The awe-inspiring Matterhorn towers above the alpine village of Zermatt. In winter the landscape is a stunning contrast of brilliant white snow and deep blue skies, in spring and summer softened by meadows of alpine flowers and gushing waterfalls. Skiing, hiking or just enjoying the view: all year round a wonderful place to visit.
Zermatt was once just a tiny mountain hamlet, difficult to reach and completely cut off in winter. Now it is one of the most visited of Swiss towns, for its peace and recreational activities and, of course, its stunning location high in the mountains with the Matterhorn dominating the skyline.
Zermatt cannot be reached by car. We have variously taken the train from Basel, parked at Täsch and taken the train from there and, on one memorable occasion when we forgot to check whether the mountain passes had reopened, took the Glacier Express from Andermatt! We got our languages mixed up on that occasion and took Di on the parking ticket as Dimanche, whereas we were in German-speaking Switzerland and it was actually Dienstag! The receptionist at our hotel (the Garni Adonis on that occasion) was extremely helpful and phoned the station at Andermatt to ensure our car was OK - this after pouring glasses of Freixenet for us - excellent service!
The town expanded immensely in the nineteenth century after the English discovered what a great place it was for mountaineering. Today it has many hotels and restaurants but the old wooden houses can still be seen in some parts. The mushroom stone supports on some of the small wooden buildings are a protection against rodents.
Above the village are many peaks over 4000m: Alphubel (4206m), Allalinhorn (4027m), Rimpfischhorn (4198m), Strahlhorn (4190m), Monte Rosa (4634m), Liskamm (4527m), Castor (4228m), Pollux (4092m), Breithorn (4164m), Matterhorn (4478m), Dom (4545m), Weisshorn (4506m), Dent Blanche (4356m), Zinal-Rothorn (4221m), Gabelhorn (4062m), making this somewhat of a paradise for climbers as well as skiers and hikers.
There are loads of places to eat in Zermatt but we always go to the Whymper Stube at least once during a visit: excellent fondue and raclette and friendly service.
There is a good Alpine Museum in the town with displays of the old wooden houses and furniture as well as mountaineering memorabilia including a piece of the snapped rope of the Whymper expedition - see below.
Because of its distinctive shape and romantic history the Matterhorn is probably one of the most easily recognised mountains in the world. It really is a beautiful mountain and never ceases to work its charm - millions of photographs must have been taken of it, quite a few of them ours!
In 2008 we stayed at the Hotel Couronne in a room with a view of the Matterhorn. I was transfixed by the Matterhorn as night fell and the light left first the town and then, slowly, the mountain. By moonlight it looks even more magical.
The young Englishman Edward Whymper was the first to conquer the mountain in 1865. He was an illustrator whose publisher had asked him to produce drawings of the Alpine peaks. He became a skilled mountaineer, the first to conquer the Barre des Ecrin, the Aiguille Verte and the Grandes Jorasses, but it was the Matterhorn which fascinated him most. In 1865 he had already attempted to scale the peak 8 times and failed. This time he approached along its northeast ridge. The climbing party included three more British climbers: Douglas, Hudson and Hadow with their Chamonix guide Michel Croz, Whymper and the veteran Zermatt father and son guides the Taugwalders. They set off on the thirteenth of July in good weather and set foot on the peak in the early afternoon of the fourteenth. Tragedy struck on the way down when the young Hadow slipped dragging Croz, Hudson and Douglas with him - if the guide rope between Douglas and the elder Taugwalder had not snapped probably the whole party would have gone to their deaths.
There were accusations that either Whymper or the elder Taugwalder cut the rope to save their lives but it is hard to see how they could have done so in an accident which must have happened very quickly.
