By Audrey Andrews | August 9th, 2020
Out & Back from Höfu’s Bergrestaurant, Zermatt:
4,619 feet elevation gain
Zermatt, Switzerland is known for its ominous Matterhorn and winter skiing. Meanwhile, the summer opportunities for outdoor-minded folk are often overlooked. First, beware: Zermatt is expensive. Very expensive. Expensive even for Switzerland. But, there are ways even for a trust fundless young person to explore. If only visiting to hike and run, food is the sole expense. Plus, the train ride in and out is an experience in itself.
The peaks surrounding Zermatt can be reached by foot from the valley floor. Although most tourists tend to take trains to the summits, the self-propelled journey is inarguably better. Not for the faint of heart, the trek from already elevated Zermatt to the Gornergrat is well over 4,000 feet skyward. Cell service is available the duration of the journey, so Google Maps serves as a trusty navigator (please always bring a back up navigation system). After a lovely hotel breakfast, plod out of town up and up the roads of Zermatt, until asphalt becomes gravel becomes dirt.
Sweeping views of the valley and the Matterhorn make footing a challenge. The dilemma only grows as the route wanders up. The valley is swallowed by mountains as the clouds grow closer. Waterfalls pour over cliffs, sheep wander through grassy fields and the atmosphere lightens.
This route would not be complete without mention of a quintessential Zermatt read. Das verlorene Tal by Hannes Taugwalder peers from every bookstore in Zermatt. Taugwalder was raised in Zermatt’s pre-tourist times. His father was an original mountain guide and climber of the valley. Translated into English, The Lost Valley is a book English readers are unlikely to find anywhere but beneath the Matterhorn. Taugwalder fondly recounts his boyhood in the valley. The memoir is best-read while in Zermatt, perched on a surrounding peak or lazing in a meadow. Taugwalder’s stories enhance any Zermatt expedition, like that up the Gornergrat.
A few restaurants are found along the dirt paths up the mountainside. For anyone lacking the foresight to pack water, these must seem miraculous. Along the way, the bipedally-inclined watch as the train rumbles past. Although amazing for those unable to make the journey on foot, I pity the capable who chose a glass- and steel-surrounded ascent.
Vegetation gives way to snowpack and the soil moves from brown to grey. At this time a flatland dweller, my blood strained to find sufficient oxygen. Rests became increasingly frequent as the Gornergrat seemed to remained the same size, never growing closer. No amount of endurance training will fully prepare a body for its first moments in some time 10,000 feet above sea level.
Finally ascending the peak, ibexes await in the summer months. The gullible may think they’ve arrived at just the right time, but the animals are clearly drawn to a salt lick of sorts. Regardless, I was quite excited to see a wild ibex, let alone atop the Gornergrat. Despite passing no more than five groups traveling up or down on foot, the summit of the Gornergrat swarms with tourists from around the world. There is plenty of viewing space, bathrooms, a gift shop and food for sale.
The Gornergrat is home to an observatory and boasts unparalleled views. From this ridge, twenty peaks over 4,000 meters tall can be viewed, including the Matterhorn. To the southeast, the Gorner Glacier spills towards the valley. A mountain masterpiece is visible 360° around. The hike up left me panting and sweaty, but I quickly added on every layer I brought while observing the panorama.
Be sure to check your spirits standing atop this rocky ridge. After hiking from Zermatt, I began to feel the train-laden tourists were in my way. As I’d hiked and they’d paid for the train, I earned the views, while they did not. This is no attitude to have! After all, I took the train to Zermatt! Upon insisting to myself that all forms of transportation are legitimate, I turned and tromped back to the valley floor for an overpriced lunch, of course.