It’s impossible to ignore the Matterhorn in Zermatt, the alpine ski village in southern Switzerland that’s as favoured by the rich and famous as it is by skiing aficionados. The mountain peak is the first thing you see as you exit the train station, looming over the village’s wooden chalets adorned by window boxes bursting with bright geraniums in summer. Chocolates are made in its shape, as are pizzas, beers are named after it, and the peak is even painted on numerous shopfronts.
I’m visiting Zermatt for two days and my short trip, at the end of a week-long journey through the country, is all about this iconic peak. Checking into the hotel after a long day of travel, I collapse into a chair on the balcony. My room has a Matterhorn view and I examine the crooked peak that’s brought me here. This 4,478-metre-high mountain was the last of the Alpine peaks to be climbed and, to date, remains an emblem of the Alps. It’s been 150 years since it was successfully summited, and a special light installation commemorates that expedition. At 9 p.m. when the sky has darkened into a deep cobalt blue, one bright light comes up at the base of the peak. Over the next five minutes, more lights switch on, marking the expedition’s perilous route up the peak’s northeastern ridge. The story of that expedition, which ended in success but also in the death of four of the seven climbers, was one of the first things I heard when I got here. The events may have taken place in 1865, but everybody has an opinion and there is still a lot of conjecture about what really happened. I too get caught up in the tale and spend time exploring the large section dedicated to the expedition at the Matterhorn Museum in the village.
Displays in the underground Matterhorn Museum recreate a traditional 19th-century Alpine village. One of the exhibits shows a shoemaker’s shop. Photo: Sanjay Austa
Early next morning, photographer Sanjay Austa and I take the train up to Gornergrat, a super vantage point to see the Matterhorn and surrounding Alpine peaks. Our bright red train cuts a pretty picture against the bleak stony landscape and I can’t seem to get enough photos of it with the Matterhorn in the background. I take more photos of the peak on the way up to the viewing platform, some when we get up there, and even a few on the way down. When I laugh at my inability to stop clicking, our guide, Christine, tells me not to worry; she totally gets the obsessiveness. Christine is from Germany. She came to Zermatt to work for a year and ended up staying. She’s been waking up to the sight of this lofty peak for 15 years and yet, she says, it continues to surprise her.
We meet another example of this obsessiveness on the way down. Mathew Fletcher has a row of paintings of the Matterhorn lined beside the path. Every day for almost 17 years, the man from York sits at his perfect vantage point and paints the Matterhorn, capturing it in every kind of light and weather. The Matterhorn is both his obsession, and his source of income. And he says he never gets bored.
The gondola up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is a vertigo-inducing ride over forest, streams, and meadows. Photo: Sanjay Austa
Mountains are mesmerising and one like the Matterhorn, that has so many moods, can never be dull. Early in the morning, its distinctive peak is the only thing lit up by the rising sun while the rest is still in darkness and shadow. Skiers and climbers are usually the first ones there, taking the gondola up to slopes that are active in summer and winter. As the day wears on, the peak cuts a striking figure against the stark blue summer sky. And in the late afternoon, when it frequently rains, there’s a tiny cloud hovering near the top that makes me think of the Magic Faraway Tree, one of my favourite books growing up. I wonder what magical land is hidden in that cloud, and imagine climbing the peak and disappearing into it.
Strolling through the village in the evening, no matter where I am—watching little boys help a shepherd guide his herd down the main street, tasting cheese at a stall, or resting on a park bench—the Matterhorn is always in sight. I feel like we’re dancing a slow, flirtatious tango with the mountain, inching closer with each step.
Sanjay and I don’t want to waste a single moment of light, so we take the very first gondola to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise the next morning, leaving a note for our guide to join us. Though it’s just 6 a.m., the gondola is full of skiers and we stand cheek by jowl with brightly dressed people juggling backpacks, skis, and poles. Located at 3,883 metres, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is the highest point in Europe that can be reached by a gondola and the starting point for skiing, mountain climbing, and numerous other winter sports. For non-sporty visitors, it has a platform with a 360° view of 38 Alpine peaks, a restaurant with stunning panoramas, and a passage carved right through the glacier itself. It takes us three gondola rides and about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the top and emerge into a landscape of white.
Groups of climbers are already more than halfway up the Breithorn, a relatively easy-to climb 4,164-metre-high peak that’s popular with mountaineers. Some of them come from Italy; the Swiss border with the country is just a short walk southwest. It’s bracingly cold as I walk onto a beginners’ piste, stomping my feet to keep warm. My hands are deep in my pockets and my jacket’s hoodie is pulled up, but my face is exposed to the chilly wind. I enjoy the mix of its cold touch and the gentle warmth of the morning sun reflecting off the hard snow. Skiers whizz past rapidly, turning onto different slopes, each according to their capability, and suddenly the large group we came up with has dispersed. On a very clear day, it is possible to see the Mediterranean Sea from here. While I can’t spot that expanse of blue, I can see numerous peaks around me. Many are higher than the Matterhorn, but none have its aura. The lore surrounding this pyramidal peak makes it larger than life. Its alluring shape, with four near-symmetrical faces in the four cardinal directions, has stirred many a mountaineer to attempt climbing it. There were about 17 tries to climb the peak, before the first tragically successful ascent. Even today, the peak claims about a dozen lives each year, making it one of the deadliest mountains in the world.
