For almost a thousand years the little village of Zermatt dozed quietly in a high Alpine valley, its jewel-like beauty hemmed in by a dozen great peaks, its existence ignored by all but a handful of men. Then, nearly a hundred years ago, Zermatt became famous. An Englishman named Whymper made a memorable climb and, in the summers since, hundreds upon thousands of adventurers and travelers and just plain tourists have gone to Zermatt. They sniffed the mountain wildflowers and ogled the incredible scenery and smiled at the quaint little cabins and the ancient customs of the people. But most of all they came to climb the most famous mountain in the world—that stark, beautiful monolith of rock and ice and snow that rises abruptly 14,701 feet into the sky to the southwest of Zermatt. This is the peak the French call Mont Cervin and the Italians Monte Cervino; to all others it is the Matterhorn.
Until recently the invading hordes would depart at the end of summer, and the old Swiss families and their somewhat startled cows could relax once again to face the deep snows and long, lonely cold of an Alpine winter. Today, however, the people of Zermatt relax no more. For when summer ends, a new group of invaders comes into the valley, clothed in thick, brilliantly colored sweaters, tight stretch pants and heavy boots, a group whose numbers increase with startling rapidity every year. Instead of climbing the mountains on foot, they ride up on chair lifts and cable cars and cog railways; then they flash across the vast snow fields and swivel through the wooded trails. They are the skiers, and they come to enjoy what is quite likely the finest ski area in the world.
Historically, this army of winter tourists was late in discovering Zermatt. The town is located deep in the southernmost corner of Switzerland, and more accessible resorts along the 700-mile length of the Alps developed first: Chamonix, Davos, Gstaad, St. Moritz, Garmisch, St. Anton. But once the skiers discovered Zermatt it grew quickly and soon began to surpass the older resorts.
The reasons are easy to see. First, there is beauty, for if Zermatt is lovely in summer it is breathtaking in the wintertime. A little river bubbles musically through the valley and village, over boulders encrusted with ice. The old hotels and new chalets and humble cottages of the natives, like the pine trees on the lower slopes, wear a crown of snow. The great peaks appear at once both more formidable and majestic as the dazzling winter sun bounces with shocking intensity off their glaciers and cornices and ridges. And at night, when the moon gleams on the deep, fresh snow and stars look so near and so bright, the mountains seem to close in solidly on all sides, making one feel very small.
Then there is the atmosphere. Zermatt has fine food and wine, fashionable hotels and a great deal of after-ski night life. Skiers arrive by the trainload from other Swiss towns, from France, Germany and Belgium, from England and America, and occasionally there is a stray Italian who may have taken the wrong turn at the Théodule Pass. These visitors are active, participating sportsmen. The international society air of a Gstaad or St. Moritz has never infected Zermatt, and those who control the ski tourist industry of the village are determined that it never will. Prices remain low, hospitality high, and the absence of overcommercialization is a blessing seldom found in resorts anywhere.
Then there is the weather. Most winter resorts have to worry about snow—Zermatt never. Usually by the end of October there is a fall of several feet on the mountainsides, and by the holiday season the streets of the town itself are covered with snow. This is one of the highest, coldest valleys in central Europe, and also one of the driest. Furthermore, temperatures seldom go below zero—which makes Zermatt quite a bit warmer than Aspen or Lake Placid or Tremblant or Stowe. From the beginning of February through the end of the good skiing in May, it is Zermatt's boast that the sun shines every day. Even in the "bad" months of December and January there is as much sun as overcast.
Then, too, there is peace and serenity, for Zermatt has no buses or trucks or motor cars. The nearest highway stops 13 miles down the valley at St. Niklaus. The gentle jangle of sleigh bells and the soft hiss of their runners through the snow are the predominant sounds in the streets. Walking along these streets, one can find innumerable things to do: shopping in the neat little stores for Swiss watches and dolls and musical bells, for fine German cameras or for winter sportswear virtually half the price one would have to pay in the U.S.; skating to music at one of several outdoor rinks; watching a hockey game or a curling match; taking a moonlight sleigh ride down to T√§sch in the feathery snow; going for a swim in the heated pool at the Theodul Hotel; or hiking down well-packed mountain trails through the little villages of Findeln, Furri and Blatten to see how people lived in the shadow of the Matterhorn before Zermatt became famous. Sometimes on a walk such as this, one may surprise a hare or a fox or be surprised oneself by the sudden explosion up the mountain of a chamois, that incredible little antelope with the great, thick coat which can climb almost vertically.
