The world’s most photographed mountain, the rugged Matterhorn that looks like a jagged tooth, is indisputably the showstopper at Zermatt, Switzerland’s most popular ski town in the canton of Valais. Bathed in the orange glow of the early morning light or covered in wispy clouds on a grey day, the triangular peak, which inspired Theodor Tobler to create the popular Toblerone chocolate, is omnipresent.
There’s history in every corner of this 5,600-population town, whose name comes from the German “Zur matte”—in the meadows. First mentioned in documents in the 13th century as Prato Borno, it was a community of farmers, cowherds and goatherds, who started the village on the banks of the Matter Vispa. It all changed in 1865, says our guide, Angela Moser, when the mountain was first scaled by four British mountaineers led by Edward Whymper and three Alpine guides—both triumph and tragedy, with the snapping of a poor-quality rope killing four of the seven.
Arriving on the Glacier Express that cuts through the Alps, traversing 291 bridges and 91 tunnels, I am awed by Zermatt—the wooden chalets darkened with time, flower boxes, black-nosed sheep, small electric vehicles ferrying tourists, glacial green streams, all nestled amidst the grand amphitheatre of mountains.
Surrounded by 38 peaks that stretch above 4,000m, Zermatt is a favourite with skiers, adrenaline seekers and mountaineers. At first they came by horse and carriage and sedan chairs. The railways came in 1891. In 1927, winter tourism was born—ski championships began.
The main street, Bahnhofstrasse, is studded with bronze plaques, honouring 11 Alpinists, from Lucy Walker, the first woman—in skirts, no less—to scale the Matterhorn in 1871, to Peter Taugwalder, the guide on the first expedition.
2021 marks 150 years of the moment when Walker, a British mountaineer, scaled the peak. She went on to complete 98 expeditions, until her death in 1916. In 1909, she became a member of the newly-formed Ladies Alpine Club, serving as its president between 1913-15. “According to the book Food On Foot: A History Of Eating On Trails And In The Wild by Demet Güzey, Walker operated on a diet of ‘sponge cake and champagne’,” states an article on the Matterhorn Chalets website.
As part of the celebrations marking her historic ascent, the town is hosting a series of events, including a tribute to women mountaineers at Museumsplatz. Since March, the Swiss tourism campaign 100% Women Peak Challenge has seen women-only teams trying to ascend all the 48, 4,000m peaks in the Swiss Alps. The Indian twins Nungshi and Tashi Malik, who started with the Breithorn at 4,164m, are among them.
The Matterhorn is at the centre of life in Zermatt. Even the chocolates at the famous Fuchs Bakery are shaped like the mountain. Every stone and building in the town references the mountains. In Old Town, in the Hinterdorf— that translates to rear village—an ornate fountain evokes memories of the legendary mountain guide Ulrich Inderbinen, who scaled the Matterhorn 370 times at least, the last when he was 90. Hinterdorf’s main street is lined with over 30 of the oldest buildings—barns and houses built between the 16th and 18th centuries, larch-wood chalets with heavy slate shingle roofs. Many were built on stone stilts to keep food out of the reach of mice.
At the mountaineers’ cemetery at the local Catholic church, in the heart of town, are memorials to mountaineers and guides who died in avalanches and rockfalls or fell into crevasses. An Unknown Climber’s Grave pays homage to the more than 500 people who have lost their lives since the 1860s.
I take the cable car to the Matterhorn Glacier paradise, the highest mountain station in Europe at 3,883m, with a bewitching panorama of glaciers and peaks. Fifteen metres below the glacier is a wonderland of dragons and wolves created by ice sculptors.
Most of the passengers in the cable cars are sunburnt skiers lugging equipment to the pistes, to enjoy some of the most beautiful ski runs. Others are there to enjoy the town’s 400km marked hiking trails, with clear Alpine lakes, pine forests, marmots and ibex.
Underlying everything in Zermatt is the attention to sustainability. It’s completely self-sufficient in pure spring water. Pedestrians and electric vehicles rule the roads in this car-free town. Every chalet has a vegetable patch.
On my last morning, I hurtle on a funicular that runs though a rock-cut tunnel towards Sunnega. This is the starting point of the Five Lakes trek that allows you to glimpse the Matterhorn’s reflection in crystal-clear lakes or enjoy clear views of the valley. That moment, as the sun shines on the peak, is embedded in my memory.
Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based journalist.