I thought my 2016 travels would end with Vienna, but any remaining frugality gave way to a lingering hunger for the high mountains. It started with a landscape photographer‘s exhibition in nearby Isny; after seeing his photographs I wanted a panorama that I myself could print two meters wide and knew exactly which scene I wanted for that hanging. Or, perhaps, it started with my awoken mountain fascination in 2007 and was thereafter stoked with my discovering Zermatt in 2011. But so it was that I forwent Thanksgiving 2015 and borrowed a set of snowshoes to take that panorama of a lake I had photographed nearly a half-dozen times. The mountain pass was frozen and closed, so again I took the car train under the mountain and to my lost valley. Different year, different month, different car; same inexplicable thirst.
When I first started hiking, I knew only of names: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Si, Sauk Mountain, Mt. Pilchuck. I loved Mt. Rainier for its ruggedness and how it reminded me of my insignificance, but never once did I consider how these mountains were all connected or why the roads leading to their bounty were where they were. Then, in 2011, I visited Zermatt for the first time, where the Matterhorn lives.
A week after the comment that there were too many people in the Zermatt area, I ended up going again. That’s a third time in a month: of the five weekends in October, I went to Switzerland for three of them and worked the other two. I left work and headed west, catching the sunset from my favorite mountain pass along the way.
This time, even though the weather was arguably even better than on the prior two trips, the trails were just about deserted.
“… il y a simplement trop de monde,” a French hiker exclaimed as we walked by, referencing the increasing number of visitors into the city and its alpine hiking trails. And it’s true — Zermatt, or its well known mountain, anyhow, is a huge tourist draw. Its visitors office estimates roughly three million gawkers pass through each year, on average spending over 200 CHF per day. But even the prospect of needing to consistently assert that I wasn’t going to be a train-riding visitor but rather a gung-ho hiker wasn’t enough to keep me from coming back a second time this month, cheating on Rainier be damned.
After five weeks of not being in the mountains, I finally got a chance to drive into some valley and hike up some mountain again. This time, it was that valley. Deep in Switzerland to that iconic mountain, where all the tourists go.
I wrote that the ski weekend had sparked an idea to go back to the Alps for one final weekend. I knew in my mind exactly where I wanted to go — Zermatt — but every instinct said not to go. At 3:00 PM on Christmas Eve, however, I decided to drive for the last time toward the Swiss border.
Until this weekend, the highest elevation I’ve ever hiked to was Camp Muir, one of two high camps on Mt. Rainier. At 10,080 feet, it’s the highest you can go on the mountain (permissibly) without ropes and a helmet. It’s also 615 feet short of the Hörnlihütte, a similar high camp on the Matterhorn. Sorry, dear, but I’ve moved on. Or have I?
I first read about the Matterhorn in the form of a mountain called “the Citadel,” or “Rudisburg.” This mountain was located in a town called “Kurtal,” both of which were dreamed up by the author James Ramsey Ullman in his book, “Banner in the Sky.” Maybe this is where I got my love of all things mountainous from; I’m not sure. But either way, the Citadel is for all literary purposes the Matterhorn; Kurtal is Zermatt, Switzerland; and Edward Winter of the novel is really Edward Whymper. I loved the book as a child, and it was… emotional — I can’t really put my finger on the right word — to see the city and mountain after imagining it for fourteen years. The trip was planned kind of on a whim. I decided to hold a hotel reservation and wait to see how the weather forecast would turn out. It started off (a week in advance) decent, then changed to cloudy, then the last day I could still cancel my reservation, it cleared up again. I meant to deliberate (i.e. flip a coin) whether it was worth the gamble — Switzerland isn’t exactly cheap — but forgot about the 6 PM deadline and realized only when I walked in my apartment at 7 PM that maybe I had just made an expensive mistake. Too late to change plans, I forged ahead and left Stuttgart at 4:50 PM on Friday, one hour and twenty minutes behind schedule.
I got to Zermatt around midnight, and it was already pretty neat. The town itself allows no internal combustion engines; nearly all vehicles are electric. They’re not silent, as the Wikipedia Zermatt entry states, but their sound isn’t that of a gasoline or diesel engine, either. Going to Zermatt means parking in Täsch, only a few kilometers up the Mattertal, and then taking a navette (French for shuttle) into Zermatt’s train station. After unpacking I slept for about four hours and then woke up to see just what the weather would be like — and whether my gamble would pay off for a sunrise shot of the Matterhorn. First, though, let me make something absolutely clear: I don’t think my photos here do the area justice. I didn’t capture (pun not intended, either) the mood of Zermatt or the incredible expanse of the Swiss / Italian Alps; I also had probably the lowest keeper rate of any place I’ve been to. I’ll try to do my best in explaining what it was that I saw, but bear with me here…
I roamed around my hotel, looking for a place to get a clear shot of the Matterhorn while still keeping an eye to the south and west to see if the sky would light up at all. By 6:15, the sun had clearly risen a bit and there really wasn’t much color, so I figured I’d just sit around and see what the Matterhorn would look like in the morning sun. I turned around to see how things were looking away from the mountain and saw some incredible colors starting to pop. So it was that my first “moody” sunrise shot wasn’t even of the Matterhorn, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless. I don’t like the crop on this, but there were roofs at the bottom of the frame… so I’ll have to live with this one. ;-)