Zermatt in winter, Switzerland

Location: Zermatt, Switzerland
Date: February 2013
Duration: one week
Transportation: ski, snow shoes
Viewed: 4725 times
Comments: 0
A one-week ski trip in Zermatt, Switzerland, home of the famous Matterhorn and Mount Rose (Monte Rosa). A huge resort, close to the border with Italy, where ski lifts pick you in the city at the altitude of 1,620 meters (5,315 ft) and can lift you all the way up to the Klein Matterhorn at 3,883 meters (12,740 ft). From this extraordinary vantage point you can enjoy the breathtaking view on the highest mountains in Europe.

The weather was pretty cold the whole week, the warmest temperature being -8°C (17.6°F) in downtown Zermatt. One morning we had -29°C (-20°F) at sunrise at the Klein Matterhorn.

Ski session video



I had pictured Zermatt as being an Alpine village, which it is in many ways. Zermatt is actually more a small city than it is a big village. My only complaint about Zermatt was the sheer number of electric taxis that travel up and down the town's streets. Zermatt is said to be a car free town, which is half true. There's no private car in the streets, that's a sure thing. But you can barely walk in any street for less than 30 seconds without having to step aside to clear the way for a taxi. Pedestrians also don't really have a right of way when a taxi comes along, and they often drive above the speed limit of 20 kilometers per hour. I enjoyed better the peacefulness and calm of car free villages like Wengen or Mürren in the Jungfrau region. That being said, everything else was a great experience, and once in the wilderness of the mountains, Zermatt looks like a quiet and beautiful village.

I recommend the Hotel Kronig, which has regular hotel rooms and studios with an equipped kitchenette. The kitchen is ideal for the days one is too tired to hit the streets and walk to a restaurant. Hotel Kronig is located at the far end of the village and therefore at the very bottom of the mountains and the ski lifts, a perfect spot. The view on the Matterhorn from the room was amazing. The emotion was similar to when I visited Grand Canyon. You've heard about it, you've seen tons of photos, but there's nothing like living the experience to feel the emotion and sense the magnitude of the scale. The landlord was really welcoming, speaks Swiss German obviously, but also French and English. Breakfast was included and it was very consistent with fresh bread of various kinds, brioche, milk, hot tea, coffee, orange juice, chocolate, cheese, corn flakes, ham, butter & jam.

The Matterhorn viewed from Hotel Kronig
The Matterhorn viewed from Hotel Kronig

The first morning the weather was not so great. We asked the landlord about the forecast. She answered, 'The sky is going to clear up a bit, but later today. It's going to be slightly chilly, somewhere around -20°C (-4°F), but no wind, so, it's going to be OK.'
This was enough to set our level of expectations concerning the local temperatures and understand what people are used to around here.

The interesting thing about Zermatt is that once you've seen the Mattehorn from the village, you are tempted to think you've seen it all. At least that's what those you remain in the village will be thinking when they go back home if they haven't taken the time to go for a hike or go ski. Once you leave the village for the mountains, the reality is quite different.

On the first sunny day, a temperature of -29ºC (-20ºF) was announced at sunrise at the Klein Matterhorn. After a second of doubt, the call of the wild, the will to go up there was so strong that leaving the studio became the only option.

Once on the ski lift, a guy says, 'It's really cold. I took off one glove to adjust my jacket. It then took me 30 minutes to warm up my hand.'

As the lift goes up, the Matterhorn becomes bigger and bigger. Above Zermatt, one of the mountains takes my breath away. It's actually a couple of high summits, Täschhorn and Dom. The morning light projects the shadows on their sides. Perfect timing for a clear shot.

Täschhorn and Dom
Täschhorn and Dom

From the bottom of the Klein Matterhorn, a high mountain in the back of the Matterhorn smokes like a volcano, due to the high altitude wind blowing off its fresh snow. Dent d'Hérens. An absolute beauty.

Dent d'Hérens
Dent d'Hérens

Viewed from there, the East face of the Mattehorn looks quite different compared to the well-known photos made from Zermatt. It looks like a perfect triangle, like a giant piece of Toblerone chocolate. Could it be where it all started? I smile thinking that the mountain is possibly known by the locals as the Toblerhorn. Someone else must have thought about this lousy play on word before I did.

East face of the Mattehorn
East face of the Mattehorn

The Matterhorn is not alone. We are surrounded but astonishing mountains, each one more beautiful than the other in its own way, the Dent Blanche and its sister the Weisshorn, Ober Gabelhorn, Zinalrothorn and many others. Could it be all? Obviously not! What is missing? Right! The Monte Rosa of course, and its second highest pick in the Alps after the Mount Blanc, the Dufourspitze. Glaciers come down from its flanks, scarred with crevasses. Unbelievable!

Ober Gabelhorn
Ober Gabelhorn
Dent Blanche
Dent Blanche
Zinalrothorn
Zinalrothorn
Breithorn
Breithorn
Castor and Pollux
Castor and Pollux
Monte Rosa and Liskamm (also spelled Lyskamm)
Monte Rosa and Liskamm (also spelled Lyskamm)

We jump into the gondola up to the Klein Matterhorn. I seriously believe I've seen it all, that nothing can surprise me more today. Wrong again! For some reason I naively believed that once up there, I'll see Italy on the other side, thinking it would be the flat Po Valley, expecting an experience similar to reaching the top of Heavenly above the Lake Tahoe in California, opening the view to the flat Nevada desert in the East.

