The North Face of the Eiger ... the wall of death ... the ogre of mountain climbs. There I was, right underneath it, transfixed in terror, flat on my back in the snow. I didn't want to get up, I felt warm and safe in my padded anorak, and curiously triumphant. Very curiously, because all I'd done was fall over in my first ski lesson while three-year-old Swiss brats whizzed by, Olympic-style. But to be there, in that mythical place, 3,000 metres up, where the brave have died, but also conquered! It rubs off on you, I swear it does. Never mind that you can get there by train, and that half a million people do so every year, or that there's a barn-sized tavern overflowing with hot wine and raucous revellers. It's the Eiger: eternal snows, glaciers, avalanches and derring-do. Florrie, from snowless Hong Kong, and I were having our first bash at snow sport at just about the highest location possible in Switzerland. In May, you have to go pretty high to find slopes still snow-covered and ski-friendly: Kleine Scheidegg is the place, and the resort where Eiger climbers begin their ascent. 'Resort' is perhaps a bit grand. Kleine Scheidegg consists of the said tavern, the Station Restaurant, plonked between railway platforms, and two bulky barracks that seem to have strayed from Colditz. These are the hotels, and the staff are presumably guards. Climbers stay here before going out onto 'the wall', which is probably more hospitable. The Eiger has long challenged climbers, shaken its fist in their faces and sent 55 to their deaths. It provides an extreme combination of difficulties: 'One thousand eight hundred metres of rotten limestone hung with snow and icefields, hidden in mist and clouds, racked by furious storms, frequently swept by avalanches of snow and rotten rock,' as one mountaineer described them. According to records, Eiger climbers began trying, and dying, 60-odd years ago. In 1935, two Germans reached a ledge at 3,300m and froze to death there. In 1938, in a week-long ascent, repeatedly hit by avalanches that almost ripped them from the mountain, a German-Austrian team conquered the North Face. Two Frenchmen were next to succeed, in 1947, and said 'never again'. In 1957 there was a drama on the North Face that riveted the world's attention. Two Italians and two Germans found themselves in difficulties and 30 expert climbers from across Europe went to their aid. Despite an epic rescue attempt, only one of the four survived. The body of another hung grotesquely from its ropes for years afterwards, frozen into an ice sheaf in winter, swinging free in summer and clearly visible from below. In 1966, an expedition led by American John Harlin went for the jugular: a direct vertical ascent, with no zig-zagging about like all the other wimps. With the media focused on the weeks-long, dare-devil, Harlin's rope broke and he plummetted thousands of metres to his death. The others in his party reached the top, however, and a taboo was broken. Now people climb it and jump off the top. The gung-ho clamber up the wall of death alone and base-jump, using parachutes, from the summit. But the North Face remains a long way from the day-trippers' itinerary: at least three climbers died on it last year. Just tackle a Kleine Scheidegg hotel, that's challenging enough. Clint Eastwood took on both in movie The Eiger Sanction (1975), a secret-service yarn in which he is assigned to kill one of his team while climbing the North Face ... but who? Told his mission, Eastwood admits to some previous experience: 'I tried to climb it twice, it tried to kill me twice.' At least one thing was more real than Hollywood-esque about the film, and confirmed the Eiger's fearsome reputation: a stuntman died during filming. Cut the horror, all else is bliss at Kleine Scheidegg. Above, snow-draped slopes glisten and soar to the pinnacles of the Monch and the Jungfrau (the Young Maiden). Below, the land falls away, and ski runs lead the eye down through pine forests to emerald pastures and cobalt lakes. And that's just for starters. The real jaw-dropper lies 1,400m higher at the Jungfraujoch, the frozen saddle that joins the Monch to the Jungfrau, where the Aletsch Glacier stretches across the roof of the Alps. A tough call. Climbing boots on then, ropes over shoulder, ice-pick in hand, say goodbye to the loved ones. Er, no: just hop on another train. The Jungfraubahn is an engineering miracle. It climbs out of Kleine Scheidegg and heads straight for the Eiger, burrows relentlessly into the mountain while winding upwards on a huge curve, coming to a halt in the rocky bowels of the Jungfraujoch. On the way, it stops at the North Face. Is this to pick up chickening-out climbers? I didn't see any way in or out, or a ticket booth, just a view onto the face through thick glass windows for us softies. Amazed, I later learned there is a way out for climbers, whose mental maps of the face are flagged with evocative names. Near the White Spider, just under the Difficult Crack, a wooden door opens onto the mountain wall. It's the great escape for climbers in trouble (if they're anywhere near). It is scarcely believable, like something out of Sinbad The Sailor. The juxtaposition of extreme peril and cosy safety is bizarre. Russian climber Sergei Kalmykov commented after his ascent: 'The only things hard to accept for us Russians after our wild mountains were the tunnel and railway station. Our first bivouac was 100m from the tunnel windows and passengers peered at us!' His team was on the face in atrocious, mid-winter conditions; the thought makes you ashamed, but what the hell, the train takes you up there in 50 minutes, without even chilblains. Luckily, there are no sheer drops at the Jungfraujoch, just sheer beauty. You emerge from the station into