For almost a thousand years the little village of Zermatt dozed quietly in a high Alpine valley, its jewel-like beauty hemmed in by a dozen great peaks, its existence ignored by all but a handful of men. Then, nearly a hundred years ago, Zermatt became famous. An Englishman named Whymper made a memorable climb and, in the summers since, hundreds upon thousands of adventurers and travelers and just plain tourists have gone to Zermatt. They sniffed the mountain wildflowers and ogled the incredible scenery and smiled at the quaint little cabins and the ancient customs of the people. But most of all they came to climb the most famous mountain in the world—that stark, beautiful monolith of rock and ice and snow that rises abruptly 14,701 feet into the sky to the southwest of Zermatt. This is the peak the French call Mont Cervin and the Italians Monte Cervino; to all others it is the Matterhorn.
Until recently the invading hordes would depart at the end of summer, and the old Swiss families and their somewhat startled cows could relax once again to face the deep snows and long, lonely cold of an Alpine winter. Today, however, the people of Zermatt relax no more. For when summer ends, a new group of invaders comes into the valley, clothed in thick, brilliantly colored sweaters, tight stretch pants and heavy boots, a group whose numbers increase with startling rapidity every year. Instead of climbing the mountains on foot, they ride up on chair lifts and cable cars and cog railways; then they flash across the vast snow fields and swivel through the wooded trails. They are the skiers, and they come to enjoy what is quite likely the finest ski area in the world.
Historically, this army of winter tourists was late in discovering Zermatt. The town is located deep in the southernmost corner of Switzerland, and more accessible resorts along the 700-mile length of the Alps developed first: Chamonix, Davos, Gstaad, St. Moritz, Garmisch, St. Anton. But once the skiers discovered Zermatt it grew quickly and soon began to surpass the older resorts.
The reasons are easy to see. First, there is beauty, for if Zermatt is lovely in summer it is breathtaking in the wintertime. A little river bubbles musically through the valley and village, over boulders encrusted with ice. The old hotels and new chalets and humble cottages of the natives, like the pine trees on the lower slopes, wear a crown of snow. The great peaks appear at once both more formidable and majestic as the dazzling winter sun bounces with shocking intensity off their glaciers and cornices and ridges. And at night, when the moon gleams on the deep, fresh snow and stars look so near and so bright, the mountains seem to close in solidly on all sides, making one feel very small.
Then there is the atmosphere. Zermatt has fine food and wine, fashionable hotels and a great deal of after-ski night life. Skiers arrive by the trainload from other Swiss towns, from France, Germany and Belgium, from England and America, and occasionally there is a stray Italian who may have taken the wrong turn at the Th�odule Pass. These visitors are active, participating sportsmen. The international society air of a Gstaad or St. Moritz has never infected Zermatt, and those who control the ski tourist industry of the village are determined that it never will. Prices remain low, hospitality high, and the absence of overcommercialization is a blessing seldom found in resorts anywhere.
Then there is the weather. Most winter resorts have to worry about snow—Zermatt never. Usually by the end of October there is a fall of several feet on the mountainsides, and by the holiday season the streets of the town itself are covered with snow. This is one of the highest, coldest valleys in central Europe, and also one of the driest. Furthermore, temperatures seldom go below zero—which makes Zermatt quite a bit warmer than Aspen or Lake Placid or Tremblant or Stowe. From the beginning of February through the end of the good skiing in May, it is Zermatt's boast that the sun shines every day. Even in the "bad" months of December and January there is as much sun as overcast.
Then, too, there is peace and serenity, for Zermatt has no buses or trucks or motor cars. The nearest highway stops 13 miles down the valley at St. Niklaus. The gentle jangle of sleigh bells and the soft hiss of their runners through the snow are the predominant sounds in the streets. Walking along these streets, one can find innumerable things to do: shopping in the neat little stores for Swiss watches and dolls and musical bells, for fine German cameras or for winter sportswear virtually half the price one would have to pay in the U.S.; skating to music at one of several outdoor rinks; watching a hockey game or a curling match; taking a moonlight sleigh ride down to T�sch in the feathery snow; going for a swim in the heated pool at the Theodul Hotel; or hiking down well-packed mountain trails through the little villages of Findeln, Furri and Blatten to see how people lived in the shadow of the Matterhorn before Zermatt became famous. Sometimes on a walk such as this, one may surprise a hare or a fox or be surprised oneself by the sudden explosion up the mountain of a chamois, that incredible little antelope with the great, thick coat which can climb almost vertically.
Best of all, there is the skiing. No other resort in Europe or the U.S. can match Zermatt's endless variety of slopes and trails with their different terrains, different altitudes, different exposures and different snow conditions. Rising above the little town, which sits at a height of 5,315 feet, there are three main ski districts, tied together by a gigantic web of lifts, tows, cable cars and cog railways. All the major lifts rise from town or from the edge of it; and one of the things that makes Zermatt unique is that every single run, if carried to the bottom, ends up back in town—not two miles north or 10 blocks south but right there.
The Schwarzsee district to the southwest is reached by a two-stage t�l�ph�rique, or aerial cable car, which zooms up the approaches to the Matterhorn, gaining more than 3,000 feet in altitude in 11 minutes' running time. At the top a new hotel is under construction, scheduled to open in June. Below there are two good steep runs down to Furri at the midway station of the t�l�ph�rique and a gentle trip the rest of the way to Zermatt. There is also an easy trail that swings away from Schwarzsee to the west and then steadies for a long traverse back to Furri. And just below Schwarzsee to the east a disk lift takes skiers up to the lowest part of the Furgg Glacier.
More popular, however, is the Blauherd-Sunnegga district bordering Zermatt on the northeast side. A very fast double chair lift rises in 11 minutes to Sunnegga Station at 7,480 feet. Sunnegga has a snack bar, a good restaurant and a large porch with a southern exposure where skiers like to unlace their boots, pull off their parkas, drink beer and bask in the sun. A long T bar runs up the ridge from Sunnegga to Blauherd, and since Blauherd opens up so many avenues for skiers of so many different skills, the waiting lines frequently include 200 impatient souls trampling each other with skis.