Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Summer in the Swiss Alps


A few summers ago I spent a lovely couple of days in the Swiss village of Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn. My wife joined me and also my son and daughter-in-law. The weather was perfect and the wildflowers were in bloom everywhere. It was my second visit to the Matterhorn — the first was during winter when everything was snowed under, so it was a very different landscape this time.

For me, the Matterhorn represents the very epitome of a rugged alpine peak, and its dynamic, almost geometrically-perfect pyramid shape makes it the most instantly recognisable peak in the world, and not just on Toblerone chocolate! There are some delightful walks in the region, all very do-able for anyone with the reasonable use of his or her legs without having to resort to serious mountaineering techniques. If you're vertically challenged, it's difficult to find any flat ground around Zermatt, but no matter which route you choose you'll be rewarded with sweeping views.

Part of the mystique that surrounds the Matterhorn has to do with Edward Whymper's fascination with the mountain and his successful first ever ascent in 1865, only to be followed by tragedy on the descent when four of his men fell to their deaths. Whypmer's book Scrambles Amongst the Alps is recommended reading, as is a visit to the Museum in Zermatt where the notorious 'broken rope' and other memorabilia from the 1865 ascent are on public display.

To get a feel for the mountain we left early one morning and made our way up from the Black Lake. The ascent is reasonably straight-forward along a narrow, winding mountain path, accompanied by dizzying drops for hundreds of metres. There are so many of these mountain paths around Zermatt that normal fencing and health and safety requirements we see in Australia are impossible to maintain in this landscape. The rock underfoot is essentially shale and slate in a constant state of flaking, so care needs to be taken with foot placement. We climbed as high as the Hornli Ridge and got tremendous views of the Matterhorn soaring majestically above us, its peak cutting through cloud, and down to the Matterhorn Glacier far below.

Frenchmans Cap has often been called 'Australia's Matterhorn' and there is a similarity in the striking physical appearance of both mountains. But there the comparison ends —apart from the huge difference in height — 4,478 metres compared to 1,446 metres — both mountains have a history and attraction that is uniquely its own. So if you love mountains, the Matterhorn should be on your short list of places to visit on your next European holiday. It's a magnetic and magical place that you'll want to return to again and again.

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