Zermatt and the Matterhorn, Switzerland

This region is legendary amongst mountaineers: for many years the Matterhorn was considered “unclimbable”, during which time Zermatt was just a humble farming community. Then, in the 1830’s to 50’s, intense competition developed to conquer the Matterhorn and the first ascent was finally made by English climber Edward Whymper, but four of his climbing partners died along the way. Most of them are buried in Zermatt, where there is  also a special cemetery dedicated to all the brave souls lost to the mountains in the area. Ever since news of this triumph and tragedy flashed around the world, Zermatt and the Matterhorn have held a special fascination for many. This appeal has been capitalized on by hoteliers and businessmen, who have since turned the sleepy village into a world class winter sports and tourist destination that serves as the launch point for the famous Glacier Express train and boasts an incredible network of ski lifts and hiking trails.

Despite its fame, the town of Zermatt still maintains a relaxed vibe and perpetual air of a typical skier’s laid-back attitude towards life. The streets bustle with happy tourists and locals, mixing and mingling under the Matterhorn’s jagged, distinct shadow. Modern buildings have encroached on the traditional wooden Swiss chalets, detracting a bit from the charm that some of the smaller, more traditional resort towns hold, but it’s still a nice place to stay as a base for the mountain activities. The entire town is a combustion-engine car-free zone to prevent air pollution, which could obscure the view of the Matterhorn. However, this doesn’t mean the village is actually car-free, as it is usually advertised, but instead that the traffic in Zermatt is made up of vehicles that are battery driven and nearly silent, mostly taxis and hotel shuttles.

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I was there for a conference, held on the summit of the Gornergrat at 3,089 m (10,134 ft), high above Zermatt and only reached by way of the spectacular  Gornergratbahn, the highest open-air railway in Europe, impressively built in the 1860s. Even for non-skiers, this is a worthwhile activity – the cog train slowly traveled from lift to lift, crossing the cloudline about halfway through, transitioning from a gray and damp Zermatt into a sparkling snowy world lit up by the sun and and brilliant blue sky. The Gornergrat hotel sits alone at the top of this mountain, directly across from the Matterhorn, overlooking the Alps and glaciers and providing unparalleled panoramic views of the whole area. The ski slopes begin just outside the entrance of the hotel.

We followed the same schedule each day: an early breakfast, presentations until 10:30 am, ski through the afternoon until dinner at 6 PM, then another round of late night presentations. The gondolas stopped running around 4:30-5:00pm, so the best way to take it all in was to ski in the morning for several hours, then grab a bite to eat, preferably in a mountain hut, around 2-3 PM, then take a final path down the mountain as far as you could go on the red routes before dinner (we never attempted the black or yellow trails).

Skiing in Zermatt is split into four areas: Sunnegga, Gornergrat, Klein Matterhorn and Schwarzsee. There is also a connection to Cervinia and Valtournenche in Italy through the Plateau Rosa glacier, but we’re saving this for next time. Depending on where you’re going, there are four ways up the mountain to reach the top of the slopes: boxy red cable cars take you to the tallest peaks (Kliene Matterhorn) in encolosed standing cabins; egg-shaped gondolas take you to the tops of the main slopes or to other parts of the moutains; the standard lifts with open benches take you from the bottom of the slope to the top; and for some of the less steep runs there are dangling cables with a bar to sit on that you grab ahold of, skis on the ground, and lean back as they tug you through the snow and up the mountain (which we fell off of the first time).

It didn’t take long to realize that we were the worst skiers on the mountain, as a constant stream of seasoned skiers elegantly passed us by with their legs tightly aligned, hips moving sharply back and forth down the mountain, keeping them straight and stable while maintaining a fast pace. However, this allowed us to enjoy the slopes more or less alone, working on our technique and admiring the incredible views.

I had scoped out many of the blue and red runs during the first few days of the conference and had some favorites, including a red one that led to the Gandegghütte mountain hut, my idea of heaven. Allison had barely skied before, so when she arrived we spent the morning on the easy blue slopes below the hotel.  But once she got the basics down, we took the cable car across the mountain to find our way back to Gandegghütte. On our way, we decided to check out the Klien Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn), at 3,883 m (12,740 ft), sitting on the ridge between Breithorn and the Matterhorn. It is known for having spectacular views in all directions and is the highest place in Europe that can be reached by aerial tramway. The views over the tallest peaks and of the valley swallowing Zermatt far below were amazing but it was freezing at that altitude, so we didn’t stay long. From the viewing platform we could see that there was a red run that began right here, and after checking the map, we saw that it connected to the Gandegghütte. We thought it was worth a try and ended up finding the best slopes yet.

Riding on the backside of the Klien Matterhorn, curving around through the beautiful scenery and careful to stay on the marked trails because of the dangers of the glacier, it was amazing to be sharing this moment under an endless blue sky, in full view of the Matterhorn looming above. After a missed turn, which led to another ride up and partway down the slope, we coasted into the bright yellow mountain hut, nestled in a ravine and hidden from the rest of the world, a welcome haven for in-the-know skiers with its big sheepskin rugs, cold beer and plates piled high with homemade sausage and crispy potatoes. The inside of the hut was even more inviting – a perfect scene of roaring wood-burning stove heating a cozy stone room full of blanket-strewn chairs.  You can even stay overnight in the upstairs rooms if you want (which we are already planning as a future trip).

Nearing closing time for the lifts, we forced ourselves to put our ski gear back on and head back down the slopes towards the series of gondolas that would take us to the hotel. Occasionally we noticed sets of lonely tracks dotting the snow below, or parallell wavy lines marking the otherwise pristine snowy landscape as we peered out of the gondolas. These mountains and cliffs are shared by only two creatures, the skiers and the ibexes. These wild goats are climbing artists that live between the forest and the ice, easily distingushed by the male’s horns which can be about a meter long. Some of the skiers are just as wild.

The week ended too soon, and it took great effort to head down the mountain from Gornergrat, back to the civilization of Zermatt. In the week on top of the mountain we had experienced the extremes of the weather: a white-out snow storm that left a layer of fresh powder and a pristine blue sky for us the following day, followed again by clouds and occasional snow.  But descending the 45 minute train or ski slope from Gornergrat to Zermatt to was like fast-forwarding into spring. The bare trees near Zermatt blossomed and wildflowers of white, purple and yellow covered the green carpeted landscape. There are only two types of trees on the mountain, the alpine evergreen trees and the larchwood, which is both a decidous and coniferous tree, and is prized for its waterproof and durable qualities. It is used to make the barrels for the Vin Du Glacier that we bought in Valais (originating in Grimentz, near Zermatt) as well as the log cabins with slate shingles that sit atop the hills overlooking Zermatt screaming “authenticity”, their color formed by the larchwood burning to a dark black when exposed to the sun.

As the train departed the station from Zermatt for St Moritz, I knew I had found a place I hope to return for years to come, for a blissful week of sun, snow, and relaxation.

 

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