Some of the greatest mountains in Switzerland are located in Zermatt. Nirmal Khanna was in the picturesque town as it celebrated an important milestone in its history – 150 years ago seven mountaineers climbed the Matterhorn that had never been conquered before.
Zermatt is just picture perfect
The Swiss town, famed for its year round skiing, lies low in a valley, with the magnificent Matterhorn looming over it: actually 38 four thousand meter high mountains are in the vicinity of Zermatt, yet it has retained its old world charm. Cars are not allowed, the clip clop of horses with buggy can be heard and to ferry tourists laden with luggage to or from the station are vans powered by electricity.
With no carbon emissions, the air is clean!
Recently, the picturesque town of Zermatt, marked an important milestone. 150 years ago, seven mountaineers climbed the Matterhorn, a huge victory as it had never been conquered before. Sadly, only three returned after the climbing victory: an avalanche supposedly claimed the rest. Actually, a rope had broken plummeting four of them into an abyss. It became a turning point as the triumph of conquest, closely followed by the sequel of tragedy, ensuing gossip of wrong doing, changed the face of the pastoral community forever and Zermatt was propelled into the limelight.
As the ugly rumours about the fate of the mountaineers who perished swirled in society and mountaineers’ circuit leading to doubt and conjecture news seekers, tourists, later the elite descended in equal measure and the tiny village fast developed into a flourishing town where now every second building seems to be a hotel, inn or a home which lets out a few rooms.
Starting July 9 till Aug 29, Zermatt’s dwellers have brought to life the tale of the heroism and disaster: ‘The Matterhorn Story’ by staging daily an outdoor performance in two languages (German and English) and described in five more (French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and Korean) which mirrors the nationality mix of tourists.
I visited Zermatt after a gap of 14 years and was amazed at the difference. There used to be the usual West European, a mix of serious climbers, skiers and elite making a fashion statement as they lingered over coffee in the many cafes.
Now, there is a dramatic change in the scenario. From Africans to Middle Easterners (some women in abayas and many more in hijab), brash Chinese shouting across to each other, orderly groups of Japanese following the guide, hordes of Indians (listen to the accent and guess the state!) the tourists just throng through the winding roads and lanes, of course with many stops for selfies.
Adding a bit of old world charm and drama are carriages drawn by huge black horses a favourite with flashy tourists who stopped frequently for posed photographs. The clip clop of the majestic black horses definitely recreates a regal era.
Striding along carrying their skis are people of every age: from the under ten, to teenagers in psychedelic ski suits, 30 somethings in designer wear, to the 60 plus their grey hair and muscled legs in healthy contrast. It was a like an army of skiers marching purposefully through town to the ski lifts. The myriad souvenir shops on both sides could not distract them and neither did they bother to draw their attention. The shopkeepers were busy attending to the well heeled tourists of every hue as they fished out souvenirs catering to any budget: from tiny St Bernard’s complete with a bottle strapped around its neck to enormous ones which would have to be shipped to the destination, they were ready to handle every request.
Their stock of magnets, toys, pictures, bags, ceramic plates and much more with each item carrying picture to remind the buyer of Zermatt or Matterhorn, there was a souvenir for any taste: from garish to refined, it was available.
Hikers Team in the Mountains Matterhorn, Swiss Alps
Bahnhofstrasse: Village Centre and Promenade
Urban Scenery with Famous Swiss City Zermatt and Wooden Chalets in European Alps Center of Alpine Sports
Zermatt is known all over the world for its distinctive view of the mountain Matterhorn and it attracts a lot of travellers to visit Family Winter Ski Holidays in Zermatt, Switzerland
The History of Zermatt
Little is known about Zermatt before the 13th century. The small farming community’s former name was Praborno, later, around 1495 it was colonised by the Germans who called it Zermatt. Mountaineers began to explore and conquer the huge peaks surrounding the settlement, yet the Matterhorn, which looms large over the bucolic village, remained a challenge. In 1838, Dr Joseph Lauber, sensing the potential of development opened the first hotel, ‘Hotel Cervin’.
