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Swiss Impressions from Zermatt-Matterhorn
|by Satis Shroff|
Sunrise at the Gornergrat 3089 m above sea level and a hearty Continental breakfast in the 3100m high Kulmhotel Gornergrat. What a delightful and unforgettable experience with the panorama of the Alps right in front of you. For people who´ve been to the Himalayas, it´s like breakfast at Lukla or Namche Bazaar. Albeit, with the exception that the Swiss do pamper you with the very best from their kitchen and cellar.
Zermatt-Matterhorn is a hamlet located in the Swiss Alps. The world famous Glacier Express brings you directly to this holiday resort. Zermatt is a charming mountain hamlet at the foot of the Gornergrat peak, which is flanked to the west by Hohtali (high valley), Rote Nase (red Nose), Steckhorn and the 4634m high Dafourspitze. Whereas the names of the major peaks in the Himalayas have been named after Gods and Goddesses, in the Alps they bear their names according to their looks. To the Swiss the peaks appear like horns (Matterhorn, Breithorn), pointed summits (Parrotspitze, Dafourspitze), a thumb (pollus) or a comb (Liskamm) with their respective glaciers (gletspuchhare peak,cher): upper and lower Theodul glacier, Breithorn glacier, Zwillinggletscher (the Twin glacier), Grenzgletscher, Gornergletscher and the famous Rhone glacier, where the Swiss have built an icy tunnel and sell souvenirs. It sure is uncanny to walk inside a glacier, but the Swiss have everything under control for the delights of the visitors. The Rhone glacier is just as delightful with waterdrops pattering on your hear from the icicles.
The Matterhorn glacier paradise, is also known as the Small Matterhorn and beyond the Theodul pass looms the 4478m Matterhorn, aloof from the other peaks, in all its majesty. A modern cable cabin brings you right to the top.
A pang of nostalgia always overcomes me when I see the Matterhorn, because it reminds me of the Machapuchhare peak, the fish-tailed one, in Pokhara (Central Nepal) where we used to go on geological and botanical excursions during my student days in Catmandu. I also think of the friendly and brave Gurung people who live in the upper reaches of the Annapurna mountains and the boat-rides on the placid waters of the Phewa lake.
I remember having painted the Matterhorn from a Swiss calendar during my school days in the foothills of the Himalayas. We even had a huge Swiss nun with a broad infectious smile who ran the school infirmary and who´s name was Sister Felix. It was a strict school run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland and Sister Felix had a heart for us small boys with our small injuries. She was a great solace to us in the English boarding school which the Irish Brothers ruled with typical school rules, arrogant prefects, tidiness inspections, benders for the offenders and all. I still see her sympathetic face, the strains of her blonde hair climbing out of her bonnet, speaking English with a soft Swiss accent. She was our Florence Nightingale amid the skirmishes between the school-kids and the teachers, for in those days punishment was severe, and not like today where the parents sue the teachers for their so-called brutality, and the kids threaten brazenly with their respective lawyers in case a teacher loses control over himself or herself.
From Zermatt you take Europe´s highest open-air cog train past the picturesque viaduct at Findelbach (1774m), Rifflealp along a serpentine route, reminiscent of the loop after Ghoom along the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, up to Rotenboden, which means ´red soil.´
Since the new Lötschberg-basis tunnel is open to traffic, you can drive from Zürich, Basle and Bern and gain an hour.
On the right side you see the Riffel lake and the breathtaking Gorner glacier. Below you are people trekking or walking with their nordic walking gear along the Heidi landscape. Some are panting on their mountain bikes, overwhelmed by the glacier landscape that unfolds in front of your eyes. What´s wonderful about the Zermatt-Matterhorn is that it´s open all the year round. You can get off the cog-train at any station along the route and jump in again when you´ve had enough of walking in the Alpine world. I walked all the way to Interlaken with Karin and enjoyed the Swiss countryside, especially the flora and fauna.
It was easy going from the Gornetgrat, past Rotenboden to the Riffelsee, a picturesque lake and to Riffelberg from where you could see the Furg glacier and above it the Theodul Pass with the Massif of the 4478m Matterhorn with its jagged peak. In the towns below you get souvenirs centred around the Matterhorn massif: chocolates, blue stones shaped like the mountain, T-shirts with the Matterhorn icon, letter-openers, cakes, mugs, cigarette lighters, aprons too. You descend to Riffelberg, past Riffelalp, and after you´ve reachered Findelback with its waters gushing under the picturesque viaduct, you arrive at the village of Zermatt, which has always functioned as a town where the experienced climbers of Zermatt have looked for and people who hire them to climb the peaks that are draped in misty curtains on rainy days. When you think of the Matterhorn you can´t help thinking about Edward Whymper, who scaled the peak with a climbing party on July 14, 1865.
