Clearing skies at dawn but the Matterhorn summit is still hidden

Our first full day in Zermatt we had done a good hike which I described in the last post. The weather was pleasant but not ideal. Although the temperature had been perfect there were a lot of high clouds which kept the Matterhorn and other high peaks partially hidden. Today I was hoping for a perfect day to do one of the best hikes in the world - the Gornergrat. The forecast was promising. It said that the morning would be partly cloudy but it would clear and be sunny in the afternoon. We had two days left but we decided that if the weather the next morning was clearing we would go for the Gornergrat hike.

The next morning the sky was mostly blue even though there was still a cloud over the top of the Matterhorn. This seemed consistent with the forecast so we decided to go for it. We couldn't see any of the other high peaks around the valley from town but we were hoping that they were clear and that the Matterhorn would clear later in the day.

Posing with the St. Bernard's - those are puppies

After a quick breakfast we were at the train station for the Gornergratbahn by 8:15. This is an impressive cog railway that ascends the Gornergrat, a long ridge that starts in Zermatt and climbs to the east, towards the Monte Rosa massif. (grat means ridge in German so the Gornergrat is Gorner Ridge). In less than six miles of track it climbs about a vertical mile. That's pretty steep! On a highway a 5% grade is considered a very steep hill. The Gornergratbahn goes up and down a 17% grade. It has been operating since 1898 carrying tourists up to views of the high mountains around Zermatt.

I sat by the window and was straining to see as we started to climb out of the valley. But the first views were disappointing. The Breithorn was the first mountain to come into view and it's summit was in the clouds as well. Then a bank of clouds came into view over the range of mountains to the west of Zermatt. It looked like our gamble had not paid off. The sky was mostly clear except for the peaks themselves. That meant that we had a great view of the clouds that were obscuring the mountains.

Sandy starts down the Gornergrat with the Breithorn behind

The train climbed very slowly. Cog railways are not fast. Sometimes they don't seem to move any faster than I could at a brisk run. But a brisk run up a 5000 foot vertical climb is quite a challenge though so they are still by far the preferred alternative for gaining the high country. It has stops at the Riffelalp (site of the Riffelalp Hotel), the Riffelberg (site of another hotel - you guessed it, the Riffelberg Hotel) and the Rifflesee. All in all it takes about forty five minutes to get to the Gornergrat, the end of the line. Amazingly in that forty five minutes the sun started to do its magic on the clouds and they began to disssipate. By the time we reached the summit of the Gornergrat at 3100 meters (10,135 feet) the clouds had completely disappeared and we had a clear view of the surrounding mountains.

It's quite stunning when you get off the train. In Chamonix we had glimpses from town of the mountains surrounding the valley. When we reached the top of the chair lifts the views opened up but we had an idea of what was there. Zermatt is different. The town is at the end of a long, narrow valley at an elevation of about 5000 feet, between steep ridges that rise to the east and west. These ridges are from 7,000 to 10,000 feet high and from the valley floor you can't even see the top of them. So you have no idea that above the ridges are 29 peaks 4000 meters or higher. The only mountain visible from town is the Matterhorn at the end of the narrow valley. It is quite spectacular but it doesn't prepare you for the view when you reach the summit of the Gornergrat.

The Matterhorn reflected in the Riffelsee

From the top of the Gornergrat you can clearly see all of the surrounding peaks. There are huge snow peaks to the south with the highest being Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in the Alps. To the west, north and south are numerous famous rock peaks. All are spectacular mountains with a rich climbing history. I was snapping pictures like crazy in the fantastic morning light.

At the end of the line for the Gornergratbahn is the Kulm Hotel. At 3100 meters it is the highest hotel in the Swiss Alps. It looked like it would be a fantastic place to stay. The view of the surrounding mountains was spectacular in the morning light. But some of the peaks, like Monte Rosa, were backlit by the morning sun. It would be amazing to stay there for a day and get good light on all the mountains as the sun moved through the day. Both Sandy and I put it down to investigate for a return trip the following year. To add to the incentive, Sandy thought that the hotel had the best gift shop that she had seen on the trip so far.

Lyskamm and the twin peaks of Castor and Pollux

While we were there we succumbed to a blatant tourist scheme. There were two guys who had St. Bernard dogs that were offering posed pictures for a fee. We opted for the guy who had two St. Bernard puppies. Yes, it was touristy but the puppies were cute, St. Bernard's are very Swiss, so we went with it and posed. The guy told us that we could find the pictures at a shop in Zermatt later in the day and could buy them if we wanted. We did track them down and buy them, of course. We are both dog people after all.

After about forty five minutes of gawking at the view, taking pictures and checking out the gift shop, it was time to start hiking. This is one of the great hikes of the world. The whole time that you walk down the ridge you are facing the Matterhorn. It's not the classic angle on the Matterhorn (being an irregular pyramid, the Matterhorn looks different from every angle). Still it is very spectacular. It's about seven or eight miles to Zermatt and 5000 vertical feet, but at least it is all down hill. Sandy and I have good knees so downhill isn't a problem for us.

The Matterhorn dominates the view as we get closer to Zermatt

After about a mile of hiking we reached the Riffelsee. This is a small lake that is famous for its views of the Matterhorn reflected in the water. Although by the time we reached the lake there were about a zillion hikers there (most of them seemed to be in big tour groups of Asians). Still it was so spectacular it didn't matter. The views and the photo ops were glorious.

From the Riffelsee we hiked down to the Riffelberg. There was a stop for the train there and two large buildings for the Riffelberg Hotel. By this time we had been hiking for a couple of hours so it was a good spot to stop for lunch. It wasn't cheap but it was good. We sat on a patio with a spectacular view of the Matterhorn and the other surrounding 4000 meter peaks. Good food. A fantastic view. A sense of accomplishment from our hike. What could be better?

After eating lunch it was time to head downward again. The downhill wasn't that hard but it was relentless. After another hour or two we reached the Riffelalp. There is a very fancy hotel there. One of Sandy's colleagues at work had stayed there and thought it was awesome. We looked at it before our trip but it seemed too pricey for us. We were content to hike through. We did stop for a shot of Sandy with their cheesey cow statue and also had a beer on the patio of one of the restaurants.

Sandy and friend

The last bit wasn't especially hard but we had been hiking all day so we were tired. When we finally reached the valley floor we had to skirt a deep canyon. You could hike straight through - for a price. Years ago an enterprising local had built a walkway that was attached to the canyon wall. It looked impressive but by that time we were too tired. So we took the trail that skirted the canyon. It had lots of ups and downs which was even more work. Finally we reached Winkelmatten which is the village just above Zermatt. It seemed like a long walk through "the burbs" before we finally got to Zermatt proper and then to our hotel. It had taken us about seven hours. Sandy took a rest while I went out to find a laundry to wash some clothes and did some grocery shopping as well. We ended up with a meal of bread and cheese and fruit on our balcony admiring the view of the Matterhorn. It had been a perfect day of hiking with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world.