We had a perfect day for our Gornergrat hike the day before. That was enough for me to call our visit to Zermatt a success even though we still had one full day left for another hike. The forecast for our last day was ambiguous - it just said partly cloudy. Turns out we were lucky and it was another perfect day.
We considered a number of choices for our last hike in Zermatt. One was a walk to the Schoenbiel hut at the base of the Dent Blanche. It provides an amazing view of the Matterhorn North Face. But it's a long hike with a lot of elevation gain. After our long hike the day before we thought that might be too much of a good thing. We also considered hiking to the Hornli hut. It's at the base of the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn, where climbers stay the night before they try the standard route to the summit. It would give a very different view of the great mountain, up close and personal. We decided to leave both of these hikes for our next visit. I took it as a sign that Sandy was enjoying the trip that she was already talking about what we would do "when we came back next year". She won't have to twist my arm.
We fianlly settled on a hike to the Rothorn. This is a high point on the next ridge over from the Gornergrat. Although we could take transportation to save us some elevation gain, unlike the day before it would not be all down hill. There would be plenty of elevation gain on this hike. We would get a good work out.
We started by walking a few blocks from our hotel to the bottom station of the Sunnegga funicular. There we caught the special train which would take us to Sunnegga Paradise. For some reason all the destinations around Zermatt have "Paradise" appended to their name. A tacky marketing scheme. See what happens when the marketing guys take control?
The funicular is fascinating. You start by walking straight into the mountain down a 150 meter long tunnel to reach the bottom station, far underground. The train travels completely inside of a tunnel in the mountain. The track is very steep, to put it mildly. The average gradient is 48 degrees and the maximum gradient is 63 degrees! Even a cog railway is not practical for a track that steep. The train is actually lifted (or lowered) on a cable driven from the top at Sunnegga. As with many lifts and gondolas, there are two trains so that one is always lowered as the other is raised. They act as counterweights so that less energy is required to raise the train to the top. The trip up to Sunnegga takes three minutes. You know you are halfway when the tunnel widens to accomadate an extra track and the other train passes you on its way down. Then you are at the top, 680 meters (2231 feet) above Zermatt.
When you come out of the upper station there is a restaurant with a patio that has a fantastic view of the Matterhorn. This morning we had perfect clear blue skies and the view was breathtaking. This is the classic angle for the Matterhorn. Since the mountain is an irregular pyramid it looks different from every angle. I have seen if from many points and I think without a doubt the view from Sunnegga is the best angle. It's the classic postcard or scenic calendar picture view. And it gets even better as you climb higher.
Which is what we got busy doing. From Sunnegga you can take a gondola up to Blauherd at 2588 meters, 300 meters (almost a thousand feet) higher. From there another gondola goes all the way to the summit of the Rothorn at 3101 meters. But our plan was to start hiking from Sunnegga. We had taken the funicular to get us up high and to gorgeous views right from the start. Now it was time for us to walk instead of ride.
The trail started out virtually under the gondola. We could see all the people in the cable cars looking down at us. I'm sure that they were puzzled as to why we were working so hard to walk up the steep hill when instead we could ride. They probably wondered if we were super athletes who hardly noticed the climb (absolutely not) or too cheap to pay for a ticket (not really) or just crazy (finally got it!). The sky was clear, the temperature was pleasant and the view was amazing. So even though the climb was hard work I completely enjoyed it.
Soon the trail veered away from the line of towers for the cable lift and went into a side valley. With the gondolas out of sight we had the mountain to ourselves. There were no other hikers on this section of the trail. Millions of tourists but no one was around but us. That's pretty rare around Zermatt. As spectacular as the mountains are, just about everywhere you go there are lots of people. The solitude was pleasant.
After about an hour of climbing we reached a junction and took the trail to Stellisee and Flualp. The trail almost leveled off here and became an easy walk, gradually climbing up the valley. It was our only easy section of trail all day. Soon we reached a small lake called the Stellisee. The views of the Matterhorn reflected in the water were even more spectacular than the day before at the Riffelsee. If you try a Google search you'll quickly see that there are lots of PC wallpapers of the Matterhorn and the Stellisee including my very own favorite. Spectacular pictures were easy. The main challenge taking photos was to keep the large groups of people around the lake out of the picture. We were near the level of the Blauhard gondola station. Many people took an easy two kilometer trail which descended from Blauhard to join our trail climbing up from Sunnegga just before it reached the lake. Still there weren't as many people as I would have expected at such a spectacular place. It is as beautiful a spot as I have ever been to anywhere in the world.