A sunny morning finds a variety of people on the Matterhorn Glacier Trail, from runners preparing for a marathon to weekend hikers. As you descend, the landscape changes from glacial moraine to grassy meadows full of flowers. Photo: Sanjay Austa
Eager to get closer to the peak, we set off to walk the Matterhorn glacier trail when our guide arrives. It is an easy hike on a rocky route that hugs the base of the glacier. We’re walking on glacial moraine, rock, and scree left behind by the retreating glacier. Little signboards along the way have nuggets of information that shed light on the life that even a seemingly barren landscape like this supports. We stop to have a picnic breakfast at a little glacial lake. It seems to exist in that spot only to provide photographers with a perfect reflection of the Matterhorn’s peak, which seems to loom right overhead. I can see the Hornli Hut at the base, where climbers stay overnight before attempting the final climb to the top in the wee hours of the morning, and the snaking narrow path to it.
The tiny glacial lakes on the trail from Trockener Steg to Schwarzsee invite hikers to linger and perhaps watch a fisherman setting up tack, a family enjoying a picnic, or a man and his dog sprawled on the grass. Photo: Sanjay Austa
The chilly morning has turned into a perfect summer day and as we continue down the trail, we encounter a number of people enjoying the beautiful outdoors. The really athletic are running up the same trail we’re strolling down. There are smiling old ladies armed with walking sticks keeping a steady pace right behind them. A fisherman sits by another little glacial lake, cheerily singing along to tunes playing on his small radio, seeming unconcerned about whether he catches anything. At a restaurant near the Schwarzsee gondola station, couples enjoy cups of coffee while a band serenades them under the gaze of the Matterhorn. As we descend lower, the landscape is no longer bleak. Soft grass carpets the slopes and there are clusters of wild flowers. I rent a dirt scooter and ride it downhill shrieking with fear and excitement. It gains momentum rapidly so it takes me a while to get the hang of it, but once I do, it’s a fun way to travel. By the time I reach the next gondola station at Furi, my legs feel like wobbly jelly.
Later that day, as we leave Zermatt, my gaze remains locked on the hooked peak until the moment I board the train. I’m amused by my obsession, my inability to look away reminding me of the old tradition of never turning your back on royalty. But that seems to make sense, for the Matterhorn may not be the tallest or the most inaccessible, but it inspires an awe and reverence that makes it supreme among Alpine peaks.
Often described as a jagged tooth or a hooked claw, the Matterhorn peak is located in southern Switzerland, close to the country’s border with Italy. At 4,478 metres, it is one of the highest peaks in the Alps. The mountain overlooks the village of Zermatt, located in the canton of Valais.
There are direct flights to Zurich from Mumbai and Delhi (duration just under nine hours). The popular mountaineering and ski resort of Zermatt is a three-hour train journey south of Zurich with frequent trains departing from Zurich Hauptbahnof or Zurich HB, Switzerland’s largest train station. The easiest connection, with a single change at Visp, leaves every hour, starting at 6.02 a.m (fare CHF61.50/₹4,215). Details of train connections are easy to find using the SBB website and app, through which tickets can also be purchased (www.sbb.ch).
Indian travellers to Switzerland require a Schengen visa. A confirmed ticket, insurance, and financial documents are prerequisites and a tourist visa costs ₹4,872. The processing time for a visa is 5 working days. Application forms and instructions are available on www.vfs-ch-in.com
Zermatt’s narrow, car-free lanes are lined with cafés and bars, perfect for relaxing over a cuppa after an active day outdoors. Photo: Sanjay Austa
Zermatt frequently hosts street festivals where local producelike cheese and sausage is sold. Photo: Sanjay Austa
Zermatt is a car-free village and those who drive to the ski resort have to leave their cars 5 km away at Täsch and take a shuttle in. In the village, everything is within walking distance, and that really is the best way to soak in its sights. However, there are plenty of e-taxis (tiny locally produced vehicles that run on electricity) for when you don’t want to walk.
The observation platform at Gornergrat, located at a height of 3,089 m, affords a great view of the Matterhorn and the surrounding Alps. The vibrant red cog wheel train that takes visitors up from Zermatt cuts a pretty picture against the mountain panorama (www.gornergratbahn.ch; round trip ticket CHF90/₹6,170; half price with Swiss travel card). Many visitors choose to purchase tickets for a section of the 30-minute train journey or one-way, and hike the remainder, enjoying the beautiful scenery at a leisurely pace.
Europe’s highest cable car station, at 3,883 m, is at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. Located on the Theodul Glacier, the complex is a hub for skiers and climbers. It also has plenty of attractions for less active visitors, with an observation platform, a glacier palace carved into the ice 15 m below the surface, a lodge, and restaurant (www.matterhornparadise.ch; open all year; roundtrip CHF100/₹6,848, half price with Swiss travel card; glacier palace entry CHF8/₹548). Many visitors take the gondola up, and get tickets for sections of the return, so they can hike the stretch between Trockener Steg and Schwarzsee, which is a lovely 2.5-hr hike known as the Matterhorn Glacier Trail.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “A Matter of Obsession”.
is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.
is a photographer, writer, and a part-time apple-orchardist. When he is not backpacking around the world, he divides his time between New Delhi and Himachal Pradesh.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at email@example.com.