When I first started hiking, I knew only of names: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Si, Sauk Mountain, Mt. Pilchuck. I loved Mt. Rainier for its ruggedness and how it reminded me of my insignificance, but never once did I consider how these mountains were all connected or why the roads leading to their bounty were where they were. Then, in 2011, I visited Zermatt for the first time, where the Matterhorn lives.
That year, I never actually intended to visit Zermatt. “Switzerland” (again, just a name) was on my list of places to see but it was on an off-chance that I remembered one of my favorite books — Banner in the Sky — was based on the first ascent of the Matterhorn, and a dream was born. I went twice more in 2011, one time being Christmas Day and literally the day before I flew back to the US, and three more times last year. Once last year, I met two friends there for a long weekend, and this year I was excited to do the same. I had initially thought I could hike from Chamonix to Zermatt, but plans didn’t hold up and I wasn’t really ready from a training perspective. So it was that a friend from Seattle whom I had interned with (Joshua), a climbing friend of his (Chris), and a friend (Lawrence) of Chris’ who happened to be in Europe at the time ended up meeting up in the most distant corner of a landlocked country full of big mountains. And it was an experience. I don’t think I’ve ever posted thirty photos of the same object in a single post before, but this is that post.
We started off with a 4000 m peak on our first full day in the valley. Normally a 4000 m peak is a big deal — it’s a long way from the ground, after all — but the Valais Breithorn (there’s also a Bernese Breithorn) is the easiest 4000 m peak perhaps in the world due to the Klein Matterhorn lift station being situated at nearly 3900 m. The 300 m or so of elevation change to get from the lift station to the western summit at 4164 m is peanuts compared to the nearly 1300 m I would need for a hike later in the week, but at this altitude even 300 feet would seem a little more exhausting. About two hours after leaving the lift station, we arrived at the western summit of the Breithorn as clouds began to roll in from the east. A couple from Zurich had been crossing over from the other summits of the Breithorn and came slowly up the ridge, eventually joining us on the summit and even kindly taking a photo of our group.
We didn’t stay long on the summit due to the darkening clouds, and on our way down they engulfed the Breithorn. I had never known how a whiteout could last a while, but watching the clouds swallow a mountain safely behind us was an indication of how just that could happen.
I used to carry my camera on a strap while hiking, but with a dSLR the swinging of the camera isn’t particularly pleasant, so I started leaving the camera in my bag until reaching the summit. As a result, I took less than 20 photos on the Breithorn, and none along the way up or down. I regretted that decision the moment I started going through my photos back at the hotel, and I made sure to use the strap the rest of the week (and have since then).
The next day, strap on shoulder and camera swinging be damned, I headed up with Joshua to Gornergrat, this time relying on the mass transit that’s dually incredibly practical yet for such a pristine area sheepishly embarrassing. The sunlight made the day warm, but by afternoon the Matterhorn hid behind clouds — which it would continue to do for the rest of the week.
Taking our timing intermittently shooting and catching up, we hiked down one station to Rotenboden, behind which lay my hiking nemesis: the Riffelsee. This is a lake I had been to three times in the past, but the two times I tried to hike there I was thwarted either on time or by trail conditions. This time, I vowed it’d be different. I decided to hike up to the lake on Tuesday afternoon as a route-finding check and time trial. From valley to lake took around 2.5 hours, nearly half the time of my nighttime experience in 2011. A plan began to form.
I happened to come across an advertisement for a sunrise train up to the Riffelsee on Thursday (talk about destiny), but unlike last year’s last-minute ticket, breakfast on this special ride was also included in the ticket price. Not wanting to wake up at 2:30 AM for the hike, I figured this would be a way to repeat my sunrise thrills from last year on the easy. When we randomly met a trail runner (Rachel) who expressed an interest in running up to catch the sunrise, I left behind my plans to take the train and gave my ticket instead to Lawrence so he could train up and bike down. At 2:38 AM on Thursday morning, I left Zermatt and headed up slowly toward the Riffelsee.
Or I thought slowly. At 4:50 AM I arrived at the lake, confused how it took me less time with more weight on my back than it did two days prior. When I left the valley, the sky was still obscured by clouds, but when I arrived, the sky was very blue and sternklar, a very convenient German word meaning literally “star clear.” “Starry” in English just don’t quite carry the same serendipity.
I was joined there by a dozen or so Swiss photographers who had booked a photography tour package. They hiked up from the Riffelberg hotel, a 35 min hike. Their leader had also been to the lake multiple times and in multiple seasons, and we commented on how each time is a unique experience. The train and the hordes arrived precisely as the sun began to glow on the Matterhorn. It was a terrific sunrise, full of rich reds, but I have to admit that the almost-didn’t-make-it experience the previous year felt more intimate, more personal. But this was it: the culmination of nearly four years of wanting to do this hike successfully, on my own, for a sunrise. I felt a few parsed breaths as I looked around to remind myself how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to attempt this again.
Sunrises don’t last long, and after some more shots with Joshua, Rachel, and Lawrence, we continued up to Gornergrat for breakfast. It was delicious — my breakfast had long since been metabolized after the 1300 m hike up — but the views on the clearest day of the week so far were perhaps more rewarding. The Grenz Glacier was in full show as it joined the Gorner Glacier, eventually terminating in various flues that continue downhill to Zermatt. This is the power of nature on display again, this time showing how the valley of the Matterhorn came to be.
The views to the north were no less impressive, giving a teasing hint to the ruggedness of Switzerland. The Weisshorn (photo left, literally “white peak”) looms over the Mettelhorn and Platthorn, which even at over 3300 m elevation are this time of year largely snow-free on their southern faces.
On Friday, Joshua, and Rachel, and Joe (another American we had met during the trip) left, so I was on my own for the day. I headed east and witnessed how so much new construction is achieved nowadays in alpine regions: with the help of helicopters.
A little before noon, I reached the Stellisee, and I was a little surprised to find it completely packed. The last time I was there the place was very nearly empty, but such is the allure of Switzerland in the summer: an incredible infrastructure of churning gondolas, trains every twenty minutes, modern cable cars. High season here means hikers and visitors abound.
I saw three women photographing in the fields near the lake. One was from Florida, another from Canada, but I didn’t get to ask what they were shooting. Beneath the Matterhorn, on a green meadow over a mile above the sea, I can’t say I fault their locale.
I continued north after having lunch at the lake and headed toward the Blumenweg, or flower trail. The views across the Mattertal — the Matter valley — to the Obergalhorn were superb. One day, when I have the training for it, I’d like to climb at least some of these peaks. That experience, if it materializes, will bring its own series of psychoanalysis I am sure!
Soon I ended up on the flower trail, though not being a botanist, I couldn’t identify any of the color I saw along the way.
After a long, windy descent I ended up crossing the hamlets of Tufteren and Ried, which offer views into Zermatt with the Matterhorn behind. With so many shots of the Matterhorn, it’s sometimes easy to forget there is a little town at its foot. By this time in the afternoon, the mountain was leaving a stream of clouds as if it were an active volcano (which, for the record, it’s not). The sunlight reflecting on the roofs almost creates an HDR-effect on this photo, despite it being a single exposure.
That night, the billowing clouds were just right for an incredible sunset. I had dinner at the rather delightful Hotel Antares — they have a a terrifically amusing waiter and reasonably priced food for Switzerland that is nevertheless delicious — and rushed back to the airbnb to set up my tripod. I wasn’t a minute too soon as the mountain seemed to catch fire for the next fifteen minutes. The hotel we had stayed at earlier in the week also had a view of the Matterhorn, but the sky and the sun didn’t play as nicely the entire week for sunrise or sunset.