From the Stellisee we hiked further up the valley to Flualp. There is a mountain hotel and restaurant there that is only accessible by foot. We stopped there for a light lunch. Sandy found out that their soup of the day was potato soup, a favorite of hers. What could an Idaho girl do? I decided to try their specialty, chocolate cake. As usual we enjoyed a table on the patio, sitting in the warm sun with a fantastic view of the Matterhorn. The service was very slow but who would be in hurry in such a place?
I had been to the Flualp Hut before in 1985. On my first serious climbing trip to the Alps, my climbing partner Vern and I had stayed there. Our ultimate goal was to climb the Matterhorn. Even by its easiest route the Matterhorn is a moderately difficult technical climb. To prepare for it, over three weeks we did a series of progressively more difficult warmup climbs. The final and most difficult climb we attempted that season was the Rimpfishhorn, an impressive peak beyond the Flualp Hut. We made a successful ascent and arrived back at the hut near nightfall after a very long day. It is still one of the hardest technical climbs I have done. It was our greatest success that season and prepared us to come back for a strong attempt on the Matterhorn the following year. If I can find my old slides I might write some posts about those old climbs sometime.
After good food and drink and a long rest at the hut we were ready to resume our hiking. We felt ambitious. Instead of heading downward and back we took a trail upwards toward two local high points, the Unter (lower) Rothorn and Uber (higher) Rothorn. After an hour and a half of hard climbing we reached the saddle between the two where there was a trail junction. By then we were beginning to feel a little tired so we opted for the Unter Rothorn, which was the upper terminus of the gondola line. The upper station was mobbed with people who had all ridden up on the gondola. But not us. We had climbed about 1400 feet up from Flualp and over 2700 feet up from our start that morning at Sunnegga. We felt tired, sweaty and vastly superior to all the tourists as we enjoyed the views from the top. There were displays which gave information about all of the high peaks that were visible, giving the height and telling the climbing history of each of the great mountains. There was the ubiquitous restaurant with patio where we had a cold drink. Then it was time for the last section of the hike.
The trail down started at the upper terminus of the gondola. From there it descended a rocky rib. Soon the gondola and its cables were out of sight behind rocks rising to our left and we had a pristine view of the mountains to the west of Zermatt. There are four major peaks that sit atop the high ridge that forms the west side of the valley leading to Zermatt. The Dent Blanche (white tooth), the Obergabelhorn (higher fork peak), the Zinal Rothorn (red peak of zinal) and the Weisshorn (white peak). They are all beautiful peaks and are quite difficult to climb even by their easiest routes. The approaches are very long as well - there are no lifts or trains so all appoaches start in the very bottom of the valley. I had never done any climbing in that range back in my serious alpinist days. Today we just had to enjoy the view of them as we hiked down to Blauhard. It was a significant hike - several miles long and a descent of over 500 meters (about 1700 feet) down to Blauherd. We only saw one other hiker - everyone else opted for the gondola ride down. Similar to the Gornergrat hike the day before, most of the time we were hiking right at a beautiful view. This time it was the Weisshorn. Although not as famous as the Matterhorn it is a spectacular peak. Our hike down to Blauherd was fantastic.
It took us two hours. By that time it was getting late in the afternoon and Sandy suggested that we just take the cable car down the rest of the way. We were pretty tired after our second long day of hiking so it wasn't hard to convince me. The cable care took us down to Sunnegga and then the funicular the rest of the way back to Zermatt. A few blocks walk and we were back to our hotel, eight hours after we had started.
We had been hiking about six of those eight hours so we decided that we deserved a good dinner. We had walked past an unusual place on the way back to our hotel called the Zermatt Yacht Club. It was a bar with the roof patio outfitted like the deck of a boat. It advertised gourmet hamburgers and that sounded good to Sandy so that's where we went. We started out inside but someone was smoking (not uncommon in Europe) so we headed outside "on deck". Then it was too warm in the sun so we moved into the shade. Then the sun went down and it was too cold so we moved back inside. By then our burgers came and it was all worthwhile. The burgers tasted great.
Our time in Zermatt had been wonderful. The next morning we were going to head for our final destination, Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland.