Until this weekend, the highest elevation I’ve ever hiked to was Camp Muir, one of two high camps on Mt. Rainier. At 10,080 feet, it’s the highest you can go on the mountain (permissibly) without ropes and a helmet. It’s also 615 feet short of the Hörnlihütte, a similar high camp on the Matterhorn. Sorry, dear, but I’ve moved on. Or have I?
I first read about the Matterhorn in the form of a mountain called “the Citadel,” or “Rudisburg.” This mountain was located in a town called “Kurtal,” both of which were dreamed up by the author James Ramsey Ullman in his book, “Banner in the Sky.” Maybe this is where I got my love of all things mountainous from; I’m not sure. But either way, the Citadel is for all literary purposes the Matterhorn; Kurtal is Zermatt, Switzerland; and Edward Winter of the novel is really Edward Whymper. I loved the book as a child, and it was… emotional — I can’t really put my finger on the right word — to see the city and mountain after imagining it for fourteen years. The trip was planned kind of on a whim. I decided to hold a hotel reservation and wait to see how the weather forecast would turn out. It started off (a week in advance) decent, then changed to cloudy, then the last day I could still cancel my reservation, it cleared up again. I meant to deliberate (i.e. flip a coin) whether it was worth the gamble — Switzerland isn’t exactly cheap — but forgot about the 6 PM deadline and realized only when I walked in my apartment at 7 PM that maybe I had just made an expensive mistake. Too late to change plans, I forged ahead and left Stuttgart at 4:50 PM on Friday, one hour and twenty minutes behind schedule.
I got to Zermatt around midnight, and it was already pretty neat. The town itself allows no internal combustion engines; nearly all vehicles are electric. They’re not silent, as the Wikipedia Zermatt entry states, but their sound isn’t that of a gasoline or diesel engine, either. Going to Zermatt means parking in Täsch, only a few kilometers up the Mattertal, and then taking a navette (French for shuttle) into Zermatt’s train station. After unpacking I slept for about four hours and then woke up to see just what the weather would be like — and whether my gamble would pay off for a sunrise shot of the Matterhorn. First, though, let me make something absolutely clear: I don’t think my photos here do the area justice. I didn’t capture (pun not intended, either) the mood of Zermatt or the incredible expanse of the Swiss / Italian Alps; I also had probably the lowest keeper rate of any place I’ve been to. I’ll try to do my best in explaining what it was that I saw, but bear with me here…
I roamed around my hotel, looking for a place to get a clear shot of the Matterhorn while still keeping an eye to the south and west to see if the sky would light up at all. By 6:15, the sun had clearly risen a bit and there really wasn’t much color, so I figured I’d just sit around and see what the Matterhorn would look like in the morning sun. I turned around to see how things were looking away from the mountain and saw some incredible colors starting to pop. So it was that my first “moody” sunrise shot wasn’t even of the Matterhorn, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless. I don’t like the crop on this, but there were roofs at the bottom of the frame… so I’ll have to live with this one. ;-)
The Matterhorn herself glowed for a few minutes before the color disappeared from her north face. Incidentally, the next day there wasn’t nearly as much color. I had high hopes initially, as the clouds around the mountain were in the right spot to catch some color, but they had moved on by the time the sun rose. Contrary to what might seem intuitive, some cloud cover is good for sunrise shots. Too much and it blocks the view of whatever you’re trying to photograph (unless it’s the clouds themselves), but too little and no color shows up. I didn’t do anything to the RAW file of the left picture (Saturday’s sunrise); I bumped up the foreground in the right picture (Sunday’s sunrise) in order to show the depth of the valley. Like Rainier, the Matterhorn towers over its inhabited lowlands.
I returned to the hotel for a nap and breakfast, and then set out for the Hörnlihütte. I had no idea how I was going to get there or how strenuous and snow-covered the hike would be, but I asked (in French!) for directions to the trail and then bought tickets (in French!) for the cable car ride up to Schwarzsee, a pond that with the right conditions reflects the Matterhorn, and began the hike up.
Most information says the hike is about 2 hours up; this seemed to be rather accurate. I made it up in less time while taking a few pictures along the way, but most people on the trail were taking their time. If you want to plan for it, 2 hours one way is probably the safe bet. Hiking to the hut was kind of reminiscent of hiking on the Sunrise side of Rainier (e.g. 2nd Burroughs). There’s a lot of loose scale-like rock, steep drop offs on the trail, and no snow. Even at 14,700 feet, there was no snow — a typical trek up to Muir will show you snowpack by 7,500 feet (just after Pebble Creek, if you’re keeping track of these details), but there was nothing here. Good news for me, as I had neither hiking boots nor gaiters. I should also point out here that the cable cars did much of the work. The Hörnlihütte is at 3260 m elevation and Zermatt at 1620 m; the Schwarzsee cable car station is at 2583 m. Had I hiked the entire way from Zermatt (which is possible, by the way — there are hiking trails everywhere), the total distance would be a little longer and the elevation gain slightly more than the trip from Paradise to Muir. Also unlike the hike to Muir, where the base camp really isn’t visible for most of the trek, the hut stands in prominent view at every other switchback. It’s a little frustrating to be panting and telling yourself not to look down at the valley below and still see the little SOB still towering above you, not seeming any closer. Anyhow, at the hut, which is pretty crowded (like Muir), it’s possible to “scramble” a bit and get up another forty feet or so. The view, free from other obstructions at last, is pretty neat.
