kick off the boots and review the morning's bag of images, as one-by-one heads settle down across the hill. It's also time to reposition to Tschingel, the middle of the three hills.
The rehearsal kicks off with a rescue demonstration from a civilian-registered A109, but it's the next act that is eagerly anticipated - we've all seen the spectacular flare release shot from the Cougar, and he doesn't disappoint, with a veritable Christmas tree. Over a hundred flares are released in little over two seconds, and the motor drive goes into a frenzy - good job I'd switched to the zoom. Now the weather decided it'd had enough, as cloud began to form, swirling and moving with amazing rapidity - one moment it is down the valley, the next just where the aircraft needed to be. Still those mad F-5 pilots do their thing, diving through cloud and disappearing at what seems the worst possible moment, but that doesn't deter the full morning's routine being repeated. By now the sun has disappeared, and cold begins to creep into one's consciousness once more - it's only a matter of time before they throw in the towel, and at three o'clock the inevitable announcement arrives. We pack up, disappointed it's come to an early end, but the morning had been fabulous entertainment, and there are two more days for those of strong determination. But with a dodgy forecast for tomorrow and the thought of another three-thirty alarm call, we decide to have a 'rest' day and promise to be back on Thursday. Another evening at 'Hooters' beckons…
Déjà vu - it's dark, cold but at least we now have torches. As we now know what's to come, there is an eagerness that was diluted on Tuesday morning, and everyone knows it's the last climb of the week. Some, like Peter, are on their fourth climb in as many days, but for us beginners it's only the second. We'll be staying on Tschingel today as it'll be more crowded, and space will be at a premium.
It's a much slower morning - one routine by the F-5s, a pair of Hornets (with flares) and a practise from the Patrouille Suisse partly fill the early hours, but the light is superb and the hill buzzing with anticipation. It seems the whole of Switzerland has decamped for the day, with husbands, wives, children and grandparents all arriving, stripping off and hanging their sweaty laundry on whatever comes to hand. By now it's best not to venture near the portaloos - the queue alone stretches half-way around the hill, and it's best not to sit downwind…most enterprising gentlemen take to opportunity to stand on the cliff edge and water the rocks below - it's certainly an experience standing on top of the world with your pride & joy waving at the elements!
There must be eight thousand or so - each year the crowd gets bigger, and even the three hills have a finite capacity. It's not quite there yet, but in a few years could reach bursting point; I wonder just how it'll be before the Health & Safety Police cry "Enough!", and access to the hills will be restricted. At the moment Switzerland has a refreshing attitude of letting the general public take responsibility for its own actions, unlike the UK. Can you imagine such a spectacle happening in the Welsh hills? Landowners would throw a wobbly, locals would complain about the noise and the RAF would want to charge an arm and a leg somehow. But the Swiss Air Force seems to actually want to show off to its public - it's proud of its close association with its people, something that it can't avoid in such a small country.
There's time to dwell on such matters, as nothing much has happened since ten-thirty, only the shuttle helicopters filling the gap until the start of the airshow at two. This is one reason to make a week of it - Monday and Tuesday are the most action-packed, with the show days centred around the two-hour display in the afternoon. But today the sun is blazing, it's warm enough for tee-shirts and a snooze is called for - hey, we've been up for nine hours already!
It's now two, and the Cougar rears over the tower, spraying its flares as if it was the fifth of November (probably lost on the Swiss, though). The next two hours pass in a flash, and as the Patrouille Suisse head skywards, also spraying the sky with flares, the hill once again becomes a living, moving mass as the eight thousand immediately head towards Brau. It's a race for many to reach the single ski lift first - it will save an hour and a half or so of walking, but the wait could be double that. There's time to reflect and let the queue subside - it's been an awe-inspiring trip, made the better by some superb weather. That's the trick card, because it could have been a white-out all week. It's something you have to do once, perhaps not every year, as there's little variety in the format. But if you can walk up a flight of stairs, you can make it - just go before it's too late.