Valais Experience


The Matterhorn

Matterhorn. At 14,685 feet, the Matterhorn's peculiar snaggletooth form, rears up over the village of Zermatt, larger than life and genuinely awe-inspiring. As you weave through crowds along Bahnhofstrasse, the town's main street, you're assaulted on all sides by Matterhorn images—on postcards, sweatshirts, calendars, beer steins, and candy wrappers—though not by the original, which is obscured by resort buildings (except from the windows of pricier hotel rooms). But break past the shops and hotels onto the main road into the hills, and you'll reach a slightly elevated spot where you'll probably stop dead in your tracks. There it is at last, its twist of snowy rock blinding in the sun. Surely more pictures are taken from this spot than from anywhere else in Switzerland. It was Edward Whymper's spectacular—and catastrophic—conquest of the Matterhorn, on July 14, 1865, that made Zermatt a household word. After reaching the mountain's summit, his climbing party began its descent, tying themselves together and moving one man at a time. One of the climbers slipped, dragging the others down with him. Though Whymper and one of his companions braced themselves to stop the fall, the rope between climbers snapped and four mountaineers fell nearly 4,000 feet to their deaths. One body was never recovered, but the others lie in modest graves behind the park near the village church, surrounded by scores of other failed mountaineers. In summer the streets of Zermatt fill with sturdy, weathered climbers. They continue to tackle the peaks, and climbers have mastered the Matterhorn thousands of times since Whymper's disastrous victory. Zermatt.

Climbing the Mountain

This climb must be taken seriously; you have to be in top physical condition and have climbing experience to attempt the summit. You also need to spend 7 to 10 days acclimatizing once in the area. Less-experienced climbers have plenty of alternatives, though, such as a one-day climb of the Riffelhorn (9,774 feet) or a half-traverse of the Breithorn (13,661 feet). For those wanting a challenge without such extreme altitudes, try a guided trip across the rugged Gorner gorge.

Zermatt Alpin Center. For detailed information, advice, instruction, and climbing guides for the Matterhorn, contact the Zermatt Alpin Center. Bahnhofstr. 58, Zermatt, 3920. 027/9662460.

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