Hiking around the Swiss Alps with my first glimpse of the Matterhorn.

Mountaineers ascend final summit ridge to Breithorn
Mountaineers ascend final summit ridge to Breithorn

Activities : Hiking around the Zermatt region of Switzerland to Schatxplatte & the Hornli hut at the foot of the  Matterhorn.

Glacial crossing to the Monte Rosa hut & summitting on the 4,000m+ Breithorn.

In the summer of Sep, 2002 I travelled to the Zermatt region of Switzerland with the intention of doing some mountaineering & hiking and of course to catch my first sight of the majestic Matterhorn.
The journey was fairly straightforward thanks to the efficient Swiss train system. Once I had landed at Geneva airport in Switzerland you can embark immediately onto the train network with a station located at the terminal. There the clean and spacious train system whisks you through the beautiful Swiss countryside. The route to Zermatt is beautiful and passes by the amazing Lake Geneva onto Visp, where a change is required that takes you through breathtaking mountain scenery. I stayed at Tasch, a small town about 45 mins walk to Zermatt, where the campsite is located literally within a stones throw of the station. Facilities were bare but adequate. There are frequent trains from Tasch to Zermatt but often in the morning I preferred the walk through wooded areas and open countryside & absorb the amazing views of the Matterhorn. It is a well marked trail that follows for most of the way the same path as the shuttle trains. I will never forget my first walk along here, as with anticipation at every corner I rounded I expected the Matterhorn to come into view. When I was finally rewarded I wasn’t disappointed. It literally took my breath away and that very first time I stood there for ages, transfixed. This truly is a remarkable mountain.

On day 2 I hiked to the Schatxplatte. This was an enjoyable hike to begin with, starting directly from the Tasch campsite on a warm Summers day. It was fairly steep at points but I was rewarded at the end with a wonderful panorama of the mountains and amazing glacier that seemed to rise up directly in front of me as a huge block of white ice.I only saw two people the whole day and I specifically remember this day for the friendship of a Swiss farmer who was cutting the hay in his field. As I passed by, on my return right at the end of the day as the sun was almost setting he must have seen how hot and tired I looked, much like himself. He beckoned me over (as he could speak no English) and pointed to the barn. I had no idea what he wanted, but he disappeared inside and immediately reappeared with 2 ice cold beers and handed one to me. I couldn’t believe my eyes!. We sat there on a haystack drinking this glorious refreshing beer watching the sun setting. We didn’t say much (other my poor attempt to converse in the little French that I knew) but it didn’t mattter. It was a perfect end to a great day.

As the Matterhorn was one of the main reasons for being here I had to get up close and the best way to do this is to hike up to the Hornli hut from Zermatt. The walk is a more strenuous hike than it first appears along a series of fairly, steep switchbacks. Much of the trail is along scree covered slopes and is uninteresting and not worthwhile bar the goal at the end. However, to arrive at the famous Hornli Hut beneath the shadow of the Matterhorn make this hike worthwhile. The area is steeped in mountaineering history and it was amazing to stand at the foot of this amazing mountain. It was by this time that I think I had made up my mind that it would be an amazing goal to stand on the summit. I didn’t realise it would be another seven years before I would do so but all good things take time !

 

The fourth day was a rest day spent in the village of Zermatt. It’s worth spending a half or full day here, particularly if you are interested in Mountaineering history. The museum which covers the history of mountaineering in the area includes splendid displays on the first ascent by Whymper and co. It is also worth taking time to wonder around the cemetery for a sombre look at the graves that contain many fallen climbers. I particularly recall the grave of a British climber whose gravestone was adorned with his ice axes. It simply said that he had climbed the North face of the Matterhorn but then fallen on the descent down the Hornli ridge, but that he had died doing an activity he loved. I’m not sure why that particularly stuck in my mind then and has ever since, but it was a sombre reminder of the potential dangers.

The next day was the most taxing yet with a climb to the summit of the Breithorn. This is a great mountain to climb for those with limited Mountaineering experience like myself at this time. It is not a hike by any means and sound knowledge of the mountains is required, but extensive mountaineering experiences is not required (Graded PD). Good gear, ice axe and crampons are a must though. At 4164m high, it is situated besides the Klein Matterhorn, another reason for its popularity in that taking the cable car to the Klein Matterhorn takes out most of the boring leg work in the lower valley. The cable car takes you directly up to the snow covered col. The height gain from the col is 368m, and is a gently sloping climb up the snow covered slopes.

 

The weather was almost perfect when I arrived at the col, sunny with blue skies. The temperature was noticeably colder at this height, the wind making it even chillier, but once geared up it was a great walk to the summit. I walked alone although I the majority were in pairs or teams, some roped up. This isin’t a necessity as long as you have enough knowledge and sense to follow the well trodden snow path as the area is glaciated. The views from the top were fantastic and I was rewarded with some great photographs. The return from the summit opposite the SW ridge ascent is far steeper and requires a lot of care as there is a steep drop off down the South Face.

 

The final day was a hike to the Monte Rosa hut, a long but yet again rewarding day. Taking the efficient Gornergrat railway from Zermatt takes you up to 3090m. The path from here starts gentle enough along fairly barren hillside but then there is a very steep zig-zagging path down to the Glacier itself.

The way across the glacier is marked by flags but of course extreme caution walking on any glacier is required (crampons are advisable). Up to the Monte Rosa Hut really takes you into the heart of this mountain range and looking up to the giant seracs and crevasses beyond gave an indication of how big these mountains are.