Mountains, Switzerland, Urban Walking
Comments 6

The Matterhorn in My Window

My time in Switzerland was running out. One evening Sarah said, “It would really be a shame if you didn’t see Zermatt while you were here. The Matterhorn is amazing, there’s lots of hiking. Hmmm…wait a minute…”.

She had to work, poor devil, but I was living a life of extremely scenic sloth; I’d have to go by myself. A quick scan of some websites, a phone call or two, and half an hour later she was proudly showing me the room she’d found, windows aligned to take in views of the famed peak. She’d booked me a table at her favourite restaurant, and a seat on the Gornergratbahn, for some 3,089m-high views.

A few days later I was heading south: four hours, with a change at Zürich, another at Visp, and our toy train was gliding through Canton Valais round the snow-slippered feet of the gigantic, jagged Pennine Alps. The track curved and the car came alive, my fellow tourists rushing the right-side windows with their cameras. I bided my time, hoping she’d grant me a few more minutes…

LATE-DECEMBER, 2010

Zermatt, squeezed into a tight valley, is crammed with colourfully clad skiers and snowboarders. I leave the tourist office with a map…

..and struggle up steep, icy lanes densely packed with chalets and small hotels, lugging a heavy day-pack and a laptop, cursing, missing my big pack. It’s very cold, but you’d expect it to be. I find my digs, a cozy, family-run hotel…

..and lug my stuff, with further cursing, up a few flights of creaky steps to a plain, tiny room.

I quickly render it cosier…

..and make for the window, my jaw dropping as I draw the curtains.

I’m a mountain-literature fan, but the Matterhorn has mostly evaded my attention. I know little about it; the closest I’ve come to visualising it is via another Swiss icon:

So the size, the geometry, the perfection and power of it, well…

..my feeble “wow” is utterly redundant:

The skies have cleared enough for what I fear will be a brief audience with the mighty peak. I leave my beer and cheese on the balcony to chill…

..and race out again with my camera and about seven layers of clothing for a look at the town.

Private cars are banned here, little electric vans serving as taxis and service vehicles. Down the slushy roads I go…

..across the Vispa…

..and through the quiet backstreets of the tourist quarter, my gaze swinging between careful foot placement and the magnetic force of that brooding monolith…

..till I’m again among the bustle and the tangy aroma of money in the gift-shop zone beyond the station:

No time right now for a nice plate of snails — maybe later:

Instead I spend an hour happily absorbed in the winding, ancient backstreet of Hinterdorfstrasse*…

..and less happily in the climbers’ cemetery*…

..before figuring I should take advantage of that view while it lasts.

Time for some real walking. The forested hillside behind my hotel on the eastern side of the valley is steep, and I’m soon panting as I plod upward…

..with tremendous views revealing themselves across the valley.

Numerous 4,000m peaks surround the village, including Dufourspitze (Monte Rosa in Italian), Switzerland’s highest mountain:

Reaching an obvious rest spot, jutting out to the edge, I remove my gloves long enough to grab some chocolate and click the ice-cold metal of my camera shutter:

You often come upon crucifixes in dramatic locations in the Catholic parts of Switzerland. I’m always taken aback at first, but the need to assert some sign of devotion amid an environment where humans and their icons seem utterly irrelevant seems to be universal, regardless of the local belief system.

I can’t help thinking such monuments are also a valiant attempt at stamping a human mark on such wild, indifferent landscapes. I’m reminded of windswept mountaintops in Japan with their tiny, battered shrines, or the cairns (a custom imported from the west?) where journeyers deposit a new stone as they pass. This is a ritual far easier for me to “understand”. Near the Eiger above Grindelwald, Sarah showed me the piles of flat stones called stein menschen, “stone men”, (steimaenndli in Swiss-German), the Swiss version of this custom.

Other visitors have their own rituals, their own objects of devotion:

A town has existed down there since at least the 13th century. Zermatt’s name comes from the words Zur Matte, meaning “in the meadow”. Its role as a tiny farming hamlet was completely transformed with the ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. A thriving guiding industry developed in the golden age of alpinism, and nowadays the town is a mountain-tourism hub.

The path loops back towards the valley floor. I break trail across snow-draped meadows and behind deserted huts, firewood neatly stacked, awaiting, presumably, the skiers and backcountry adventurers who’ll occupy them in the coming months:

And then this crumbling old lodge, abandoned to the predations of the elements:

I love coming across ruined habitations on my rambles. The director David Lynch once said:

If you said to me, “Okay, we’re either going down to Disneyland or we’re going to see this abandoned factory,” there would be no choice. I’d be down there at the factory. I don’t really know why. It just seems like such a great place to set a story.

That’s how I feel about this place. You couldn’t pay me enough to go to Disneyland, but I could spend hours here — if it wasn’t so cold, and if I didn’t feel like an intruder…

Enough for now. A big day tomorrow, and the ‘Horn herself is closing up shop for the night. I descend to the village…

..and my room, with my cold beer and cheese…

..though I’ll venture out once more, for an evening stroll, as the chalets twinkle in the crisp winter night:

* Both deserve their own posts, coming soon

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote

Next post: In the dark shadow of the Matterhorn

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6 Comments

  1. There are stone men here. too, where we live in in the Yorkshire Dales. I don’t mean just cairns (there are plently of those too) – they are exactly as you describe. They’re also called “stone men”, which is interesting.

    Re mountain literature: have you read Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edmund Whymper? It includes EW’s first-hand account of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

    • Dominic, I love that custom. I haven’t read the Whymper book yet but it’s on my list. My next post has some shots of some of his gear, including the infamous rope.

  2. Yes, I had much the same view of the Matterhorn’s crooked nose from the window of Zermatt’s youth hostel way back. It’s so dramatic.

  3. That Toblerone image is pretty much spot on with the real thing! Great landscape and a nice write up as well. We missed out on the mountains a little bit down here…

    • Thanks, Greg. Yeah, that’s pretty much perfection in form (the mountain & the chocolate). Actually, thanks for the reminder: think I’ll pick up a Toblerone on the way to work…

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