a steel and glass observation post called the Sphinx, which crouches on the saddle. You walk out onto an open deck. The light is brilliant, the snow sparkling white, the sky deep blue, the air crisp and pure. The world, it seems, is new. To the south, the magnificent roof of Europe stretches away to infinity. The continent's largest glacier, the 22km long Aletsch, glides along a broad white valley towards a line of high peaks on the horizon. To the north, the land falls dramatically away to give a panoramic view over the ski runs and mountain resorts, down into the valleys and lakes around Interlaken, and far into the Swiss lowlands ... and even to the Black Forest and the French Vosges mountain range on a crystal-clear day. To each side, the Alps soar to snow-capped peaks set against sapphire skies: the Monch, rounded like a monk's pate, standing 4,105m tall; the twin peaks of the Jungfrau, the taller rising to 4,166m. Behind the Monch lurks the fierce fang of the Eiger, touching 3,975m. You can take a hike round the Monch to a mountain lodge and peer at the Eiger summit from just a few hundred metres below, but it's still a serious climb, if considerably easier than approaching from the north. At 3,571m, the Sphinx Terrace is the highest vantage point in Europe within reach of public transport. Touted as 'the top of Europe', it is one of the great travel experiences. Going by train is cheating, of course; it's expensive too, at 159 Swiss francs (about HK$750) for the round trip from Interlaken, but it's worth the investment. Just don't pick a cloudy day. You'll find creature comforts up there, which are terribly welcome when biting alpine winds scour the fresh-air decks. It's no fun in the Foehn: this scourge of the Alps can reach 200km/h when it's furious, so in a complex built into the rock are restaurants and cafes, and even a conference room ... just the thing for summit meetings. A cool dive is the Ice Palace, a cavern cut in the Aletsch Glacier. Decked out with ice sculptures, it has a bar made of ice where, you guessed it, the drinks are on the rocks. Back outside, on the south side of the Sphinx you can go ski-trekking, or - mush! mush! - husky sledding across the Aletsch. ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER THRILL: first ski lesson. Kleine Scheidegg is a hell of a place to start learning. Every January, the men's World Cup downhill ski race, the longest and oldest in the world, starts from the Lauberhorn just above. Competitors whoosh down the route's 4.26km in two minutes; Florrie and I struggle to stand up. Instructor Heini Zurbuchen is patience and humour personified. A gangly native of the valley below, he's been skiing since he was three and it probably comes more naturally to him than walking. 'Skiing is about fun, about having a good time. It's not about work, like going to the gym. It's a good time sport,' Henry enthuses, 'so let's boogie!' We stand stiffly, leaden feet strapped to planks that slither about and threaten to make us do the splits. 'Be loose,' insists Henry. 'Stiff muscles and postures lead to hurting yourself when you fall. It's best to be supple, not rigid. Point your skis slightly inwards and push with the sticks.' Off we go, sliding downwards with no control whatsoever, coming to a natural stop as the incline hits zero. Break-time already. 'Yodel-ay-ay-dee! I always yodel at break time,' says Henry. 'When I have a group, everybody yodels together - mass yodelling.' It must curdle all the cows milk in the valley. Next we learn always to lean forward, to put our weight on the lower, 'downhill' ski and balance with the upper, 'uphill' ski, to look ahead, not down, and other basics, without which one will be mostly horizontal, if not in plaster. Florrie and I have another fish to fry, courtesy of James Bond. (It seems you can't escape the movies round here.) We start deep in a canyon, where bridal-veil waterfalls gush 500m from sheer mountain sides. A series of cable cars winches us inexorably upward to the tip of the 2,970m Schilthorn, where the world's highest revolving restaurant awaits us. Cosily seated, a glorious panorama of snowy mountain peaks rotates around the diner. Or is it the other way round? This alpine hideaway earned its fame in the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, when it served as the base of, you guessed it, the megalomaniac Blofeld, who held the world to ransom. In fact, Piz Gloria owes its existence to 007 money, because the building project was foundering until Bond film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman saw an opportunity and ploughed in some cash. It's been a winner ever since. The view is unique: because of its stand-alone location at almost 3,000m, the Schilthorn eyrie provides a vista of the Bernese Oberland's wall of high peaks unobtainable from any other public vantage point. But hurry, it may not last: the mountains are defrosting thanks to global warming, and places like Piz Gloria and the Sphinx could tumble into the valleys. What James Bond did once, explosively, all humanity may achieve in its leisurely and feckless manner. Useful information Getting there Emirates Airlines flies to Zurich via Dubai daily. Economy return fare $6,620. Information supplied by DHL Travel, tel: 2527-1616. Price subject to change without notice. Trains to Interlaken via Berne or Lucerne take about two hours. When to go The Swiss ski season lasts from September until the end of May. See the live webcam broadcast at www.swisspanorama.com . Where to stay Double rooms at the three-star Bellevue, Interlaken, cost from 150 Swiss francs (HK$675) a night. At the four-star Metropole prices start at SFr230, and at the luxurious Victoria-Jungfrau they begin at SFr440. Currency Swiss franc 1: HK$7.78.