“The Matterhorn is climbed for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost it is climbed because it is the Matterhorn” – Gaston Rebuffat.
The lofty icy cone with sharp edges wooing travellers and challenging determined climbers is supposed to be the most photographed mountain in the world. And why not? From wherever you are in the Swiss town of car-free Zermatt, you could catch a glimpse of the east face or the north face. Amongst 128 alpine peaks those are above 4000m, the Matterhorn or Monte Cervino as called by the Italians stands out distinct because of its four-faced pyramidal shape.
While Mont Blanc, the highest peak of the Alps got climbed in 1786, the snow peaks of Matterhorn, remained untrodden for long. As a result, it became a matter of international competitions for the summit. But the peak stood haughtily, never letting anyone conquer her. Like a proud, arrogant queen, she kept shooing her climbers 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 (as Jefferey Archer called it in his novel, paths of glory), did let him kiss her face. But not without a price, though. Four fellow mountaineers had to let go of their lives during the descent. Since then more than five hundred people have died on Matterhorn. But she continues to reign in the hearts of every mortal soul that ever got a chance to look at her.
The tragedy following the first ascent attracted a lot of concern and criticism about the need for mountaineering on the face of the risk involved. But on a positive note, it also changed the mountain culture. Tourists flocked to Swiss valleys to get a glimpse of the majestic Alps. Zermatt and other mountain towns transformed from poor rural areas to hot tourist destinations.
The best way to admire the Matterhorn panorama is two from the Swiss side. One is Gornergrat, and the other is the Glacier paradise. If you have just a day, then opt for the Klein Matterhorn Glacier paradise, else don’t miss the Gornergrat experience too. Though both brings you up close to the majestic mountain in question, the panorama of the sprawling alps is different from each place and not to be missed.
The way to Gornergrat has its own charm in summer. Slowly the cog rail passes the numerous rows of tall Swiss pine and lurch trees and few tiny stations. But though the stations are just a cottage width, you can’t miss the big Rolex clock hanging glamorously at each of them. As the Gotthard Bahn approached the rocky ridge of the Pennine Alps, the trees gave way to mosses, the snow increased its presence and finally, the snowy peaks emerged. It was like snow heaven all around.
Overlooking the Gorner glacier, the second largest glacier in Alps Gornergrat has a platform for viewing and Europe’s highest altitude hotel. The 3100 Kulm Hotel Gornergrat can be booked to stay in company with the thousandaires but be sure to book in time. Else you can always enjoy a lunch or a dinner or just hang around amidst the snow galore. The Matterhorn from Gornergrat looks so near that you 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. Totally awestruck I sat amidst a panorama of twenty-nine brilliant white mountains, all above four thousand meters.
“Could you please click a picture for me” requested a lady in a red jacket against the bright white landscape. I obliged her happily as she posed with the Matterhorn logo on the Toblerone Chocolate in one hand and the glamorous Matterhorn behind her. I waited for her to share a Matterhorn inspired chocolate pyramid piece after the job done. But alas, she thanked and went away, pushing the chocolate bar inside her backpack.
While climbing up to the hotel, I found a quaint little stony grey chapel. What on earth is a chapel doing at an altitude of 3100m? 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 the spiritual calmness of the Alpine sanctuary.
Gornergrat is no doubt a photographer’s paradise, but for an exclusive picture opportunity, don’t forget to get down at Rotenboden Station while returning. A walk of nearly ten minutes will take you to the lake of Riffelsee, where the reflection of Matterhorn on the still water is sure to take your breath away. But you need to be real 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 just a few kilometres away from the Matterhorn, across the Theodol pass. At the height of 3820 meters, it’s a great place for a trekker to trek up to the nearby four thousandars. And for ski lovers, nothing could 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, freezing under my bones despite my warm jacket and gloves, I was mesmerized by the three sixty-degree panoramas. Fourteen alpine Glaciers and thirty-eight peaks including our favourite Matterhorn and the highest Mont blanc graced the view. I couldn’t have asked more.
The raw untouched beauty stirred something in me. The freezing cold breeze swept my soul, so very laden with the dust of active urban life. The world running around me and me running around it stopped for a while. There was a peaceful rhythm of the wind and a graceful order of existence made me feel so at home. But for us city dwellers, used to sleeping in the air-conditioned air with comforters, the thin natural atmosphere and the subarctic temperature becomes intolerable after a while.
The Swiss Canton of Valais being historically Catholic, a cross of Jesus rose against the snow white backdrop. I clicked as many pictures possible with my numb fingers eager to go back inside the gloves as soon as possible. Ponte de art bridge might have banned hanging of love locks, but all delusional couples are quite welcome here to embellish the balustrade of the Glacier platform with fluorescent locks. Pretty and romantic, the locks were a gentle reminder of the fact that love still exists. A beautiful ice tunnel with some astonishing ice sculptures proved that art could be created anywhere if you so wish to. But a cinema lounge up there took me by surprise. Tucking myself inside one of the eggshell cosy hanging chairs, I enjoyed watching a film on mountaineering. Before getting down, the hungry me enjoyed watching people snow tubing and trying their hands in skiing from the safe indoors of the restaurant, gorging on a delicious rosti.
Words engraved on stone, “I choose to climb” of a young climber’s headstone tells us more about the emotional motivation with which each mountaineer climbs up the steep slopes despite knowing the perils of such a daring act. Out of hundreds of climbers, almost fifteen climbers every year set out before dawn to get up close with the Matterhorn peak, but 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 out. Many of them deny leaving the arms of their beloved as their bodies are never recovered.
The Mountaineers’ Cemetery which is in the garden of Zermatt’s St. Mauritius Church and the main cemetery across the road stands witness to all those brave hearts who ignored all the doubts and fears that stood on the face of their dream and passion. As I stood there trying to understand what it takes for mountaineers all around the world to keep climbing jeopardizing their life, I realized that seeking height is a natural human instinct. And if we all could have chosen to climb these natural highlands, instead of the hollow ladder of money, fame, and power it surely would have been a better world.