Zermatt and the Matterhorn, Switzerland

The main reason why anyone travels to Switzerland is to see the Alps, and that was my primary destination as well. Lacking a car to drive from place to place under my own power, I had to be selective about where I chose to view the mountains on this particular trip. I researched the topic before setting out, and eventually decided to spend a day in Zermatt, the small touristy town located in the shadow of the Matterhorn. This decision was inspired in large part by my family; both my parents and my brother and sister-in-law had traveled to Zermatt on separate trips, and all of them insisted that it was a magical place to visit. While the town has been heavily commercialized and lacks the authentic alpine experience of other villages, it was likely my best option given the limited travel time that I had available. And frankly, famous destinations often become tourist attractions for good reason. Zermatt is popular because it has some amazing scenery to offer, and I didn't need to go all hipster here and turn up my nose at that chance. I guessed that there would be some opportunities here to step off the beaten path, and I would be correct.

This Sunday dawned bright and clear, as I woke up early again to catch a 7:00 am train heading south. I was headed first to Visp, a small town that serves as a road and rail junction in the mountainous southern part of Switzerland. I would have to transfer there to a separate train that went to Zermatt itself. My train was unsurprisingly deserted at this early hour, and I was able to watch the scenery slide by in the quiet stillness that follows dawn. The mountains began appearing in the distance almost immediately after departing Bern, their snow-capped peaks rising up above the fields of green and brown that my train was passing by. The rails led me through the small city of Thun, sitting astride a small lake called the Thunersee. That was the body of water pictured above, where the rising sun cast dazzling reflections off the surface of the lake. One nice thing about an empty train is that you can walk back and forth taking pictures out of the windows on both sides of each rail car. That allowed me to capture more images as the train continued to pass through small towns and villages. The little houses clung tenaciously to the sides of the hills, looking much as they had for time immemorial.

In Visp, I was able to transfer onto a second train specifically designed to travel the steep route up to Zermatt. On the map above, it was the red line at the bottom of the image that ran from Visp to Zermatt, with six stops along the way at small local towns. This train was noticeably more crowded, picking up tourists who had been staying at Visp or were otherwise headed up into the mountains. This train also refused to honor my rail pass, claiming that they were a private organization unaffiliated with the state-run Swiss train service. Not cool guys, not cool. They also wanted cash payment for a ticket, which I didn't have on hand because I had expected to be able to use my rail pass like every other train I had taken to date. I had to pay by credit, and the service worker had to try about a dozen times with the poor reception in the mountains before my card finally went through and was accepted. Now I was out the equivalent of 60 dollars and half the train ride had been disrupted by needing to deal with payment. This really felt like a bit of a tourist scam.

Fortunately the views made up for all of that hassle. The terrain became even more rugged as this train headed upwards, beginning to snake around curves as it gained elevation. We passed over swiftly flowing mountain streams, and little houses perched on the side of cliffs. When I travel to faroff places like this, I always wonder what it would be like to live in such a place. How would my life be different if I had been born into one of these small mountain villages? I have no doubt that I would be a very different person if that had been my life experience. Regardless, the train continued to wind upwards until it was easy to see the snow and glaciers on the mountains above. Zermatt sits at an elevation of 1600 meters (a little over 5000 feet) and that's in a sheltered valley. The mountains surrounding it are higher, much higher in some cases.

After about an hour, the train reached its destination and everyone disembarked in Zermatt. The town is mostly laid out in a straight line, with the train station located at the north end and a series of shops and stores running off along the main thoroughfare to the south. This is a bigtime tourist destination, and there are hotels and restaurants and souvenir stations located everywhere. It's also a very expensive tourist destination, designed to cater to wealthy travelers above all else. I was reminded of previous stops that I had made in Aspen, Colorado and Banff, Alberta, both of them fancy mountain resorts for the well-to-do. Zermatt certainly gave off the same impression, and the prices (in Swiss francs) were simply outrageous. Most meals started at the equivalent of 30 dollars and went up from there; hotel rooms were in the hundreds and hundreds of dollars. My hostel room cost 50 dollars for a bunk bed in a room with seven other people, and that was a bargain. This is not a place that can be toured casually on a budget.

And yet, for all of that, Zermatt was still a beautiful town to visit. The houses were wooden creations that could have been centuries old, and in a handful of places, actually were. Almost every building was sporting colorful flowerboxes that hung out from below their windows. Goats with bells around their necks were herded through the streets periodically, and while this was obviously done as a sop to the visiting tourists, it recalled the way that alpine villagers had lived in the past for hundreds of years. Around the town, the mountains sheered up on every side, great pillars of stone with trees dotting their lower slopes that gave way to fields of snow at the top of the highest peaks. On a clear day like this one, it all made for quite a spectacle.