Best of all, there is the skiing. No other resort in Europe or the U.S. can match Zermatt's endless variety of slopes and trails with their different terrains, different altitudes, different exposures and different snow conditions. Rising above the little town, which sits at a height of 5,315 feet, there are three main ski districts, tied together by a gigantic web of lifts, tows, cable cars and cog railways. All the major lifts rise from town or from the edge of it; and one of the things that makes Zermatt unique is that every single run, if carried to the bottom, ends up back in town—not two miles north or 10 blocks south but right there.
The Schwarzsee district to the southwest is reached by a two-stage téléphérique, or aerial cable car, which zooms up the approaches to the Matterhorn, gaining more than 3,000 feet in altitude in 11 minutes' running time. At the top a new hotel is under construction, scheduled to open in June. Below there are two good steep runs down to Furri at the midway station of the téléphérique and a gentle trip the rest of the way to Zermatt. There is also an easy trail that swings away from Schwarzsee to the west and then steadies for a long traverse back to Furri. And just below Schwarzsee to the east a disk lift takes skiers up to the lowest part of the Furgg Glacier.
More popular, however, is the Blauherd-Sunnegga district bordering Zermatt on the northeast side. A very fast double chair lift rises in 11 minutes to Sunnegga Station at 7,480 feet. Sunnegga has a snack bar, a good restaurant and a large porch with a southern exposure where skiers like to unlace their boots, pull off their parkas, drink beer and bask in the sun. A long T bar runs up the ridge from Sunnegga to Blauherd, and since Blauherd opens up so many avenues for skiers of so many different skills, the waiting lines frequently include 200 impatient souls trampling each other with skis.
The runs down are worth the wait, worth even ski poles in the rib cage. From Blauherd straight back down to Sunnegga, there is a beautiful open slope that can be handled by an early intermediate skier. The late intermediate should head down to Findeln, which nestles in the small valley to the southeast of the Sunnegga-Blauherd ridge. This is the run called Paradise where, in the months from March to May between the hours of 11 and 3 one finds some of the finest corn-snow slopes in all Europe. There is also a beginners' trail to Findeln from Sunnegga Station with a single chair lift back up.
To get back down to Zermatt from Sunnegga the novice rides the chair. The intermediate takes the Standard course or the Tuftern trail and at the end may be pardoned for feeling that he has both learned and accomplished something (how to fall, if nothing else). The advanced skier goes back up to Blauherd and then down the National course with frequent stops along the way. The National is one of Europe's great downhill courses, and this is the spot where Switzerland's Roger Staub trained last winter before winning the giant slalom at Squaw Valley. But the show place of Zermatt, the area that brings the best skiers in the world to this far-off Alpine valley, is the Gornergrat district.
Eight new railway cars with an alleged capacity of 110 skiers (they frequently carry almost 150) wind their way up the Gornergrat mountain track as Zermatt shrinks to a toy village behind; up past Riffelberg, where there is a large hotel; past Rotenboden, through tunnels built for avalanche protection; up to the top, where the castlelike Kulm hotel sits majestically at a height of more than 10,000 feet. The entire trip up the cog railway covers nearly 5,000 vertical feet in 50 minutes, including stops. This spring, when the railway company adds four more cars, the new express run will make the haul in 36 minutes flat. The new trains may also relieve congestion slightly, so that riders will feel less as if they have been taking a summer Sunday afternoon trip to Coney Island on the subway.
Meanwhile, no one really seems to mind the sardinelike accommodations. You can find gay talk in many languages, and laughter, and new friendships (a thing almost unavoidable after sitting on a strange lap for 50 minutes). At the top there is the breathtaking panorama of 37 peaks rising to altitudes of 11,000 feet and more.
