On top of the Klein Matterhorn

When we set out from Grindelwald, all our hopes were pinned on the next two days for finally seeing the sort of mountain scenery and enjoying the sort of outing we had come so far to Switzerland to see. It often happens with travel that you can get too wrapped up in making sure everything is perfect – after all, you are spending a lot of time and money and effort to travel to this tiny valley in a tiny country. Even though we tried to make the best of it in Grindelwald, we were still disappointed by the very wet weather that surrounded us. Fortunately, we were about to have all our wishes granted in Spiez and Zermatt.

Heading back out of the valley from Grindelwald, we changed trains at Interlaken Ost and disembarked at Spiez, which sits on the Faulensee, the lake to the west of Interlaken. We had a half an hour transfer to our next train, but on a whim, we decided to just store our luggage at the station and go take a nice long lunch break in the town. That ended up being the perfect decision. Down by the lake, it was sunny and warm, and we took lunch at my new favorite place, the Migros Restaurant in Spiez. It was a self-service sort of food court but run by the same company that owns the attached supermarket, and the food was some of the most affordable but also delicious that we had found in Switzerland so far. We got plates of vegetables at the hot and cold buffet, and also a large dish of massaman curry of all things, with chicken and vegetables. We ate overlooking the town which is perched picturesquely on the lake, and I was just about the happiest I’d been in a week! Afterwards, we walked down to the lake and the tiny harbor in town where I made a sketch for a watercolor. We made our way back up after that to board the train for Zermatt.

Our train to Zermatt which took over an hour was filled with foreign tourists, speaking Chinese and French and English and Korean and other languages I couldn’t decipher. When we arrived in Zermatt, it was drizzling somewhat, and we couldn’t fully enjoy the rooftop terrace at our hotel. Our spirits still a little dampened, we had an early dinner at a döner kebab joint and went to bed in anticipation of the weather the next day.

Yesterday, we arose to a very clear day as the weather forecast had promised. Our breakfast was delicious: though Steve likes to make fun of it, the continental breakfast can be quite nice. Toast, with jam and butter and chocolate spread, with fresh fruit; several different types of ham and cheese, usually from the local region; yogurt with muesli and oats and nuts. After that, we were off to the cable cars!

At the first sight of the Matterhorn on this clear day, Steve had a huge smile that I hadn’t seen on him in weeks. We’d been hoping to get some good quality time in the mountains, and finally, it was here! The Matterhorn is a singular looking mountain, with a sharp point at the meeting of three different faces. From the Swiss vantage point, you can often see two of these faces, and the Italian side has the third face. It almost looks like a hook from our vantage point. Most times of year, it is covered in snow, and its white and grey ridges get turned to rose and gold by turns at sunrise and sunset. It is definitely stunning looking, and we had the opportunity to see it up close as we went up.

We bought tickets (66 CHF for both of us, round-trip), and went up to the first stop on the cable cars which is Furi, a small village further north in the valley, just about 200 meters higher than Zermatt. Next stop was Tröckener Steg, which put us up a good 2,000 or so meters into the snowy alps. We originally brought tickets here, and huddled in a large cable car with at least 25 other people, to get up to this part. It has beautiful panoramic views of a very large Matterhorn indeed, and from the other side, you can look back into the Zermatt valley, the roofs in the town surrounded by the green of meadows which eventually gives way to darker alpine forests and finally the rock faces of the mountains around us. We wandered around for a while before realizing that most people who had come up with us had kept going. Little did we know that that day was one of the first days the next leg of the cable car was open thanks to good weather. After a bit of deliberation, we bought another set of tickets (50 CHF for both of us, round-trip) and set off from Tröckener Steg for Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, which was the fancy name for the Klein Matterhorn.

