THE Swiss town of Zermatt is dominated by encircling mountains, with the mighty Matterhorn crowning the whole scene. Zermatt was a relatively poor mountain village until tourism, especially us Brits, arrived. Today it is 100% reliant on tourism.
If you had been in Zermatt at 1.40pm on July 14, 2014, you would have been startled by a seven-gun salute being fired to mark the start of the countdown to July 14 this year, when at precisely 1.40pm it will be 150 years since the Matterhorn was finally conquered. The man who has the credit for this is Edward Whymper, an Englishman, but it is not a simple story.
Zermatt is car-free, only electric powered vehicles are allowed, so the railway station is the transport focus of the town. In front of it, on the Bahnhof Platz, a large pyramid shaped clock (reflecting the shape of the Matterhorn) has been counting down the days, hours and minutes, and a great many events are taking place throughout this year to mark this momentous event in the history of Zermatt and in mountain climbing. For example, at Riffelberg (2,600 metres above sea level), which is even higher up than Zermatt (1,620) throughout July and August there is an open-air theatre staging 35 performances with 40 actors in many languages (including English) of a new play telling the Matterhorn story. There is seating for 700 people.
Switzerland has 48 mountains over 4,000 masl (13,100 feet), 45 of these are in the Vallais region, which includes Zermatt, and 38 of them are accessible from Zermatt. In the 19th century, most of these had been climbed – and mostly by we Brits – but the Matterhorn, with its fierce pyramid shape, had defeated everyone, and there had been many deaths while trying. The mountains around Zermatt form the border with Italy, and many expert and experienced Italian mountaineers had attempted to climb the Matterhorn. In 1861 the Italian State was founded, and it was considered that a successful Italian ascent would be a matter of national pride.
Edward Whymper had been to Zermatt several summers to try to scale the mountain, but had failed. In 1865 he arrived again, and joined a climbing party which eventually consisted of him, two experienced Zermatt mountain guides in Peter (father) and Peter (son) Taugwalder, mountain guide Michel Croz from Chamonix, the Rev Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, and Douglas Robert Hadow. They set off in good weather conditions in July, determined to beat the Italians who they knew were climbing up from their side of the mountain.
They had decided to ascend the "shoulder", which had always previously been shunned, so they attacked this, and further up switched to the north face. Whymper and the two Taugwalders were the first to reach the 4,478 masl summit, at 1.40pm on July 14, 1865, followed by the rest of the party. It is said that when they saw them on the top, the Italian group gave up and descended.
Getting down the Matterhorn is as tricky as going up. As they made their way back down, disaster struck. There are several versions of exactly what happened. Certainly, Croz, Hudson, Lord Douglas and Hadow were slipping and falling, the elder Taugwalder quickly looped the rope around an outcrop of rock, or they would all have fallen to their deaths. However, after just a few moments, the rope broke, and the four men fell to their deaths. Several days later the bodies of Croz, Hudson and Hadow were recovered, but Lord Douglas’ body has never been found.
The hotel in Zermatt where the team stayed is the Monte Rosa, named after another 4,634 masl mountain bordering Switzerland and Italy, overlooking Zermatt). This classic hotel is still there and here they will still tell you today of the many (unproved) stories surrounding this tragedy. These range from the frightful one that Whymper cut the rope to be able to have all the glory himself, to sabotage, wrong ropes, and all sorts of conspiracy theories. It is a shame as it besmirches a major mountaineering achievement.
The story continues with Queen Victoria who was horrified at the loss of life, particularly Lord Douglas, and wanted to ban any further ascents of the Matterhorn. It had the opposite effect, and more and more people wanted to climb the forbidden and forbidding mountain, and that led to the rapid growth of tourism in Zermatt.
In 1880, a hut was built at Hörnlihütte (3,260 masl) as a staging post and refuge for the increasing number of climbers. Now modernised, it will reopen on July 15, with beds and facilities for 130 people. There are around 4,000 overnight stays per annum here.
The Matterhorn is a dangerous mountain. Between 1865 and the end of the 2013 season, around 500 climbers have died here. In the 1980s, fixed ropes were installed on the top triangular part of the mountain to try to reduce the number of deaths. The ropes are inspected and repaired every springtime, which must be quite a job. Around 3,500 climbers try to climb it every year, only around 35% succeed, and these are invariably parties with experienced and professional Zermatt mountain guides.
You do not have to be a mountaineer to enjoy Zermatt. The town (population nearly 6,000 people) is very well developed for tourists, without becoming tacky or exploited. There are no fewer than 121 hotels and around 100 restaurants, as well 50 restaurants up mountains. With the surrounding mountains there are snow sports 365 days per year, with 21km of pistes in summer and 365km in winter.
Being car-free – if you come by car or bus you park at Täsch and take the frequent shuttle trains – Zermatt is not polluted or noisy, but be warned – there are boxy electric vehicles, cars, taxis, refuse vehicles, delivery vehicles, all silently circulating and liable to catch you out. There are also some horse drawn carriages but with their clip-clop and jingling bells at least you hear them coming. The town itself is certainly worth exploring, especially the museum and the old town. Here traditional dark wooden houses, crammed shoulder to shoulder wind up the hill. Store houses sit on large flat round stones on the wooden supports; this stops beasties climbing up into the buildings.
From the Bahnhof there is another railway at right angles to the main one, the Gornergrat Bahn, which climbs up and ever upwards. It passes Riffelalp. Here a unique wee electric battery powered tram takes you through stunted pine trees struggling to survive at this altitude, to the luxurious Riffelalp Hotel, with its stunning full frontal view of the Matterhorn. Further up the train takes you to Riffelberg where there is a super restaurant.
The Riffelhorn is used as a training climb for the Matterhorn – you have to stay a week in Zermatt before climbing the Matterhorn to acclimatise to the altitude. The Riffelsee lake in good weather beautifully reflects the Matterhorn on its surface. Continuing upwards you eventually arrive at the Gornergrat hotel and restaurant, which has two domes on the tower-shaped ends of the imposing building, one used as observatories. The rooms in the hotel do not have numbers but are named after 4,000 masl plus peaks, with a piece of rock from each summit on the wall of their eponymous rooms. The hotel overlooks the Gorner Gletcher, a glacier. If you are feeling fit, you can walk onwards up to the summit at 3,089 masl for wonderful views.
Another excursion from Zermatt is to the Matterhorn Glacier paradise, on the Klein Matterhorn (small Matterhorn) at 3,883 masl. This is reached by a long cable car ride from the base station in the town, passing two more glaciers on the way. At the summit is the (by now expected) restaurant, a look-out point, tunnels in an ice palace inside a glacier, and many attractions and activities. If the weather is bad – or if it is good – sit on a terrace with perpetual snow and sun bathe.
From Zermatt a funicular railway in a tunnel whisks you up to Sunnegga. If you can manage to bypass the restaurant, cable cars take you on upward to the Rothorn – a mere 3.103 masl where there are more superb views, or you can walk down again. There are endless miles of paths, all very well sign posted and on maps too, for walking, cycling, kick biking, and so on. In fact, all possible out door activities are well and professionally catered for, including sun bathing by the beautiful Leisee lake at Sunnegga.
You are certainly in another world at Zermatt, one that is difficult to drag yourself away from to go back down to the rush and bustle of cities and airports. Zermatt is straightforward to get to. Fly to Zurich or Geneva and trains run directly from the airports to Visp, 2 and a half hours from Geneva airport, a little less from Zurich airport. From Visp the trains take a little over one hour up to Zermatt.
English is spoken everywhere. Switzerland is a little expensive for us as although the Swiss Franc is strong and steady and they have little inflation, the poor pound has sunk and so the rate of exchange is against us – but it is certainly value for money.
Several websites, in English, give good information, such as www.matterhornparadise.ch, www.zermatt.ch, www.gornergrat.ch, and the incredibly efficient www.myswitzerland.com. This Swiss tourist board site can fix up everything for you.