A trip to Zermatt: the ultimate, idyllic, picture-postcard Swiss experience. In the shadow of the world-famous Matterhorn mountain, with the jingling of horse-drawn carriages and battery-run vehicles (because all cars are banned; a completely car-free town, imagine!) and a population made up virtually exclusively of locals and rich snow-sport enthusiasts, Zermatt is pretty special.
Unfortunately my friend and I didn’t organise to do any skiing – oh but that didn’t stop us somehow ending up right in the middle of a ski piste halfway up a deserted mountain, half-frozen, ski-less and helpless, stumbling down for miles in shoes that were not even designed for snow, let alone ski slopes. But more on how we ended up in that ridiculous situation later.
Zermatt is pure magic.The train ride there alone was worth the price of the ticket. Switzerland happened to be covered in snow the day we set out, and from Visp we caught the Matterhorn Gotthard railway which took us right through the Alps. The jaw-dropping views of ravines and mountains dotted with pine trees and wooden chalets, all blanketed in a thick layer of sparkling, untouched snow had us ooh-ing and aah-ing all the way to Zermatt while we basked in the warmth of the train’s central-heated interior.
In the town, thanks to the car ban, we saw only pedestrians, horses and their curious taxis. They resemble milk carts, except for being battery run and surprisingly aggressive, rushing up behind you with an ominous whirring sound as you walk through town. As Zermatt is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, there was of course the usual language confusion. What to speak? Neither of us spoke German, my French friend was hesitant to use French and I felt rather ridiculous speaking in English; most people spoke all three in any case.
We took the funicular train up to the 3,130m-high Gornergrat station. The ride again was just spectacular, the train climbing steadily up the mountain and through the clouds, picking up skiers on the way, who would whizz back down via the slopes (a bit like we would do later, sans skis…). And there was the Matterhorn, in all its eccentrically-shaped glory, lording it over the surrounding glaciers and smaller mountains.
Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to have our soup in the outside seating area of the restaurant at the top of Gornergrat because that was when we really started to feel the cold. Our water bottle froze. A light layer of glittering, powdery snow had settled on us without our noticing.
Descending on the train, my friend was set on seeing some igloos that were halfway down, so we got off at the first stop. The man working at the station was astonished to see us descend, especially as we were not in ski gear, and asked us why we had got off, as there was literally nothing there. We explained we wanted to see the igloos, so he pointed us in the direction and we set off down the ski piste. My first time on a real ski slope, without an actual ski in sight. It was halfway to the igloos that I realised I no longer had any sensation in my toes. It was when we got to the igloos that we realised that there was not a soul around.
We had been so hoping for something hot to drink at least. Fortunately there was a very pleasant young man working there who popped up and even more fortunately still had some hot chocolate left to sell us. It was while I was getting the money out of my purse that I realised that my ungloved hand was covered in a thin layer of ice, and my friend’s hair had frozen solid. I cannot describe to you how cold I was, I have never felt anything like it in my life. The bloke kindly opened up the igloo bar just for us, to defrost a little bit. The bar was actually really cool; if only I hadn’t been struggling to breath in the cold air and trying to regain feeling in my feet, I might have appreciated it more.
Then there was the descent to the next train station. We were literally halfway between the two, and we certainly preferred to descend than to climb back up again, so he showed us the way. I could see it in the near distance; it looked doable. But then we started actually going down. This piste was rather a lot steeper than the one before, and we literally slipped, staggered and careened our way down the length of it, laughing uncontrollably and with repeated cries of “putain!” At the station the thermostat told us it was -21°. Minus twenty-one degrees. Not surprising I couldn’t feel my toes, I’m amazed I could feel anything.
Was that ordeal worth the brief glimpse at a forsaken igloo? Like hell it was! How stupid could we get? I was this close to frostbite! But now that it’s over the recollection is so hilarious I can’t help but chuckle every time I think of it. How do I manage, without fail, to get myself into the most awkward situations? The rest of the trip passed reasonably calmly and happily. Apart from sprinting through the town at the end of the trip in order to catch our train back home. But apart from that it was chilled – literally. The thermostat at ground level, though not quite as cold as -21, remained firmly sub-zero.