After another 15 minute ride suspended above the snow and rock, here, finally, was the very cold mountain view we had been promised. Up here, it was 3,883 meters, over 12,000 feet in the air. As soon as I stepped out, I realized that the very air was thin. I took deep breaths, but could feel that I was taking in less air into my lungs than I was used to. Our first stop was the panorama platform, which exposed us immediately to the -10 degree Celsius temperatures and the doubtlessly colder wind chill. We made our way past fellow tourists to the platform, where for the first time, we were on eye level with many of the mountains around us. Here, the Matterhorn was just another mountain amongst all the peaks in the Alps, and we could actually see the other side where an Italian town nestled in the valley. The weather station to the side of our observation platform was actually covered in ice, with ice caught on the metal cables that anchored it in place. The ice was actually frozen sideways, showing just how ferocious the wind was. We were also occasionally reminded of it when the breeze blasted us. Fortunately, the bright sunlight which made everything look lit up even from behind our sunglasses also warmed us and dulled the edge of the breezes. We stayed up there for as long as our bodies would permit us, taking pictures and looking far off at the vista of mountains that surrounded us. There were clouds behind many of the mountains to our east, feathery white forms that barely peeked over the snowy peaks, but they did not threaten our view. One of the closest peaks called the Central Breithorn, we heard a tour guide disclose, was the easiest peak to climb above 4,000 meters, because you didn’t need any ropes or other things – you could simply walk up to it. We could see the snow blowing off that particular peak, and sure enough, when we focused on it, we could see a handful of people, black dots in a row, making their way in a zig-zag slowly walking up the steep but manageable slope.

When we both began to shake, it was deemed time to get into the restaurant downstairs. It was a lovely heated space where they were playing music and serving lunch, and a lot of people had already crammed into the space. We got two bowls of hot soup (beef goulash for Steve, vegetables in broth for me) and enjoyed the view with some bread, slowly willing the warmth back into our very red and cold hands. There were even some dogs who had made the journey, and I made a point of saying hello to a young border collie as well as a large standard golden poodle who was very friendly and enjoyed a good collar scratch. Both of us pictured bringing Stella up here and laughed. Before we left, Steve had a good long look at the gift shop and decided to get a navy blue cap with a bright blue cap rim and an embroidered silhouette of the Matterhorn to commemorate the fact that we had come so far!

We made our slow way on the cable cars back to Tröckener Steg and then Furi, and set off on a lovely circular trek around the village of Furi that gave us an excellent view of the entire valley. We learned on our trek through various signs and notes that much of the valley had been claimed by the Gornergrat Glacier during the Little Ice Age, which began during the 1300s and continued through the 1800s, reaching its furthest advance in 1867 or so. It had actually taken out quite a few of the villages in its path and could grow as fast as two meters every fortnight, leveling trees, huts, and everything that stood in its way. When it finally retreated, it left behind large boulders and stones as well as strange glacial potholes formed by currents of the melting snowwater. We found some examples of these potholes in the Dossen Glacier Garden (Gletschergarten) on the circular trek around. We also crossed a long suspension bridge which was about 110 meters in length. When we had finally finished the tour, we took the cable car back to Zermatt, where it seemed so warm and balmy we actually took off everything but our t-shirts.

For the rest of the afternoon, we enjoyed the view of the Matterhorn (now only a little obscured by clouds) from the rooftop terrace, having some local wine from the Valais canton. I even made a watercolor of the mountains at the other end of the valley, doing a credible job of my first depiction of the alps. It was a lot of fun to try depicting the different shadows and lights on the mountains and the snow on those peaks. Afterwards, we ventured out for dinner and went by the local church. At the graveyard, we found some more sobering reminders that Zermatt has been welcoming tourists for a long time. Many of the mountaineers who had died in their quest to conquer the Alps found their final resting place in this graveyard. We read epitaphs for many names that were decidedly not Swiss or German. Some of them had startlingly short lives (e.g. 1935-1958), and many of them seemed to be from Oxford and Cambridge. One of them, a New Yorker who died on the Breithorn, had inscribed on his gravestone the words “I chose to climb.”

For dinner, we rounded out our almost perfect day in Zermatt with tomato and cheese fondue as well as rösti (shredded potato pancakes) with sausage and salad, some examples of typical Swiss cuisine. It was delicious, although a bit overwhelming. I have to admit that after years of living in Asia, I do miss rice and noodles at the slightest provocation. And here, we are generally having bread, starch, dairy, and meat at every single meal. After a final beer, we called it an early night.

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