Ah, the Matterhorn! One of the most distinctive of all Alpine peaks and a symbol of Switzerland, this mountain exerts a powerful draw on people’s imaginations. Its unique shape is recognizable all over the world. This is partly due to the fact that the Matterhorn’s image has been used on numerous products over the years, including chocolate, cheese and muesli packaging, beer cans, men’s swimwear, shaving foam and even on packs of cigarettes.
And of course, there’s the Matterhorn bobsled ride at Disneyland. On visits to Zermatt, the charming Swiss village at the foot of the mountain, Walt himself was so captivated by the photogenic behemoth that he decided to create his now famed attraction, which millions of people have gone on since opening in 1959.
The Matterhorn is undoubtedly one of the most photographed subjects in the world. Though the mountain at 14,000 feet is not the highest, nor the most difficult to climb, its pyramidic shape is what distinguishes it and makes it iconic. Four steep faces rise above the nearby glaciers and face the four cardinal directions – a perfect compass. And its rocky peak exists in perfect isolation in the midst of an exceptionally enchanting alpine landscape.
Over three million people a year visit the area to see and ski the Matterhorn, including the approximately 3,000 climbers that summit the mountain annually. The first ascent was in 1865, but four of the seven climbers in the group died on the descent. Since then, there have been over 500 people who have perished on the Matterhorn.
To learn more about the history of the mountain, check out the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt. This fascinating underground center shows how alpinism was experienced in the past and how it’s still developing today through photos, film clips, a mountain guide’s house, mountain climbing apparel and equipment, and a host of other artifacts.
You’ll shudder when you see the broken rope piece from the first ascent on display, along with remnants from the victims’ belongings. Rumor had it that the rope was cut for self-survival, but a deeper investigation led by the museum proved that the rope could only hold a certain amount of weight and was thus too thin to save the lives of all the men that fell.
As to the Matterhorn’s formation, you’ll learn the mountain is the result of tectonic plates colliding some fifty to sixty million years ago, followed by layers of sedimentary rock rising up above sea level. Natural erosive forces created its shape, making it unlike any other mountain on Earth.
During my trip to Zermatt, I was able to witness the beauty of this towering sentinel in the flesh. It was of course more stunning than I had ever expected. And I attempted to capture the mountain’s image countless times, as this is one beast that has multiple moods depending on time of day, light and weather.I quickly discovered that the Matterhorn can be shy and demure, preferring to remain elusive when enveloped in the clouds. And when the skies are grey, it appears to loom in a haunting, Mount Doom kind of way. The key to seeing (and getting that perfect pic) of the Matterhorn in all its glory is patience and perseverance – that or plain luck.
Being based in Zermatt during my stay was ideal, as this is a town that has kept its traditional Swiss character, complete with old chalets and cobblestone roads. Plus, it’s pedestrian friendly due to being a car free zone. And most importantly, it offers easy access to the mountains.
Each day I set out to hike and explore the area using a mix of gondolas, cable cars and funiculars. The transportation modes are convenient and efficient, not to mention loads of fun, as they whisk you to various junctures in the region. Multiple trails lead you to optimum viewing spots to appreciate the scenic splendor.
One day, I did the popular 5 Lakes Trail. It’s a moderate, looped trail with a few hills, but nothing terribly steep. Along the route you can see the Matterhorn reflected in several of the lakes, making it a photographer’s dream.
Another day I trekked the Matterhorn Glacier Trail. This route takes you in the path of retreating glaciers, which you can learn about via information boards. It’s a fairly high-altitude hike, which allows you dramatic views of the different landscapes, from verdant forests to snowcapped peaks. You’ll also get to gaze at the Matterhorn for much of the way.Additionally, I did the hike to Gornergrat from Riffelalp, a classic trail that boasts stunning panoramas of the Gorner Glacier along with mirror images of the Matterhorn as reflected in the mountain waters. Make sure to stop in at the Gornergrat Hotel, where you can enjoy some much-needed refreshments, while continuing to “drink” in the magical scenery.
On one of my last days in the area, I took a trip up to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. At 12,740 feet, it’s the highest cable car station in Europe, higher than Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe. To reach this incredible destination, you need to ride a series of cable cars. Once you arrive, you’ll have 360-degree, jaw-dropping views across the Alps, where on a good day, you’ll be able to see 38 mountain peaks and 16 glaciers that span across Switzerland, Italy and France.
The place is always covered in snow and there’s plenty of opportunities to go skiing year-round. There’s also the Glacier Palace to visit, which is full of ice carvings and sculptures. Just make sure you’re dressed appropriately, as it’s cold up there!When you’ve had your fill of this wintry mecca, head back down to Zermatt and warm up with some raclette. This yummy, classic Swiss dish is a cheese lover’s delight!
Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications.