The Alpine Trinity - Part 2 of 3 : The Matterhorn/Zermatt
Updated: Feb 13, 2020
As arguably the most recognizable mountain in the world, the Matterhorn is a must see for most travelers to Switzerland. They flood the mountain town of Zermatt to catch a glimpse of the icon. Fortunately for us, most of these tourists don't shred pow so we had no competition skiing the best lines on the mountain in fantastic conditions.
After our ordeal the day before in Jungfrau, we decided to take the next day off to lick our wounds (view the previous post The Eiger/Jungfrau). We walked around the town of Grindelwald taking in the sights while enjoying not being frozen on the glacier. We decided over a beer that it was time to move on to the next spot. Fortunately, that next spot was Zermatt, and according to the snow reports, 20-30cm would arrive there on the next day. We left Grindelwald with a short stopover in Interlaken before retracing our steps back towards the same valley that we ended up in the tour the day before.
Around the same town where we boarded the train the night before, we once again boarded the train. This time however, the car came with us. Since we were so deep in the mountains, the roads literally ended and we were forced to drive our car onto a train. For the next 20 minutes, we sat in our car on the flatbed carriage until we emerged on the south side of the mountain range. When the train finally stopped, we drove the length of the train and disembarked. This was just one more surreal experience that you only find in the Alps.
Since we still had some time to kill in the afternoon, I did a little research and found a collection of thermal baths at location that was a short deviation from our course to Zermatt. What better therapy for our frostbitten toes than a warm, soothing bath. Also, we had been deprived of any hot tubs so far in the strip since Europe did not seem to have the same jacuzzi culture that we have in North America. This would be our opportunity to make up for it (although we would not be poaching the hot tub as we often do back home). We made our way to the baths at Bridgerbad just past Visp. In typical Swiss fashion, the baths were impeccably well-designed, clean and functional. This was exactly what we needed. After a few hours or thermal bliss, we got back in the car and completed the rest of the drive to our hotel in the town of Täsch, just outside of Zermatt.
The next morning we woke up to the first heavy snowfall of our trip. The snow caused a complete white out. This was a good excuse to take another day off. We also wanted to have a doctor look at our toes to make sure there was nothing too serious. We boarded the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn that took us to the picturesque town of Zermatt. With snow falling and accumulating on the ground, Zermatt represented the ideal image of Switzerland. The town is completely car-free with the exception of golf carts that shuttled hotel guests around. Zermatt exuded wealth and glamour at every turn. There were countless luxury watch stores, high-end restaurants, and clothing stores with the most expensive (and often furred) ski attire. But for now, our objective was to see a doctor about our toes.
After a short wait at the doctor's office, Max and I were let in to meet our Dr. Stoesse. After a quick examination of both of our feet, in a very casual manner, he confirmed that our toes were frostbitten but assured us that it was not too serious. As long as we kept our toes warm and well circulated, we could get back out on the mountain with no long-term consequences. Since Max's left big toe nail had turned black over night, the doctor showed us a unique technique to alleviate the blood blister underneath the toenail. By heating up the end of a paperclip, he then bore a hole through the toenail. A small amount of blood seeped from the whole. And like that, he saved Max's toenail from falling off. Considering how often this happens to anyone who ski tours a lot, I highly recommend this neat hack. (WW Travel Tip)
After leaving the doctor's office triumphant that we were still okay to ski, we were tempted to begin a late morning Après session in town (even though we had not gone skiing). However, since it was not yet 11am, we decided to head back to our hotel to get some work done. Both Max and I have the luxury of working remotely during our ski adventures. However it's hard to get into a productive flow when you're spending most of your time skiing and Après-ing. So this would be a perfect time to catch up on a bunch of work. In the meantime, the snow continued to fall and eventually caused the train to Zermatt to be shut down due to avalanche danger. Since we were one stop away from Zermatt, everyone coming to the resort was forced to stay in the town where we were. While unfortunate for them, this just helped raise the level of stoke for us knowing that the following day should be awesome.
After waking up and enjoying a typical Swiss continental breakfast at our hotel, we boarded the train back to Zermatt. On the short trip up, we could see some slide activity on the slopes to the side of the train tracks. Earlier in the season, Zermatt had been shut down for three days due to extreme avalanche danger. At one point, a fleet of helicopters were used to transport people from Zermatt down to the valley. Seeing the proximity to the slopes that the train track ran along, this made sense. This made us both excited and concerned for the potential conditions on the mountain. Unlike in North America, European resorts often will not shut down sections of the mountain due to avalanche danger and will rarely rope off terrain keeping you from skiing it. As a result, every year there are several fatalities due to avalanches, falling off cliffs, and extreme conditions within European ski resorts.
When we finally made our way through the town of Zermatt to the gondola that would take us up the mountain, we were surprised to see that we seemed to be the only skiers with powder skis, let alone avalanche backpacks or other backcountry gear. The family that joined us in our gondola car complained about there being too much powder on the piste. I was reminded that many who come to Zermatt come to see the Matterhorn and go shopping in the town, and not necessarily for the skiing. Since we typically need to compete with other powder hounds for fresh snow, we were than more than okay with this. We continued up the multi-sectional gondola that would take us all the way to The Tram at the top of the mountain.