I set an alarm pretty much every hour until sunrise, but higher clouds moved in overnight and obscured the Milky Way, rendering the exercise a bit impractical. As we got closer to dawn, the clouds began to dissipate, so I set the camera to bulb and took an hour’s nap. The hour was a bit too long for the exposure, though I was pleasantly surprised to see that climbers’ headlamps as they ascended the Hörnli Ridge did show up on the result.
The sunrise was colorful but not wholly interesting, so I slept for another hour before waking up for Saturday, my last day in Zermatt.
When I returned to the village on Friday, I had decided that I’d make a reservation for a overflight of the Mattertal with Air Zermatt. In 2011, when hiking up to the Hörnlihütte I saw a rescue unfold firsthand. It was my first reminder of the dangers of alpine travel and my first glimpse at the work that Air Zermatt does. This year, I learned that its owner is actually a photographer himself, and that in addition to owning a pharmacy in Zermatt also started the rescue business less than fifty years ago. It’s hard to imagine how alpine rescue happened in those days, and I was curious to see the operation firsthand. I wasn’t going to do it — it’s hard enough to keep a sense of orientation in the middle of the Swiss Alps, and to cram a photo session into less than half an hour was hardly doing justice to the Alps anyhow. With just over 200 photos left on my SD card, however, I decided I would commit.
I’m glad I did.
We started off heading north and then west, flying past Dent Blanche (this time, named in French — “white tooth”).
The passengers practically gasped as we flew by, and then above, the Matterhorn. This was surreal: I was in a warm, safe aircraft as alpinists toiled below us. They had been awake for hours more than we had and some were likely watching us watch them. I’m frankly not sure who was more jealous, the climbers or the passengers.
We continued east, heading over a new ski lift that was being built near the Klein Matterhorn.
Up until here, I was doing okay on my bearings. But then we flew toward the Monte Rosa, and I began to get lost in the endless stream of 4000 m peaks. We overflew multiple glaciers, some with massive crevasses.
We saw the Italian Alpine Club’s Margherita Hut, perched on a ridge nearly 15,000 feet in the sky, and a stream of climbers heading up, likely in preparation for a climb the next day.
As on the Matterhorn, there were climbers already the ridges to the east also.
And there were some who seemed to be heading downhill (and steering well clear of the gaping crevasses).
As we headed back to the Air Zermatt helipad, we flew over the Gorner Glacier toward the Matterhorn again — this time, the views clear enough to the west that the Mont Blanc massif was also in full sight. To the left in the photo is Pollux, then the Breithorn. It was a seemingly fitting conclusion that I would start and end the trip with a view of the Breithorn, and somehow I have the feeling this won’t be the last time I see it, either.
After chatting with the staff at Air Zermatt briefly, I headed back to the airbnb and pack up. Packing up, I headed back to the train station and to Täsch, where I picked up my car and began the drive home. I stopped, as I often do, on the Furkastraße and took a few photos of those wonderful Swiss passes and the valleys beyond. The light, scattered by gaps in the clouds, made for an interesting mood, setting the tone as I drove back to Germany.
A relief map of the Alps, and indeed, many photographs of the Alps, would suggest that it’s just a massive chain of mountains. So also was my primitive understanding of the North Cascades. But in between those peaks are valleys, many of which owe their existence to the tourist that is drawn to high places. The infrastructure of Zermatt is maybe unmatched by any other alpine area, but it’s not this that keeps me going back. It’s not just the Matterhorn, either. It’s the fresh air, the sense of release, and most significant, the perpetual, unshakeable feeling that I’m only an infinitesimal part of the universe. The missed attempts to reach the Riffelsee are indications of that insignificance. Certainly there’s a thrill of accomplishment after summiting a tall mountain or reaching a hidden lake, but this pales in significance to knowing that at the end of a long road lies a quiet little village that can completely put my mind to ease. After seven trips here, you’d think I’d be sick of it, but I keep finding new places to explore, new expressions of beauty. No matter the tingling sensation of adventure; this calm I will seek out every chance I can.