Walking in the Shadow of the Matterhorn

The villagers in Zermatt have an old saying about Winkelmatten Chapel. At carnival time a local Zermatt man would choose a woman to dance with at the festivities. If they walked to Winkelmatten Chapel on the feast of St Joseph their obligations to each other were seen as finished. But if that couple returned together to the hamlet of Winkelmatten on Easter Sunday then they were as good as married. The tiny white chapel lies in full view of the iconic Matterhorn and the view across the valley is both dramatic and inspirational. The snow sparkles off the mountains in the sunlight and the picturesque setting of Winkelmatten feels like a stage for a special moment and it is a popular wedding location. With its characteristic wooden chalets decorated with bright blooms and the scent of goats and straw gently wafting from underneath the buildings this is a part of Zermatt that most tourists don’t get to see and yet it is just a short walk out of the village centre.
One hundred and fifty years ago these paths were walked by Edward Whymper, an Englishman who was famed for making the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Tragically just three of the seven strong team made it back to Zermatt alive when a rope broke on the descent. It led to Queen Victoria suggesting mountain climbing should be banned and controversy followed for years to come. Even today the Matterhorn retains its intrigue and allure above Zermatt, and is an iconic symbol in Switzerland. As Zermatt celebrates the anniversary of the famous climb I wanted to explore some of the areas associated with Edward Whymper and the Matterhorn. Whymper went on to document the village and surrounding area in a guidebook to Zermatt which he published in 1890. Each year he returned to Zermatt to update it and to collect any fees from shops selling his book. Within the book are several walks and many of the paths are the same today as they were then.
One of the walks described by Edward Whymper leads from Zermatt through the hamlet of Winkelmatten to the Riffelalp. This path climbs steeply past shrines denoting the Stations of the Cross embedded in the hillsides and upwards through Swiss stone pine and larch forests on a track now named the Arvenweg. Known as the “King of the Alps”, a Swiss stone pine tree can grow for 1000 years and releases a substance from the resin and needles called pinosylvin which is beneficial to health. When the sun shines on the pine leaves the aroma is released in the forest and the scent filled the air on this walk. Along the route there were glimpses of the mountain ranges surrounding Zermatt and views of the Matterhorn through the trees and it was somewhat thrilling to think of Edward Whymper taking this very trail all those years ago. This trail zigzagged steeply upwards to the Riffelap where the setting is picturesque and there are more walks to scenic spots. Alternatively the chance to relax with a drink at the Riffelalp Hotel was a welcome break after the walk. The cog railway takes passengers onwards to the Gornergrat where the magnificent Breithorn and Monte Rosa Glaciers are the scenic attraction. This walk can also be done on the way down from the famous Gornergrat by leaving the train at Riffelalp and taking the marked Arvenweg path back to Zermatt.
The Matterhorn can only be ascended by technical climbers but getting close to the mountain is one of the best ways of seeing the panoramic views of the Alps. The smaller Klein Matterhorn stands at an impressive 12739 feet above sea level and can be reached by taking three cable cars from Zermatt, changing at Furi and Trockener Steg. The altitude hit as soon as I stepped from the last cable car as did a blast of cold air but what a view. Ahead were 38 Alpine peaks surrounded by fluffy clouds and glimmering with snow. Mont Blanc, Castor and Pollux, Monte Rosa, and the mighty Matterhorn were just some of the famous mountains visible from the gallery. There is a Glacier Palace on the mountain too which has carvings of ibex, sheep, marmots, and even a car made from ice. At the restaurant there are wines grown at some of the highest altitudes in Europe as well as warm soup and coffee.
Zermatt is full of charming chalets made from blackened wood and nailed together in a structured but rustic appearance. Many are decorated with flower boxes and the narrow streets are a delight to explore. At the local Backerei Fuchs I found delicious chocolate nougat Matterhorns and lots of other tempting treats to take home as gifts. My last visit of the day was to the Matterhorn Museum, a triangular shaped building that had a lot of interesting exhibits about the village and the famous mountain itself. This included details of the first ascent and some of the equipment used. Just across the road lies the cemetery where some of the mountaineers from the first climb who accompanied Whymper including Michel Croz, the mountaineer from Chamonix, are buried. Poignantly there are more memorials to those who have lost their lives on this unforgiving mountain since.
Whether walking to Winkelmatten on Easter Sunday or hiking in summer, the Matterhorn and continues to inspire and intrigue visitors to Switzerland even today.

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