After a slightly annoying 20-minute stall in the gondola due to equipment malfunction, the gondola finally ended its long trek up the mountain. We jumped out and quickly took two warm-up runs on a face with no lines on it yet. On a few occasions, we caused a minor slough slides with the 20cm of fresh snow that fallen. While the slough was a little unsettling, since it was a small amount of light fluffy snow, we felt pretty confident about the snowpack. After getting excited, we made it our way over to the Matterhorn Cable Car that would take us up to the top of the Klein Matterhorn.
The Klein Matterhorn, sometimes known as the little Matterhorn because of its similar shape, at 3883m is the highest point in Europe reachable by a lift. The most extreme roots in Zermatt came down just below the top of the tram station. On our way up, we pointed them out and tried to figure out whether or not they were doable. Once again, since we were the only people with powder skis or backcountry gear in the tram, we were a little apprehensive about going down something that no one else was even considering skiing. Nonetheless, when we got to the top, we made our way over to the top of the ski lines we had been checking out. While Europe generally does not rope off much terrain, we still had to duck ropes to get to these lines. Signs were posted that clearly indicated the chance of avalanche and death in German, French, Italian, and English. We decided that we should ski around and view the route from the bottom before we attempted it. After thorough examination, we concluded it was doable and we made our way to the tram to head back up to the top.
On the next rundown, we took it slow across the glacier to the top of a narrow chute that we had identified as the best line on the larger face. Steep and narrow, a fall on this line would likely have considerable consequences, especially if we were caught in a slide. Regardless, I was excited to ski it so I volunteered to go first. Switching on my Go Pro, I began to descend slowly, then decided to make a hard kick turn to cause a slide below me. This caused a layer of snow to break free and funnel through the gap in the rocks below. Now I felt more confident that nothing was going to slide and come down on top of me. I proceeded to make big kick turns to control my speed in the chute. I skidded a bit leading into the tight 2m opening and then pointed my skis to charge down the big open face. My heart beating rapidly, I turned around to view the line and let out a happy woo!
To watch the run, view the video here:
After filming Max come down the same line, we went back up for another lap, this time to the larger open face. It slid out as the one before had done. Since there was no narrow gap, I felt comfortable opening up my turns to get more speed. While not as gnarly as line before, it was awesome skiing great terrain with fresh powder and no one else around. Already our day had exceeded our expectations and we decided it was time to celebrate. Since the Klein Matterhorn is pretty much on the border between Switzerland and Italy, we figured we should drop down to the neighboring Italian resort called Cervinia for an Italian lunch. But first, we would have over 1500 vertical meters of sunny south facing terrain to enjoy. As was the case in Zermatt, there were hardly any lines from other skiers in off-piste (not a designated, groomed ski run) bowls and chutes. As we got closer to the bottom, the snow became heavier as the temperature became warmer. We had built up quite an appetite so now was time for lunch.
(WW Travel Tip) While many people come to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn or to ski tour off the back of the mountain, my favorite part is that you can ski into Italy for a casual lunch. When I was last in Zermatt on a ski trip in 2013, we had done this and it was a highlight of the trip. I was excited to do it again. This time, we chose a mid-mountain, proper sit down restaurant called the Chalet Etoile. It was a beautiful hut with Italian alpine furnishings and decorations. An eccentric and excited Italian waitress introduced herself and proceeded to tell us what we should order. Since we did not have much more of an agenda for the afternoon, we decided to splurge and get a bottle of wine, pasta and risotto. We happily dove in enjoying every sip and bite. While more expensive then most ski lunches I've had, this far surpassed the overpriced gruel that you typically find in ski lodges in North America. After a complementary glass of raspberry Prosecco, we stumbled out satisfied and slightly inebriated and clicked back into our skis to take a long, last run down to the town of Zermatt on the other side.
Since the town was 2000 vertical meters below, we wanted to make the last run count as much as possible. All day, we had been eyeing the large glacier that extended to the north of the Klein Matterhorn into a long valley. While we were a little concerned about crossing the glacier, we noticed a few tracks leading down and decided to follow them. Since it was sunny and we had full visibility, we figured we would be able to spot any crevasse hiding throughout the glacier. The snow was beautiful and the surrounding peaks were majestic. Even the Matterhorn became mostly visible for a short bit although a cloud continue to hover around its peak. The skiing was low angle so it was a nice and easy descent that continued for what seemed like over 30 minutes.
Eventually the glacier reconnected with the rest of the resort and rejoined the piste that would take us the rest of the way to the town. We skied past the first chalets on the outskirts of the town and continued as it got more dense. We heard a distance beat that turned into a loud party at we got closer. This was Hennustall, one of the famous Après-ski venues of the Alps. Since we were driving on to Chamonix that evening, we decided not to stop for a drink. Arriving at the train station, we gave each other high fives to another fantastic day on the mountain and gave thanks that our toes did not give us any trouble.