Part of the charm of the Gornergrat district is that anyone can ski up there. The novice takes a gentle series of open slopes back to Riffelberg, repeats the run several times, then rides the train down. For the average skier there is the standard descent over treeless snow fields down to Riffelalp, then through the forest trails the rest of the way to Zermatt. Or he can go to Findeln directly from Gornergrat. This run, although steeper and more difficult, is one of the oldest, most famous and still most beautiful around. The better skiers, however, prefer to get aboard the Gornergrat-Hoht√§lligrat-Stockhorn Téléphérique and ride for another 12 minutes out to the summit ridge of the Stockhorn itself. There begin the sweeping runs through deep powder that are the pride and joy of all Zermatt. These are all open slopes forming a huge, steep snow bowl. It is possible to come down in a series of long traverses; but it is also possible, and far nobler, to plummet in a swirl of powder down the fall line to Findeln, then finish out the run back to Zermatt, a total distance of six miles.
Then there is another, even more exciting, possibility. By combining what the Gornergrat and Blauherd districts have to offer one can map out a day-long itinerary of downhill running of almost unbelievable variety and perfection. Here is an example: 1) After breakfast take the 9:30 train to Gornergrat and the téléphérique to Stockhorn. 2) Ski the deep powder down to Findeln. 3) Ride the chair lift up to Sunnegga and the T bar to Blauherd. 4) Ski the corn slopes down to Findeln. 5) Ride the chair lift back to Sunnegga and have lunch there on the porch in the sun. 6) Take the T bar to Blauherd. 7) Run the National down to Zermatt. 8) Drop dead. Of course, there are some, full of youth and vitamins, who go back to run the National again before an evening of dancing.
Zermatt has still one thing more to offer—glacier skiing, with one of the famous Zermatt guides, who climb the Matterhorn all summer like housewives going upstairs and work as instructors all winter in the magnificent ski school. One of the most popular glacier tours goes up Monte Rosa. There are two ways to get up there: First, you can climb. You leave Rotenboden after lunch, ski down to the Gorner Glacier, then walk two hours to the Monte Rosa hut at 9,180 feet, where you spend the night. The next morning, after a 4 o'clock breakfast, you leave the hut and begin to climb. In seven hours you are on top of the Dufourspitze which, at 15,203 feet, is the highest of the six peaks of the Monte Rosa uplift. It is time for lunch but, since no one has much of an appetite, a little sugar and tea will do. Then you ski down to Zermatt in three hours. If you would rather not climb, you call up Hermann Geiger, the famous mountain-rescue pilot. For 80 francs ($18.60) Geiger will bring one of his ski-equipped light planes up from Sion and deposit you on the Lysjoch saddle just below Dufourspitze in a matter of 15 minutes. This is much simpler, if one has 80 francs—and the stomach for mountain flying.
You can reach the glaciers below the Théodule Pass, which leads down into Italy, the same way. From Théodule one skis down into Breuil, an Italian resort whose name Mussolini once changed, more or less formally, to Cervinia. The Italians long ago constructed lifts back up to the pass on their side, so it is possible to make this 25-mile round trip easily in one day. No passports are required and the route is safe (smugglers have been using it for years). However, the Swiss guides, who take great pride in their safety record as well as the marvelous craftsmanship of things mechanical made in Switzerland, are inclined to shudder at the thought of allowing one of their clients to ride Italian lifts.
Zermatt's big project for the immediate future is to build a téléphérique of its own all the way from town to the summit ridge behind the Klein (Little) Matterhorn. This will enable skiers without 80 francs to make the great, long glacier runs every day if they choose, turning right to tour the Gorner Glacier, turning left for the Furgg Glacier or stopping off at the pass to descend into Italy.
And when the great new téléphérique begins to run, Zermatt will become the first and only resort in the world that can offer skiing—good skiing served by good lifts—12 months a year. No skier could ask for more than that; and when the time comes, no skier may ever leave Zermatt at all.
Monte Rosa Glacier
GORNERGRAT RAILWAY[GORNERGRAT RAILWAY]
AERIAL CABLEWAY[AERIAL CABLEWAY]
SINGLE CHAIR LIFT[SINGLE CHAIR LIFT]
DOUBLE CHAIR LIFT[DOUBLE CHAIR LIFT]
SKI LIFT (TOW)[SKI LIFT (TOW)]
DOWNHILL RUNS[DOWNHILL RUNS]
CROSS-COUNTRY RUNS[CROSS-COUNTRY RUNS]