However Zermatt was brought into the limelight by Alexander Seiler who was determined to develop it as a tourist hot spot and Edward Whymper a mountaineer who had tried eight times to conquer the Matterhorn from the Italian side. In 1865 he linked with the Reverend Charles Hudson and two local guides, a father and son duo Peter Taugwalder, plus a French guide Michel Croz, Lord Francis Douglas and Douglas Hadow to make a group for their climb.
Sadly, only three returned. This bitter sweet victory and ensuing rumours of foul play brought Zermatt into the limelight for the right and wrong reasons but those led to rapid growth of the tiny rural community and it soon became a thriving mountaineering and skiing destination.
Alexander Seiler died in 1891 and the family continued with his mission to promote Zermatt as a holiday destination.
The Mountain Ski Resort Town of Zermatt, Switzerland
Swiss Alps and Valais Blacknose Sheep Nest to Zermatt in Switzerland
Ski Resort Zermatt in a Summer Day in Switzerland
Matterhorn First Climber: Edward Whymper
The Turning point
Tiny pastoral Zermatt hit the headlines with Edward Whymper’s victory but the glory was tarnished with the death of four climbers due to the breaking of a rope. Ugly rumours swirled around the conquest: did the rope break or was it cut maliciously? Why was it weaker than the rest of the ropes used in the climb?
The bodies of three of the four climbers who fell to their death during their descent were brought back to Zermatt. The remains of the fourth, Lord Frances Douglas were not found. An official enquiry was opened, Whymper and Taughalder were exonerated and blame was put on Hadow as he had been handling the rope.
Regardless of the offensive rumours, Europe became aware of Zermatt and its exciting ski slopes which were open all year round. Mountaineers thrill seekers, explorers, backpackers and the elite descended on the pastoral village, hotels of all categories opened and it soon became the favoured resort that it is today. Now, apart from skiing, snow sport lovers come for snowboarding, tobogganing, sleigh rides, hiking, and more.
The population (in 2013) was about 6000 but at any given time the number of tourists is many multiples of this number. Half the jobs of the permanent citizens are in the hospitality industry.
The Matterhorn Museum
Right in the middle of Zermatt, is the Matterhorn Museum which looks like a tented glass structure and is a definite ‘must see’ as it gives one a glimpse of the past.
The entrance, like all things Swiss, is pristine and functional. But far more interesting is what lies two floors below: it is a vivid recreation of how Zermatt looked about 200 years ago.
At the corners are farm animals, so realistic you expect a ‘baa’ any minute. But there are other very realistic recorded sounds: the chirping of birds, singing of hymns (from a tiny church) and even loud snoring. I went into the hut from where rhythmic snores emanating wondering if I was imagining it!
These huts look authentic probably replicas or even moved from the old town area in Zermatt which has 200 year old cottages.
However, the prized exhibit in the Matterhorn museum is definitely the actual rope which was used for the ascent of the Matterhorn. Although the mountain was conquered for the first time, the rope that was used broke and as a consequence four people plummeted to death.
This also led to Zermatt becoming a premier holiday destination.
Zermatt offers year-long skiing with the Matterhorn seemingly standing guard
Matterhorn Museum Visitors on the Village Square
Bed-Chamber at Matterhorn Museum: Narrow Circumstances
Tragedy of First Ascent Matterhorn, Broken Rope
On the Ascent to Matterhorn
The Zermatt Experience
Zermatt offers year-long skiing with the Matterhorn seemingly standing guard. It rises immense and sheer, in fact it seems to touch the sky. As the town is celebrating 150 years since the victory over the Matterhorn, every night there is a ribbon of lights going up the mountain to the peak.
The town is just cradled by high mountains prominent amongst them are the Matterhorn of course (4478 mts) Tauscher (4490mts) the Gornergrat (3135mts) and many more. Also the winter offers hiking and snow shoeing. One can crisscross between the mountains in white silence.
The easy way to see the Matterhorn and other soaring peaks, without being an experienced climber, is by cable car. Swaying upwards in relative safety and with no exertion, just enjoy the view as the gondola swings upwards, higher and higher trying not to notice the ground falling further away.
‘Zermatt’s mountain lifts lead you to the heavens,’ said a mountain guide and having seen the spectacular view I could not agree more.