Zermatt's claim to fame is the nearby location of the Matterhorn, and tourists coming to see the famous peak were what made this a tourist destination starting in the early 20th century. The Matterhorn is far from the tallest mountain in Europe at "only" 4478 meters (14,600 feet), but it has a very distinctive shape with its single lopsided peak, and it stands alone from the nearby surrounding mountains rather than being part of a large chain. People have been climbing the mountain for several hundred years, and there's a whole cemetery in Zermatt dedicated to the remains of those who died in the attempt. The town provides excellent views of the mountain on a clear day like this one, and it serves as a gathering point for all sorts of alpine activities.

Today, there's a cable car system that heads up into the mountains and will take visitors most of the way to the top. Known as the Matterhorn Glacier Express, this is the most popular tourist attraction in Zermatt. (It may also be the most expensive; tickets were about 90 dollars when I visited.) On the map pictured above, this was the dark black line with the gondola car icon heading from the edge of Zermatt first to the tiny hamlet of Furi, and then up into the mountains until reaching the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise beyond the snow line. Also note the location of Hörnlihütte off to the right of the cable car system, at the base of the Matterhorn itself. That was where I would be hiking later in the day, in an area unreachable by any means save human footpower.

The cable cars provided a perfect opportunity to take more pictures of the amazing natural scenery on the ascending ride. First up was the tiny cluster of buildings called Furi, which was too small even to be called a town. These little wooden buildings were about 500 vertical feet above Zermatt, and made the town below look like a metropolis in comparison. As the elevation continued to increase, the trees that had blanketed the slopes below began to fall away, leaving patches of bare rock. Few plants could survive at these altitudes, which must have been buried under snow for much of the year. The Matterhorn itself continued to loom larger and larger as the cable car rose upwards.

The initial system of individual gondolas came to an end at the stop known as Trockener Steg. This unattractive stopping point was well above the tree line at 2900 meters / 9600 feet, with the terrain outside consisting of dirt and rock occasionally covered by patches of melting snow. In order to continue up to the top of this system, I had to board a separate and much larger cable car that would head up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. There was only one of these huge cable cars, shuttling back and forth every 20 minutes, and it was absolutely packed with tourists when I entered it, to an uncomfortable degree. I really hope that there are no emergencies on this thing because we were crammed in so tightly that it was difficult to move. That also made taking photographs a difficult proposition, and I did the best I could to capture the scenery passing by on each side while working around all of the other visitors. Everything above Trockener Steg was snow and ice, part of a glacier system that never melts due to the elevation. We were up high enough that the mountain peaks were shrouded in clouds, giving everything a bit of a fairytale look. There are a handful of trails that reach this far up into the mountains, but even I wasn't foolish enough to try climbing them without having serious mountaineering gear prepared ahead of time.

The structure at the top was about 1000 meters / 3000 feet higher in elevation, and it was very cold up there, close to freezing. I was wearing my light jacket and long pants, but this was a summer trip and I lacked the kind of cold weather gear that these temperatures required. Unfortunately the whole Glacier Paradise area was enveloped in a dense fog, dropping visibility to a short distance and blocking the panorama views that I had been hoping to experience. Due to the cold temperatures, I didn't want to stick around for very long in the hopes of the clouds clearing up. At least the inside portion of this mountain pavillion was warm, with a small cafe serving extremely overpriced hot drinks and snacks to shivering travelers. Most of the tourists were soon huddling inside trying to stay warm. The Glacier Paradise was not at the summit of the Matterhorn, but rather located a little bit off to one side. We would have had great views of the mountain if it had been clear, but alas it was not to be on this trip.

I rode the same big cable car back down to Trockener Steg, the only way to exit the summit short of hiking or skiing. As I was leaving the cable car, I spotted this man with a pet... wolf?! Yes, that was clearly a wolf and not a dog, awaiting a chance to take the ride up to the Glacier Paradise area. I really don't know what was going on here, and I wish that I'd been able to find out. Trockener Steg also held this gift store full of souvenirs - I thought the St. Bernards were particularly cute. One small disappointment from this day of travel was not spotting any of the big rescue dogs in the flesh. I guess the wolf would have to do.

Now it was time to do some hiking. I exited the gondola at the Schwarzsee spot and prepared to make the climb to Hörnlihütte. That's the name of the small mountain hut where climbers usually rest and use as a base camp before beginning their ascent of the famous mountain. It's actually visible in that picture with the signs, a tiny dot at the base of the Matterhorn far away in the distance. The signs only marked out the the route in terms of time, not distance, but I went ahead and looked up this hike afterwards to figure out how far I had gone. The route up to Hörnlihütte was 4 kilometers in each direction, or about 5 miles round trip. On flat ground, that would be a leisurely stroll for most people. Here in the mountains, it was a tortured climb of switchbacks gaining 700 meters / 2300 feet of vertical elevation. That is very, very steep and this hike was not for the faint of heart. It started out pleasant enough, however, in this open meadow of green grass with a small lake off to the side. Mountains ringed this spot on all sides, giving the impression of standing on the top of the world. It was an exhilarating spectacle, and I eagerly started my climb upwards.

