- Nita Bajoria
Tales of Travel: Lady Matterhorn
“The Matterhorn is climbed for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost it is climbed because it is the Matterhorn” – Gaston Rebuffat.
The icy cone with its sharp edges wooing travellers and challenging climbers is supposed to be the most photographed mountain in the world. And why not? From wherever you are in the car-free town of Zermatt in Switzerland, you could catch its glimpse.
Amongst 128 alpine peaks, which are above 4,000 metres, the Matterhorn, or Monte Cervino as called by the Italians, stands out distinct because of its four-faced pyramidal shape. As Switzerland’s natural compass, the peak’s north face looms over Zermatt, while Theodul Pass lies to its east. The south faces Italy, and the west faces the Swiss–Italian border.
While Mont Blanc, the highest peak of the Alps, was climbed in 1786, the snow peaks of Matterhorn remained untrodden for a long time. This was because it had a steep slope, which was snow-covered and full of rocks. As a result, Matterhorn, meaning peak in the meadows in German, became a matter of international competitions for the summit. However, like an arrogant queen, she kept warding off the mountaineers off her steep face with massive avalanches.
But when Edward Whymper, an English artist, who came to sketch her, fell for her, she had to succumb. Whymper proposed her eight times within almost four years and finally, in his eighth and final attempt, Lady Matterhorn did let him kiss her face. But not without a price, though. Four fellow mountaineers had lost their lives during the descent. Since then, more than five hundred people have died on Matterhorn. But she still continues to reign in the hearts of every mortal soul that ever got a chance to look at her.
The tragedy that followed the first ascent attracted a lot of concern and criticism both about the need for mountaineering in the face of the risk involved. But on a positive note, it also changed the how the mountain region was viewed. Tourists flocked to the Swiss valleys to get a glimpse of the majestic Alps. Zermatt transformed from a poor rural area to a tourist destination.
The best way to admire the Matterhorn panorama is from the Swiss side. One is from the side of Gornergrat, and the other is from the glacier paradise. If you have just a day, then opt for the Klein Matterhorn glacier paradise, else don’t miss the Gornergrat experience. Though both bring you up close to the mountain, the panorama of the sprawling Alps is different from each place.
The cog rail in a slow speed passes rows of tall Swiss pine and lurch trees and a few tiny stations. I spotted a chamois, as well as an ibex balancing itself on the steep slopes and grazing nonchalantly.
The stations are just as wide as a cottage, but you can’t miss the enormous round Rolex clocks that hung from each of them. As the Gotthard Bahn approached the rocky ridge of the Pennine Alps, the trees gave way to moss, the snow increased its presence and finally, the peaks emerged.
Overlooking the Gorner glacier, the second largest glacial system in the Alps, Gornergrat houses a platform for sight-seeing and also Europe’s highest-altitude hotel. The 3100 Kulm Hotel Gornergrat can be booked to stay in company of the thousandaires but be sure to reserve it in time. Else you can always enjoy a lunch or a dinner at the place or just hang around amidst the snow galore. The Matterhorn looks so near from the Gornergrat side that you are tempted to reach out. Clouds played around her, hiding her peak as we admirers waited for the veil to lift off. The banner clouds streamed off the summit, aka a flag. I sat amidst a panorama of twenty-nine brilliant white peaks, all above 4000 meters.
“Could you please click a picture for me,” requested a lady in a red jacket against the bright white landscape. I obliged her as she posed with the Matterhorn logo on the Toblerone chocolate in one hand and the Matterhorn behind her. I waited for her to share the chocolate pyramid after the photo was taken. But alas, she only thanked and went away, pushing it back inside her bag.
While walking up to the hotel, I found a quaint little stony grey chapel. What on earth is a chapel doing at an altitude of 3100 metres, I wondered. I pushed the wooden door, adjusting my eyes to find a wooden altar with figures of saints carved on it. High up in the mountains, I couldn’t have found a better place to send my prayers. I lighted up a red candle and sat for a few moments to enjoy this Alpine sanctuary.
With the sun on my face and the Matterhorn as a view, I devoured the hot chocolate at the terrace of a café. Gornergrat is no doubt a photographer’s paradise, but if you want to click an exquisite picture, don’t forget to get down at Rotenboden Station while returning back. A walk of almost ten minutes will take you to the lake of Riffelsee, where the reflection of Matterhorn on the water is sure to take your breath away. But you need to be patient for the water to settle and become mirror-like.
You need to change three cable cars swinging through the whistling snow to reach the peak of Klein Matterhorn, which is a few kilometers away from Matterhorn, across the Theodol pass. At the height of 3,820 meters, it’s an excellent place to trek up to the nearby four thousanders. And for ski lovers, nothing can be better as it is open throughout the year. Due to high altitude, one can enjoy the chill even during summer.
As I ascended the stairs to the highest viewing platform of the Alps, I froze to my bones despite my warm jacket and gloves. Fourteen Alpine glaciers and thirty-eight peaks, including our favourite Matterhorn and the highest Mont blanc graced the view. I listened to the cadence of the wind. The freezing breeze swept my soul laden with the dust of fast urban life. The world around me stopped for a while. And I paused too taking a break from all chaos and activities. There was a peaceful rhythm of the wind, and that graceful order of existence made me feel so at home.
But for us city dwellers who are used to sleeping in the air-conditioned rooms with comforters, the thin atmosphere and the subarctic temperature becomes intolerable after a while. The Swiss Canton of Valais being Catholic, a cross of Jesus rose against the white backdrop of the mountain. I clicked as many pictures possible with my numb fingers eager to go back inside the gloves. Ponte de art bridge might have banned hanging of love locks, but all delusional couples are welcome here to embellish the balustrade of the glacier platform with fluorescent locks. Few stairs below is the path to an ice tunnel with shimmering ice sculptures. Countless hours must have went to create the intricate detailing of each objects such as the eagle, the ice Buddha, and the mini ice palace. But a cinema lounge up there took me by surprise. Tucking myself inside one of the cosy eggshell hanging chairs, I enjoyed watching a film on mountaineering. Before getting down, a hungry me gorged on a rosti, and from the safe indoors of the restaurant watched people snow tubing and trying their hands in skiing
Words engraved on a young climber’s headstone, “I choose to climb” tells us more about the motivation with which each mountaineer climbs up the steep slopes despite knowing the perils of such a daring act. Every year out of hundreds of climbers, almost fifteen climbers set out before dawn to get up close with the Matterhorn peak, but most of them do not return alive. Some tumble through falls, some are crushed under avalanches, some get exhausted and sick due to the altitude, but they all try to reach the peak. Many of them deny leaving the arms of their beloved and their bodies are never recovered. The Mountaineers’ Cemetery in the garden of Zermatt’s St. Mauritius Church and the main cemetery across the road stand witness to all those brave hearts.