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‘The Matterhorn looks equally imposing from whatever side it is seen. It never seems commonplace; and in this respect, and in regard to the impression it makes upon spectators, it stands almost alone amongst mountains. It has no rivals in the Alps, and but few in the world.’
So wrote Edward Whymper, the man who, at the age of twenty-five, was the first to climb the Matterhorn in the summer of 1865.
And he is right; it is imposing, never commonplace, and stands unrivalled in the Alps, and may be challenged in the wider world, perhaps, only by Alpamayo in the Andes of Peru, or by Machhapuchhare and Ama Dablam in the Himalaya.
But why compare one with another? Every mountain has its own form of beauty; one is a rose, the other an orchid…
And yet…the Matterhorn is the most iconic of peaks. Ask a child to draw a mountain and there’s a fair chance it will resemble the Matterhorn as seen by a short stroll upvalley from Zermatt. A pyramid of rock, not quite symetrical, but pretty much so, its head cocked slightly to one side – although this is often either obscured or decapitated by a wisp of cloud. It looks incredibly steep, and is so abrupt and massive (and the valley from which the viewer gazes on it seems so deep) that it appears to be directly overhead, so you have to raise your head to see it.
From Breuil on the Italian side it is almost as striking, although it’s more broken from there, as though the whole mountain has been constructed of wedge-shaped blocks – unlike the northern (Zermatt) aspect which shows a great sweep of ice-planed cliffs. But if you go up to the Hörnli Hut from where the standard ascent begins, you’ll discover a shocking truth. The Matterhorn is an imposter. Stones and rocks come crashing down to prove that this most elegant of pyramids is nothing but a vast, disintegrating heap of rubble!
So let’s move away to view it properly, and regain a more romantic vision of what one Victorian climber referred to as ‘the mighty obelisk of the Matterhorn’. For if there’s any mountain that all who love the hills want to see for themselves, it is this peak that has become the symbol and signature not only of Zermatt or Switzerland, but of the whole Alpine range. Once seen, never forgotten.
So where is the best place for the walker to view it? The number of postcards on show in Zermatt might suggest Riffelalp, within a frame of larch or pine. Or perhaps the Riffelsee, in which it casts a mirror-like reflection in the early morning before a breeze ruffles the water. Both may be reached via the Gornergrat railway, by steep paths from Zermatt, or by a fine circuitous route that links several other mountain tarns, each with its own Matterhorn reflection to dream by. The Stellisee is one of the nicest tarns, and so easily reached by a short walk from the Sunnegga lift; or maybe you’d prefer it with the charming hamlet of Findeln in the foreground.
All these make excellent viewpoints, it’s true, but if you can cope with a glacier crossing (the route is marked to avoid the widest crevasses), the Monte Rosa Hut offers a more distant but infinitely more exciting view. Standing among the rocks of Unter Plattje at the foot of the massive mountain after which it is named, the hut faces along the icy highway of the Gornerglacier to the great East Face of the Matterhorn. The glacier leads your eye directly to it, and though nearer peaks challenge with snow domes and hanging glaciers, it is the Matterhorn that concentrates the mind. That view is worth every second of the 2½ hour walk to get there from Rotenboden station below the Gornergrat.
Or how about a midway vantage point? In this there is no better position than the pastures of Höhbalmen a thousand metres above and to the southwest of Zermatt. To find it, go up through the Trift gorge to Hotel du Trift, then branch left, cross a footbridge, then tack back and forth up and across a slope, mount a grassy shoulder, and shortly after the Matterhorn hoves into view. As you progress across the Höhbalmen pasture so it grows in extent. Its roots may be hidden, its north face in shadow, but the Hörnli ridge is directly ahead.
Höhbalmen is a splendid three-hour walk from Zermatt, and there’s a variety of extensions to consider, but it is the perfect place to sprawl in the grass and abandon yourself to Matterhorn magic. It’s as good as it gets.
Or if you want to admire this shapely peak from all sides, why not walk round it on the Tour of the Matterhorn? Whatever you choose, don’t forget your camera.