On the day of the Matterhorn disaster, the British climbers began their descent after having climbed the mountain. Above the shoulder of Matterhorn, the most dangerous part of the mountain a slip occurred and the rope broke. The climbers Hudson, Hadow, Lord Francis Douglas and Croz fell down the north face of Matterhorn. The following day, the exhausted and sad survivors reached Zermatt. The Swiss Hotel-owner Seiler asked Whymper what had happened up in the mountain.
Whymper´s laconic answer was: ´The Taugwalders and I have returned.´
Europe was shocked by the disaster and even Queen Victoria asked whether such a perilous pastime could not be stopped by law. But ever since man has started climbing mountains, the mountaineers have been paying a heavy toll for their ´deadly pursuits´ in the higher regions for their egoistic endeavours, be it alone or in teams, sans oxygen and sans amphetamines. The graveyard adjacent to Zermatt´s English church and the Swiss graveyards are replete with people who died while climbing. A couplet from Romeo and Julia reminds us of Edward Broome, a prominent member of the Alpine Club:
The highest elevation of the Gornergrat is 3089m. It´s like being on the top of the world with a panorama that comprises 29 four-thousand metre peaks as far as your eyes can see. It is when you have reached such a great height where the mountains meet the sky, and when you realise how small and insignificant you are in the presence of the gigantic massifs before you that you have thoughts about your very existence and ask yourself about your ´sein oder nicht sein´ (to be or not to be). It is in these dizzy, rarefied heights that you ask yourself questions about yourself and philosophise about your own life like other thinkers have done in the past. When you have gone through this process of self-examination, you have the choice to carry on the way you´ve chosen or to change within and start leading a new, conscious life. Aware of yourself and others, modern life without its automatic behavioural patterns.
The observation platform for visitors is at a height of 3130m and for those who feel a wave of sanctity suddenly sweep across their hearts in this splendid place, there´s the Berhhard von Aosta chapel. Further below the Gornergrat lies Rotenboden at an elevation of 2815m, which is the starting point of the trail to Riffelsee, a lake where you can observe a gorgeous reflection of the Matterhorn. You take the Monte Rosa Hut trail and when you go past the Gorner glacier, you are rewarded with an excellent view of the 4634m Dufourspitze.
The Gornergrat Bahn is Switzerland´s first electric cog railway and is celebrating its 111 birthday. All eight trains of the Glacier Express to Zermatt have panorama wagons. Since it´s summer, and the Swiss are perfectly organised, there´s even a folklore group with Swiss brass and alp-horns to greet you. In Europe they say we Germans do things with German thoroughness. I´d even go even further to say that the Helvetians do it even better.
Generations have seen the film ´The Sound of Music´ with Julie Andrews and have been moved by the song ´Edelweiss.´ There´s even a 110 year old, Edelweiss hut built at a height of 1961m and which was in the past frequented by the likes of writer Emile Zola, Albert Schweitzer of Lamberene fame and the climber Edward Whymper.
You don´t expect haute cuisine up in the Swiss Alps, do you? Gault-Millau classified the hospitality up here as ´comfortable, hearty and inviting.´ I can only second it. On July 4, 2009 there was a Zermatt Marathon, a race in which you climb 1853m. Quite a feat but not to be recommended for complacent couch potatoes. If you like the Alpine folklore, there´s even a Folklore Festival on August 9, 2009 with big parades comprising 1200 participants from the entire Alpine region. If you feel that climbing up to the Matterhorn is not enough for your ego, then you can take part in the Matterhorn race. You´ll be traversing 12,49km and have to overcome an elevation of 980 metres. The Zermatt festival takes place between September 4-20,2009 and the Chamber Music with ensembles and solists of the Berliner Philharmonic orchestra will bring you western classics. If you like Swiss and other Alpine costumes then you can visit the Trachtenfest on September 5-6, 2009. For ladies it might be fun to be a part of the crowd by donning dirndel costumes with Alpine flower-hats to go with them. You can buy excellent traditional dirndels and trachten costumes in Zürich, Basle, München and Zermatt itself. With the exception of the Gornergrat, children under 9 can travel all mountain trains free of charge. Ain´t that grand?
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