Instead, I discover the endless series of sharp needles of the Alpine arc separating Italy from Switzerland and from France. We are so high up that it feels like flying above this natural masterpiece. The Mount Blanc is hidden in the clouds in the far background.

The Italian side 
 Mont Blanc in the far background
The Italian side
Mont Blanc in the far background
Mount Blanc hidden in the clouds 
 The Grandes Jorasses are the black mouton seen on its right 
 right behind the Dôme du Vélan 
 this beautiful white and smooth glacier, perched on top of Mont Vélan.
Mount Blanc hidden in the clouds
The Grandes Jorasses are the black mouton seen on its right
right behind the Dôme du Vélan
this beautiful white and smooth glacier, perched on top of Mont Vélan.

Viewed from the Klein Matterhon, the Dent d'Hérens is now totally exposed. Viewed from afar, I thought that what I saw on the right side of the Dent d'Hérens was a lenticular cloud, which did not make much sense. It was way to low in altitude. It's only after reviewing the photos the following evening, assisted by the detailed Swiss topo maps from map.geo.admin.ch that I realized this was actually a glacier, the one perched below the Tête Blanche, dropping down onto the Plateau d'Hérens at an altitude of roughly 3,500 meters (11,480 ft). Such a smooth and perfect pack of ice and snow. Absolutely stunning.

Dent d'Hérens  
 and silky smooth glacier below Tête Blanche
Dent d'Hérens
and silky smooth glacier below Tête Blanche

While going up a ski lift on the Theodul Glacier, someone explains to me that the lift's towers are not all mounted on the rock, but on the ice of the glacier, and are therefore moving down the hill with the glacier. Each tower is equipped with a mirror, and on top of a nearby hill, a laser constantly measures the distance being traveled by each individual tower. When the distance is too big, the towers are moved back upstream to their original position. Amazing!

On the way up I notice some deep scars being dug by snow grooming machines. I don't really understand this at first. This same person then explains that this process is called snow farming. The deep trenches capture the snow when the wind is blowing. After a few days, when the trenches are full, the grooming machines gather all the snow and stack it up to accumulate the snow for future use. In the process, they dig up the trenches again and the process continues.

Over the course of the following days we enjoyed the other areas of the ski resort. Each mountain's perspective changed beautifully with the vantage points. The light also greatly affects the look and feel of each one of them. I kept snapping photos from morning to night, at various altitudes, from various angles, always thinking the one I took would be the last one of the Dent Blanche, or the last one of the Mattehorn, or the last one of the Monte Rosa.

Claude Monet who painted light more than he painted subjects, had light acting as his main character. He kept painting the same flowers and gardens over and over again under different light conditions. What if, instead of having lived in the North of France he had lived in the high mountains of Switzerland? He would certainly have gone nuts climbing and running all over the place to capture how light marks the crevasses or projects the cliffs' shadows onto the nearby glaciers. And this, not to forget the rhythm of the seasons along the year, each season providing also a different experience. Winter's sun is low while in summer the vegetation and the high sun must certainly be a whole lot different. Would Monet have lived to see his 86th birthday surrounded by this light madness without going crazy? He might actually very well have lived longer, thanks to the high altitude, air quality and daily exercise.

Ulrich Inderbinen who climbed the Mattehorn 371 times, Mount Blanc 84 times, and the Monte Rosa's Dufourspitze 81 times, passed away at the age of 104, and climbed up the Matterhorn for the last time at the age of 90. Monet was almost his contemporary. They could have met and hiked together.

I let my imagination go wild for a bit enjoying this daily Alpine show.

Frozen cascade near the tiny village Zmutt
Frozen cascade near the tiny village Zmutt
Hiking up to Gornergrat 
 the Klein Matterhorn in the background on the right
Hiking up to Gornergrat
the Klein Matterhorn in the background on the right
Ober Gabelhorn
Ober Gabelhorn
Snowshoeing up to Gornergrat
Snowshoeing up to Gornergrat
Sunset behind the Matterhorn on a windy evening
Sunset behind the Matterhorn on a windy evening
Zermatt
Zermatt
Zermatt by night
Zermatt by night
The Mattehorn right after a snow storm
The Mattehorn right after a snow storm
Old house downtown Zermatt
Old house downtown Zermatt
The Mattehorn viewed from the Gornergrat train
The Mattehorn viewed from the Gornergrat train
Gorner Glacier and Monte Rosa
Gorner Glacier and Monte Rosa
The sunny Italian border and the Matterhorn
The sunny Italian border and the Matterhorn
View from Hohtälli 
 Monte Rosa on the left and the Matterhorn on the far right
View from Hohtälli
Monte Rosa on the left and the Matterhorn on the far right

After a week of absolute delight, I leave this place with a single thought in my mind. Coming back here, and during summer time to experience the scenery with the colors of summer.

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