The mountain has claimed many lives since this first great tragedy but this doesn't deter the many who wish to climb, including Gertrude Bell who, in a letter dated August 31st 1904 to her beloved stepmother Florence, writes:
"We got our climb yesterday. It is a much better climb than I expected. I left Breuil early on Monday morning. It was very delightful walking up to the hut over the Matterhorn meadows and up easy rocks below the Dent du Lion. The mountain is full of story--here the great Carrel died of exhaustion, there so and so fell off from the rocks above, and when we got on to the little Col du Lion, which separates the Dent from the main mass of the mountain, we were on historic ground, for here Tyndall and Whymper bivouacked year after year when they were trying to find their way up. There is a difficult chimney just below the hut, but there is a fixed rope in it so that one has not much trouble in tackling it. We got up to the hut about 11:15, a tiny little place on a minute platform of rock, precipices on either side and the steep wall of the Matterhorn above. It is very imposing, the Matterhorn, and not least from the Italian hut; the great faces of rock are so enormous, so perpendicular. Unfortunately the hut is dirty, and smelly, as I had occasion to find out, for I spent the whole afternoon lying in the sun in front of it, sleeping and reading. The guides went away for an hour or two to cut and find steps on the snow above and I had the whole Matterhorn to myself--no, I shared it with some choughs who came circling round looking for food about the hut. At 7 we went to bed and I slept extremely soundly till about 1:30, when the guides got up and reported unfavourably of the morning. There was a thin spider's web of cloud over the whole sky, a most discouraging sign, but the moon was shining and we made our tea and observed the weather. By 3 it had distinctly cleared and we started off, without even a lantern, the moon was so bright. I knew the mountain so well by hearsay that every step was familiar, and it gave me quite a thrill of recognition to climb up the Grande Tour, to pass over the little glacier of the Linceul, the snow band of the Cravate, and to find oneself at the foot of the Grande Corde which leads back on to the Tyndall Grat. It was beautiful climbing, never seriously difficult, but never easy, and most of the time on a great steep face which was splendid to go upon. The Tyndall Grat leads up to a shoulder called the Pic Tyndall; it was dawn by this time and a very disquieting dawn too, So we hurried on for it's no joke to be caught by bad weather on this side of the Matterhorn. However, the sky gradually cleared and we had our whole climb in comfort. The most difficult place on the mountain is an overhanging bit above the Tyndall Grat and quite near the summit. There is usually a rope ladder there, but this year it is broken and in consequence scarcely any one has gone up the Italian side. There is a fixed rope, which is good and makes descent on this side quite easy, but it is a different matter getting up. We took over 2 hours over this 30 or 40 ft.--the actual bad place! & not more than 15 or 20 ft.-and I look back to it with great respect. At the overhanging bit you had to throw yourself out on the rope and so hanging catch with your right knee a shelving scrap of rock from which you can just reach the top rung which is all that is left of the ladder. That is how it is done. I speak from experience, and I also remember wondering how it was possible to do it. And I had a rope round my waist which Ulrich, who went first, had not. Heinrich found it uncommonly difficult. I had a moment of thinking we should not get him up. We got to the top at 10 and came down at a very good pace. The Swiss side is all hung with ropes. It's more like sliding down the banisters than climbing. We got to the Swiss hut in 3 hours and were down here by 4 o'clock. We have heard that two parties who tried to do the Matterhorn from the Italian side this year have turned back because they do not tackle the ladderless rock, so we feel quite pleased with ourselves."
The Letters of Gertrude Bell. Vol. 1. Project Gutenberg
Stockhorn is reached by a little electric train to Gornergrat then onward via cablecar. At 3405m it has stunning views of the mountains and the Findelengletscher and Gornergletscher.
The scenery is, of course, quite different in winter and summer. I prefer it all covered with snow but in summer the structure of the glaciers is much easier to see.
When we were here in April 1991 we came across a great bunch of skiers/climbers from Birmingham who were on their way to Saas Fee having come from Chamonix - very impressive!
This is probably our favourite location in Zermatt for lunch. The view is just incredible. Sitting on the terrace in the sun with the most fantastic landscape spread in front of you, a glass of wine and the prospect of food - bliss!
In April 1991 we took the train down but got off at Findelbach with the intention of walking back to Zermatt. We were very soon defeated by the snow, however. We must have missed the start of the track. Andrew got talking to a railway man and he escorted us over a huge railway bridge (closed to pedestrians!) to the start of the walk proper. We eventually reached Findeln, accompanied by magnificent views of the Matterhorn, to a welcome beer.
In August 1991 we had no trouble with snow fields and were able to leave the Gornergrat train at Rotenboden and walk via Riffelsee along towards the Gornergletscher. Though smothered in sun screen we both got burnt.
Klein Matterhorn is much closer to the Matterhorn than Stockhorn, and also much higher at 3820m. It has the highest cablecar in Europe and also the highest skiing. The lookout is reached by cable car, then a lift and finally steps. The views are incredible, especially on a clear day which we were very lucky to have in April 1991, but it was bitterly cold and I didn't last long outside before retreating into the relative warmth of the station.
The skiing in Zermatt is wonderful. There is a huge number of runs to choose from with the incomparable mountain scenery as a backdrop. In 1991 I skied from Trockenersteg on the way down from Klein Materhorn. In the shadow of the Matterhorn this was a fantastic experience.
Schwarzsee lies below Trockenersteg and is a great place for photography. The reflections in the lake are beautiful, though you have to go to Riffelsee for good reflections of the Matterhorn..
In June 2008 we came back to Zermatt and visited some places we'd not been to before. Rothorn is reached by a great little rack railway in a steep tunnel to Sunnegga and then cable car.
We'd planned on a walk but there was still far too much snow around!
This is a terrific walk. It takes a good couple of hours if starting from Zermatt and follows the gorge of the River Gorner on a path which, for quite a stretch, is on wooden walkways bolted to the sheer gorge wall - not for the faint-hearted!
In June 2008 the meadows on the way back into Zermatt were filled with flowers.