Despite that the town of Zermatt is incredibly touristy, we felt it would be a shame to live in Switzerland without visiting it at least once. And considering that it’s truly the gateway to the Matterhorn, the primary departure point with multiple trams accessing hiking trails, climbing routes, and the ever-present alpine huts, it would be rather difficult to not visit Zermatt when visiting the Matterhorn. We decided to explore the town itself while spending several days hiking and camping near Switzerland’s most iconic peak, sometimes called the Mountain of Mountains.
Like the town of Bettmeralp that we visited on our Aletsch Glacier hike, Zermatt is a car-free town. This doesn’t actually mean that they don’t have any cars in town, because they do – and vans, heavy work trucks, and quaint horse-drawn carriages for hire. It merely means that visitors aren’t allowed to drive their personal vehicles into town. Instead, most folks drive as far as Täsch, a tiny village about a kilometer north of Zermatt that seems to exist solely to provide parking and overnight accommodations for Zermatt’s visitors.
Arriving in Täsch at Parkhaus Zermatt, a huge parking structure with a 2000+ car capacity, we parked and headed downstairs to buy train tickets in the same building. Though it’s quite possible that other parking garages might have been cheaper, we were lazy and paid for the convenience of parking right at the train station. (When we returned to our car 3 days later, I was so tired I didn’t even care that we ended up paying 31 chf for parking: I was just glad we could get off the train and not have to walk any further.) After waiting for just a few minutes on the platform, Travis and Touille immediately settled in to nap through our 20 minute ride from Täsch to Zermatt while I admired the stunning mountain slopes rising steeply on both sides of the train tracks.
Planning to first meet up with Christine, a Swiss gal we’d met while hiking near the cute little town of Avenches a few weeks back, we followed the directions she’d messaged me to a cute little place near the train station in Zermatt called Grizzly’s Bar & Bistro.
Though we’d only met Christine one time, we immediately fell back into comfortable conversation like old friends, said hello again to her very dignified poodle, and she introduced us to Scott, a fellow American she’d known only as an Instagram friend until meeting him that very day in person. Liking him immediately, we chatted about photography, Switzerland, and travel, and I admired his online portfolio over a round of drinks. Sipping my glass of panaché and enjoying the company, we ended up staying so long that Trav and I missed the last tram of the day from Zermatt up to the Sunnegga lift area where we’d planned to start hiking. Oh well, change of plans!
Since the night was still young (it was only 6 pm) and we didn’t want to camp in Zermatt, we opted to meander through town toward the trail entrance that would take us to Sunnegga. We figured we’d just pitch our tent somewhere if we found a good place to camp or if we got tired.
Passing one gorgeous hotel after another, countless restaurants, and expensive shops peddling hiking and climbing gear, the town’s mountaineering history was readily apparent.
Though we’re not particularly into rock climbing, I wanted to visit the Mountaineer’s Cemetery commemorating the region’s long history of alpine climbing. We easily discovered the quiet little cemetery nestled in the shadow of the Parish Church of St. Mauritius, both of which were along the way to our trailhead. The town is quite small with fewer than 6000 inhabitants, so it’s quite easy to navigate.
Despite the bustle of tourism throughout the rest of town, I was surprised that we were the only visitors to the cemetery. We walked up and down the aisles of gravestones, personalized plaques, and potted flowers, pausing frequently to reflect on how many of the engravings bore messages affirming an adventurous life well lived rather than one cut short by tragedy. Roughly 500 climbers have died attempting to summit not just the Matterhorn but the surrounding peaks: Breithorn, Täschhorn, Monte Rosa, Weisshorn, and so many more.
We discovered the simple memorial stone for the four climbers who died tragically and a bit mysteriously in Edward Whymper’s first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Seven climbers reached the summit, but on the descent, inexperienced climber Douglas Hadow slipped, tragically pulling three other climbers – Croz, Douglas, and Hudson – to their deaths. The three surviving climbers were tethered to the four who fell but were spared when the rope between them snapped, saving them from the same fate as their fellow climbers. Afterwards, the surviving climbers were accused of cutting the rope to save themselves, though they were cleared of wrongdoing in the subsequent inquest.
For me, the most poignant of all the memorials was the one belonging to Donald Stephen Williams, a climber from New York who died on Breithorn. He was only 17 years old, just a kid. Adorned with a small American flag and his own red climbing ax, his epitaph reads, “I Chose To Climb”.
Long after we’d left the Mountaineer’s Cemetery and started up the trail toward Sunnegga, I found myself thinking about the cadre of young men and women who had died pursuing a brief moment of triumph atop one of Switzerland’s most unforgiving peaks. Though I may never understand what prompts some to strive to conquer nature’s most challenging obstacles at the risk of death, I admire and envy their single-minded drive, self-discipline, and unwavering conviction that the risks they take are worth it to live a live without regret.
Know Before You Go:
- Fuel: 390 km RT to Tasch for our car that gets roughly 100 km on 6 l of diesel x 1.50 chf/liter = about 35.10 chf.
- Parking: 31 chf for 3 days
- Train from Tasch to Zermatt (mandatory as visitors are not allowed to drive into town): 12 chf for 1 RT Swiss Half-Fare adult ticket. With no discounts, expect to pay 24 chf per adult ticket.
- Food: Bring your own to save money, shop from the small grocers, or expect to pay high prices at restaurants. We packed several Mountain House backpacking meals we’d bought in the States (which are amazing and cost about $6 each per 2-person meal), and supplemented them with perishables from home. Including 2 large cups of coffee and 2 huge portions of apple strudel near the train station at the end of our trip, we paid about 50 chf total for us both for 3 days of food.
- Total cost: 140.10 chf for RT gas, parking, 2 RT adult train tickets from Tasch to Zermatt, and food. Note: This does not include the lifts between Zermatt, Schwarzsee, and Sunnegga that we would take in the next two days. Ticket info listed with those blogs.
What’s up next on our agenda?
Hiking the 5-Seenweg, a trail past five lakes near the Matterhorn…