The grasses soon gave way to rocks and loose gravel. At several points, the path became too steep to climb normally and metal stairs had been built into the side of the rock wall to proceed onward. The trail always led further upwards, gaining more and more vertical elevation as the cable car station soon dropped far below. If you've never had the chance to go hiking in the mountains before, this kind of excursion is basically like walking up a staircase continuously for several hours. And unlike a Stairmaster at a gym, it's important to watch one's step to avoid slipping off the edge and falling to a horrible injury or death. Of course, the sights are much better than walking on a piece of exercise equipment too. I continued to head straight towards the Matterhorn itself, which loomed ever larger in my field of view.

The last part of the climb was the worst. It was the steepest part, requiring constant switchbacks to make any progress, and I was starting to grow extremely tired. Near the top, the trail almost disappeared entirely under patches of snow. Those areas were slippery and didn't provide a good purchase for footing. This is where having mountaineering equipment would have come in handy, but of course I was wearing my normal sneakers, and I slipped and fell on several occasions. For that matter, I was still wearing my travel backpack with 20 pounds of gear inside, all of my clothes and my small laptop and my camera, not to mention this was following on the heels of ten consecutive days of hard travel across Europe. All of this made an exhausting trip that much worse. It was a real struggle to make my way up to the top of this trail.

My reward was reaching the Hörnlihütte itself, this historic lodge used by mountaineers preparing to scale the Matterhorn summit. It's actually a very small hotel and restaurant these days, where people can stay overnight before attempting the rest of the climb to the mountain's peak. The inside eating area was small but cozy, with large glass windows to allow views of the Matterhorn. This is as close as anyone can get to the mountain without actually climbing the thing; it rose up right next to the small building, a vertical finger of rock stabbing towards the sky. I would have loved to stay here for a while and rest, taking in the spectacular vista that surrounded this perch.

Unfortunately the cable car system was only open until the late afternoon, and that put a limit on how much time I could spend here unless I intended to walk all the way down to Zermatt. Given that the cable cars were themselves a tiny dot in the distance at this point, much less the town itself, that seemed like a bad idea. The descent was a long and grueling ordeal in its own right, with the worst parts coming up near the summit. There was no way to climb through the snow safely without having poles or gripping shoes, and I was forced to inch down on my rear end at several points. This was cold and wet and thoroughly unpleasant. It was the only way to get down the mountain safely though; the path was steep and there were no guardrails or barriers to prevent someone from slipping and falling uncontrollably. The path improved after descending below the snow field, but it was still a long and tiring trudge back to the gondolas. Although walking downhill isn't as tiring as walking uphill, it still stresses knee joints much worse than walking on flat terrain.

Eventually I reached the end of the trail and took a cable car back down into Zermatt. With the sun fading into afternoon at this point, I was content to head to my hostel for the night, snapping a few more images of the picturesque town as I went. The Hostelling International building was located in a back corner of the town, well off the main thoroughfare where the most expensive hotels were situated. After checking in, I took a long shower and did my best to relax after the painful hiking from earlier. This was one of the most tired feelings I can ever recall experiencing in my life. I also had dinner at the hostel, taking advantage of a buffet meal that they offered at a cheap price ("cheap" in this case meaning about 15 dollars, half of what was typical in the rest of the town). It wasn't particularly fancy, just some pasta with a tomato sauce and good bread, but it made me feel much better afterwards. I had been traveling hard and eating little on this trip so far, and I had lost about ten pounds since starting out. While eating this meal, I could literally feel strength flowing back into my body again. Has anyone else ever experienced that before? When your body is exhausted and hungry, you can feel your stomach converting food into energy in a very direct way. It was a pleasant feeling, if a bit weird.

This night also marked the final match in the Euro 2016 tournament. I joined a group of other overnight guests in watching the game play out on a TV set up in a common room. France was pitted against Portugal, and with the final game taking place in Paris, the French tournament hosts were huge favorites to take home a victory. France dominated most of the possession in the first half, and seemed certain to win when Christiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese superstar player, was forced to exit the match after only 25 minutes due to an injury. But the score remained 0-0 at halftime, and then 0-0 again after full time was called, with no goals scored for either side. In the overtime period, Portugal finally started to find their rhythm and eventually scored in the 109th minute to stun the French crowd, eventually holding on to win 1-0 in a gigantic upset. The group in my hostel was largely indifferent to the outcome, lacking partisans of either team, but it had been quite a spectacle to watch. I loved the timing of how this had played out, traveling across Europe at the same time that the largest non-World Cup sporting event on the Continent was taking place.

My final views of Zermatt came the next morning, as I was departing in the early hours to catch my next train. The sun had risen but failed to clear the surrounding mountains as yet, providing a soft ambient light as I walked through the empty streets. There were a handful of other tourists who had woken up to catch the same train, but otherwise it was deserted. When I crossed the bridge over the small stream in the center of town, I was able to capture this picture of the Matterhorn in the distance. The mountain's southern face was shining in the morning sunlight, even as the valley below remained shadowed with the last lingering traces of night. Despite all of the overpriced expenses and the difficult hiking, I was still glad that I had chosen to come here. The memories that I made in the one day I spent here will stick with me for a very long time.