I wasn’t at the hut for very long when I heard an unfamiliar noise (on a mountain, anyhow): a helicopter was landing at the helipad (“H” flat area left of the building). It parked for a minute, left toward the mountain, then came back; this time, it stayed for a little bit longer, but when it rose again, attached to it was a long rope and a person at the end of the rope. It departed for the mountain again. On its second return, it was now carrying three people at the end of the rope.
This was a humbling, gut-wrenching moment of guilt for me. I’m really new to the world of hiking; I didn’t start until 2007 and I have yet to bring anything near the ten essentials with me on any hike. But I still hike, and even though most hikes aren’t really risky, it’s a tremendous weight to put on my parents’ heads when they know that I’m heading into the unknown. This is difficult to convey, so let’s assume these climbers were experienced. They clearly went up the mountain, got stuck somehow, and had to be lifted out. They risked their lives, sure, but they also put their lives in the hands of the copter pilot, rescuer in the helicopter, and the rescuer dangling by (literally) some threads; unlike nearly any other sport, this is one where there’s equal risk in being the athlete and the rescuer. If the climbers weren’t experienced and wandered up without being prepared, well, that’s me when I hike! Of course my hiking doesn’t approach the danger level of a climb, but to anyone who cares about my well-being, I’m sure the gravitas of my disappearing into an unknown world is the same. From an engineering standpoint, I can only hope that designs I ever make will be safe enough for this sort of application. I know I would not be at all comfortable hanging by a rope from a helicopter, flying into a mountain that has claimed the lives of many, many good climbers. Suffice to say… this was a sobering moment before I headed down. I took extra care on the descent, that’s for sure.
Later that evening, I took the cogwheel railway up to another observation point; this is the highest open air cogwheel railway in Europe. The train basically pulls itself up along some teeth in the center of the track, and there’s a lot of stress on the teeth firmly attached to the ground. Lovely deformation of metal caused by metal.
At 3,089 m is an observation platform and a hotel. People had built many, many stone construction things to symbolize something. I haven’t bothered to find out what, exactly, but maybe someday.
By the time I left Gornergrat and arrived back in Zermatt, it was pushing 8:30 PM. I grabbed dinner, watched the sun set on the mountain (again, no colors… sad), and then headed to bed early to try to get some sleep for Sunday.
Sunday morning brought some interesting surprises — there were a lot (maybe 40 or 50) tourists all standing where I wanted to take my sunrise shot. I decided to try another location and let them have their fun, but not before I could get this comparison shot. The River Vispa runs through Zermatt and offers an interesting but almost too-contrived glimpse at the Matterhorn from downtown.
After my nap + breakfast ritual, I checked out of the hotel and went to the tourist office to see what else to do. I found out that Ricola has a garden about twenty minutes out of Zermatt; I stopped by quickly to see what it was all about (not much there, really) and then continued to try to find the Gorner Gorge, which was supposed to be on the way to the gardens and quite breaktaking. This wasn’t on my original plan and I had no idea where to go; I ended up hiking all the way up to the Furi cable car station, realizing my mistake, and then hiking back a third of the way to Zermatt. Turning down the fork I didn’t take, I saw why they say the gorge is breathtaking. The only problem is that you view it entirely from above, so while you get a sense of its depth seeing it in person, a camera sensor can’t really do the entire scene justice. Someone with more skill and a better eye than I will be able to pull off a more meaningful shot.
So there we have it. I saw waterfalls (comparable to Christine Falls at Rainier), hiked up to a climbing hut (Camp Muir), saw lots of slate / scree (Burroughs), got to see two sunrises (… done that at Rainier), and did quite a bit of walking around / hiking. Observations?
Well, here’s the thing. Zermatt — until the conquest of the Matterhorn by Capt. Whymper in 1865 — wasn’t really a tourist town. The lifestyle is largely agrarian, and when I pictured Zermatt after reading Ullman’s book, I thought of a quiet lifestyle.
After that success, however, it quickly became one of Switzerland’s top tourist attractions. The town has only 5800 residents but has a whopping 102 listed hotels (there’s a panel at the train station that shows hotel amenities, stars, location, phone number, and other various icons I couldn’t decipher). Most of the people you see around town don’t even work or live there; they’re a bunch of tourists (like I was). There are cable cars everywhere, and until I got out of sight of them, I felt like I was playing in a massive national park turned ski resort (which is actually what Zermatt is). The incredible precision of how everything works — clean cable cars, trains that run with Swiss accuracy up a mountain — took away some of the wonder that accompanies hiking in a National Park. I’m sure backcountry hiking is more pristine, but there’s still something… artificial, I feel, about this area of the Alps. It seemed almost meant for recreation, not for preserving nature in its element. Don’t get me wrong. First, this has been probably the best weekend I’ve had here, even considering the “car” trouble I had on the way back to Stuttgart. (Nota bene: the Nürburgring was still more intoxicating “adrenalinely,” even with sometimes scary moments during the hike to the Hörnlihütte) Second, and more important, Zermatt is incredible. I want to go back — badly — and the nature there is breathtaking. I hope that I haven’t made this post seem like a criticism of Zermatt or the Matterhorn; it’s definitely not meant to be. With no negative connotation or ill feeling toward Zermatt or this weekend, then, for an utter unadulterated plunge into nature (even after cheating on Rainier and getting farther along the Matterhorn than I may ever with Rainier), I’ll still take the fat wife of the Puget Sound.
(Nota bene nommer zwei: Native American lore has it that Mt. Rainier was the fat wife of Mt. Baker. No other insinuations or offenses meant.)