Alphorns in Zermatt

Alphorns at the Rothorn near Zermatt

Zermatt has a reputation amongst even the least experienced skiers of a seriously good ski destination. It also has a justifiable reputation for being pretty expensive, so who was I, a mere one-time skier, to turn down the opportunity of seeing it for real?

It was the Brits who introduced tourism to Zermatt 150 years ago. Back in those days we had an aristocracy who had nothing better to do than to gallivant off to Switzerland to climb ridiculously high mountains, just to come home to say they were the first up them, and to win the adulation that comes with it.

The first to climb the Matterhorn, that iconic mountain that overshadows Zermatt, was Edward Whymper, who actually came from more modest stock. He had failed eight times previously, but on the ultimately successful attempt he took an inexperienced Douglas Haddow, a Harrovian who fell to his death during the descent along with two other men. Whymper was apparently saved by the rope severing during the fall. This course of events has now been called in to question. Some say that it was in fact Haddow who first reached the summit, and his death was the result of skulduggery. Whether this change of story is bait to catch the attention of journalists to help launch the 150th anniversary is open to question but the Swiss I met in Zermatt seemed convinced.

One of the other men who died on the descent was Lord Francis Douglas, whose body was never found. Queen Victoria was so worried that more aristocrats would fall to their deaths on the Matterhorn, she wanted to ban all Englishmen from climbing it. This intended ban merely caused more curiosity, and climbers started flocking to Zermatt in their droves.

Whatever happened on the 14th July 1865, it marked the beginning of a now hugely successful tourism industry in not just Zermatt but in the Swiss Alps as a whole. From visiting Zermatt it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that the town is mostly dedicated to tourism. Zermatt is at the end of the road along a deep valley that leads to the Matterhorn, and on arrival visitors may be pleased to see there are no cars, just small electrical vehicles to perform all manner of tasks like hauling tourists to carrying out building and maintenance around town.  The roads are very narrow, probably as they were back in 1865, but since then the town has ballooned with hotels at every corner.

To celebrate 150 years, Zermatt is staging a series of activities in and around the town. Most notably, the Hörnli Hut has been closed for renovation. Hörnli Hut was first built in 1880 to cater for the growing number of climbers arriving at the Matterhorn, who used it as a staging post to climb the mountain or as a shelter in severe weather conditions. The new building will be opened on the 15th July 2015 with 130 beds and no less than 32 tonnes of provisions to keep all the climbers going.

An open-air theatre with seating for 700 will be constructed at Riffelberg (2,600m) with 35 performances using 40 actors speaking Swiss-German, German, English, French and Japanese. The “Matterhorn Story” will re-enact the events of the first ascent with the Matterhorn itself, as a backdrop. The production will be performed from the beginning of July to the end of August 2015. The Riffelberg Hotel is close to the theatre and on the train line to the Gornergrat ski field. This historic hotel pre-dates Whymper and his friends by 10 years and has panoramic views of the mountains from all rooms. It can only be reached by using the railway which starts in Zermatt, which takes 23 minutes.

The village of Zermatt has plenty for the summer visitor to do on any summer. There are no less than 38 mountain peaks that are over 4000 metres nearby which can all be accessed via Zermatt. There are no less than 70 mountain guides working from Zermatt, where there are now 121 hotels, including the hotel Whymper stayed at, the Monte Rosa.  For those feeling less energetic, they have a choice of three magnificent mountain railway routes to choose from: The Rothorn, Gornergrat and Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, each of which are a photographers paradise. All open at about 7am through the summer.

There are some people who want to ski all year round. This is entirely possible from Zermatt where there are still 21km of pistes available for all those die-hards compared to the staggering 365km in winter.