Skiing Under The Base of the Matterhorn
Bright orange wands whipping past me at high speed, I turn make a left-handed turn and my gaze shifts to the iconic Matterhorn looming above me. A split second later I’m dancing on my skis trying to regain balance over my skis as an unnoticed undulation in the slope almost catches and edge – and almost flings me into the compacted groomed surface. Between views of the towering Matterhorn, day dreaming about lines up the Matterhorn, bars sprinkled along the routes, and the notion of skiing down to Italy for a quick lunch before returning to Switzerland for dinner, there is a lot to keep you mind away from the snow.
Zermatt receives an annual average of 300 inches of dry snow per year, which is significantly less than the annual average in the Pacific Northwest (Stevens Pass receives 450 inches per year). Unfortunately due to warming temperatures and climate changes in the Alps the snowfall is less regular than it used to be. To compensate, the resort has installed snowmaking equipment along most of the runs. In the late season, the snow machines are critical for keeping snow on the lower mountain runs back into the villages of Zermatt and Cervina.
Despite Tiffany and I only having a season’s worth of skiing, we did reasonably well. The runs at Zermatt are not very steep: red runs equated quite well with more shallow blue runs at Stevens. Most of the runs had 2 fall lines, adding a level of difficulty. The runs at Zermatt make up for their lack of slope angle, with length.
It can take a good hour of skiing to get back down to the village from the highest lifts – we frequently overtook the Gornergrat Bahn train on it’s descent down the mountain. With the exception of a handful of un-maintained (“downhill”) runs Zermatt has only 1 black run – which we accidentally but successfully descended.
At it’s core Zermatt is an alpine resort village with year-round tourism as it’s core and practically only industry. The village has a museum dedicated to the local mountaineering triumphs with broke rope from the Matterhorn’s first ascent as it’s centerpiece. If you can step off the main streets, the high priced fashion boutiques and watchmakers, you’ll find pockets of ancient farm warehouses with their stone mouse guards intact. Unlike many resort towns, Zermatt manages to blend fashion, history and the environment in the urban fabric in a way that feels intimate. Cars are banned from the village. Skiers whisk from their hotels or homes on one of two electro-bus lines directly to the main lift stations. Walking around Zermatt, you feel design decisions and priorities made by a population that has lived in the fragile high-alpine for 7,000 years and understands the connection between a healthy economy and a healthy environment.
Zermatt’s chic youth hostel makes it possible to enjoy Zermatt on a budget. We snacked throughout the day on food purchased at the local Co-Op grocery. A member of Hostelling International, the modern hostel provided a surprisingly tasty breakfast and dinner as part of the hostel rate – a rare deal in an otherwise expensive resort town.
Lifts and Transportation
Thanks to Swiss engineering, Zermatt provides skiers access to elevations and high-alpine terrain typically available only to mountaineers. For a mountaineer, it’s an opportunity to enjoy running downhill at high speed without booting or skinning up the slope. You’ll find every form of vertical lift in operation at Zermatt: rope tows, t-bars, chairs, gondolas, cable cars, funicular and the cogwheel Gornergrat Bahn railway.
Access to all of the lifts – from rope tow to train – is controlled by a RFID enabled SkiPass. Skiers must scan their pass on entry and exit for most lifts. While annoying, this tax also enables the resort to build rich analytics for mountain usage, which is available to skiers via a simple website.
Over the course of 5 days we descended 18,921 meters (62,076 feet), with a third of that distance covered on our last day dropping 6,491 meters (21,295 feet) over 42 kilometers (26 miles) as we traversed the resort from Sunnegga Paradise to the Matterhorn Paradise.
While getting to Zermatt is only a 3-hour train ride, timing between our international flights and hotel check-in times required us to spend a night in Zurich at the beginning and end of our trip. The surprisingly small city core is exactly what you’d expect to find: great chocolate, micro-roasted coffee, small tightly packed streets, and a fantastic public transportation system centered around the train station.