Alps pt5 - Zmutt and Beyond

Matterhorn as we start out from Zermatt

We had been lucky with the weather for our first two days of hiking in Zermatt. Both days the forecast called for clear mornings with clouds and possible thundershowers in the afternoon. But they never materialized. Other than afternoon clouds that covered some of the high summits, we had enjoyed two excellent days. Now for our final day in Zermatt the forecast was for a perfect day - sunny and warm. We wanted to do a good hike to take advantage of the weather and to finish our Zermatt visit.

Most of the hikes that we had done the past two years had been on the east or south side of the valley. There are cable cars that take you up the first two or three thousand feet so that you get great views right from the start. The mountains are so big that it is not really cheating. There is still plenty of elevation gain even after taking a cable car from the valley. But on the west side of the valley there are no trains or lifts or cable cars or gondolas. You start hiking at the bottom and hike all the way. You're on your own.

That was going to be our hike for today. We would start in Zermatt, right from our hotel, and hike the trail to the Schoenbiel hut. We would go through the tiny village of Zmutt and pass directly beneath the north face of the Matterhorn. We didn't expect to go all the way to the hut but we were hoping to go far enough to get a new perspective on the Matterhorn and to see the Dent D'Herens, another beautiful 4000 meter peak that is always hidden behind the Matterhorn from most viewpoints around Zermatt.

Approaching the picturesque village of Zmutt

Since we didn't have to take any transportation we were free to start as early as we wanted. We were at breakfast at 7 am sharp when they started to serve. We left our hotel at 7:45 ready for a big day of hiking. It was warm even this early in the morning and we both decided to wear shorts and tshirts. No high mountain gear for this one. It was quite a contrast from the morning before when we were 5000 feet higher on the Rothorn and hiking in a chill wind.

The first hour was a long, gradual climb up from Zermatt. It was through forest and the shade was welcome. There were views of the Matterhorn through the trees as we climbed. There weren't many hikers out this early in the morning. The only people we encountered were folks heading to work, people walking their dogs or runners out for their morning exercise. As we climbed higher we lost those people and had the trail to ourselves. It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the village of Zmutt. The buildings are very quaint and some of the people still seem to farm there. While we walked by people were cutting hay in the fields. There are two or three restaraunts in town which cater to hikers. It's just over an hours walk and about a hundred years from Zermatt.

The North face of the Matterhorn towers over the Zmutt valley

From Zmutt we continued up the valley. The view of the north face of the Matterhorn was magnificent. It's incredibly steep and coated with snow and ice. It is one of the six Great North Faces of the Alps. It's hard to believe that it's possible to climb it but the first ascent was back in 1931. Nowadays there are climbs that are much more technically difficult but it is still serious because of rock fall, weather and the difficulty of protecting the route.

But there were also some things that spoiled the view. There is a dam that supplies electricity to Zermatt. High tension wires run down through the valley from the dam all the way to Zermatt. There is also a large building just below the dam that looks very out of place. Strangest of all there is a lift of some sort that runs from near the dam to high on the opposite wall of the valley. I have no idea what it is for but the cables certainly messed up any pictures that I was going to take of the view.

The Dent d'Herens and the head of the valley comes into view

This was somewhat disappointing. I have always respected the Swiss for placing a high value on sustainability. After all, their country isn't getting any bigger. But it seemed that on this trip I saw more gravel pits and dams and industrial sites in the high mountains than I had before. I don't know if this is a new trend or if I just hadn't noticed them as much before. For a good half hour of the hike I didn't take any pictures because there was always something in the picture - a dam, a road, a lift or electric wires.

But once we got past the dam we left the clutter behind and had unobstructed views. The trail continued to climb but did so at a gentle grade. We hiked through meadows eventually reaching a tiny restaurant at Kalbermatten at 2105 meters. It was right next to the trail with a superb view of the north face of the Matterhorn. But the tables were all stacked up and the place looked deserted. Sandy thought that it was abandoned but I figured that since it wasn't even ten oclock yet they probably just hadn't opened yet. I was hoping that we could stop there on the way back.

Approaching the waterfall in the upper valley

We continued hiking up the valley. We didn't really expect to get to the Schoenbiel hut. That would be fifteen miles round trip and 3600 feet of elevaton gain. There was nothing special about the hut as a destination. We just thought we would go as far as we felt good and then turn around. We could see a waterfall up the valley and decided to go at least that far.

Then we came to a deep gulley that cut across the slope we were on. A stream coming down had cut quite a deep valley. There was an old high-level trail marked with warning signs. The main trail dropped down about 300 feet and then climbed up again on the other side. Sandy wasn't too excited about it but we crossed in and proceeded on. Eventually we reached the waterfall and the trail climbed up beside it. Above the waterfall there was a beautiful meadow. There was a low lateral moraine and between that and the slope we were on there was a pretty stream flowing. We reached a trail junction. It seemed like a good place to stop and have a snack.

Waterfall and Matterhorn North Face

The trail that we were on continued up to the Schoenbiel hut in another hour and a half. We were at 2300 meters so we had another 400 meters to go. We figured that it wasn't worth the extra effort. The other trail from the junction took a high route back. That is supposed to be a great trail but it climbed up even higher and took a much longer way back to Zermatt through Trift. We weren't up for that. We had climbed 700 meters from Zermatt and probably hiked five miles or more. We had as far to go back. The meadow we were in was an excellent destination. We decided to just stay where we were and enjoy the view. It was an excellent destination and well worth the effort to get here.

While we were hanging out at the trail junction another hiker came by. He was asking questions about where the trails went and for a change I got to be an expert. But he was not a native English speaker and so a while later when two other hikers came down from above he spent a long time talking to them in German. He seemed to like their advice better and took off the way that they indicated.

It was an awesome place but eventually we decided to start back. The thought of stopping along the way for lunch helped to get us going. It had taken us three and a half hours to get up. We figured that we could get down a lot faster but by then we would be well overdue for lunch.

Our lunch spot and turn-around point by the stream

We had a long way to go to get back to Zermatt. But the trail was a nice grade and a gradual downhill so the going was easy. At least until we got to the side gully. Climbing back up the three hundred feet on the other side wasn't fun when we were in downhill/return mode. From there it wasn't long till we reached Kalbermatten. Sure enough I was right. The place was apparently open. Three tables were set up and a couple was sitting at one with drinks. We asked them if the place was open and they said yes, but just for drinks. Sounded good to us. We grabbed a table and I went to look for the proprietor of the establishment.

I found him just coming out. He looked to be at least seventy years old. His shirt was open and he was hustling around trying to get a shade umbrella set up on the patio for another couple that had just stopped. I managed to have a quick conversation with him and found out that we could order Coke "by the glass". Ok, if that's our only choice, that's what we want. He said that he had to "go to the cave" to get it. A few minutes later he showed up with a big bottle of Coke and poured us two glasses.

Sandy enjoying a Coke at the restaurant in Kalbermatten

"That will be seven francs" he said. I gave him a ten franc note.

"No coins" he said. Wow. He was really set up for business. The second customer of the day and he doesn't even any change. Not exactly your big-chain franchise. This was definitely a high-mountain, small, family establishment. Such as it was. Although he made an extra three francs off the deal he seemed kind of unhappy with me for not having the right change. I guess old guys are just naturally grumpy. At least that's what my wife tells me. After he set up the umbrella for the other table I noticed that we didn't get one.

About this time a little old lady who looked to be at least eighty years old came up the trail and stopped. Apparently she was the lady of the house. Where she had been was a mystery. The closest place was Zmutt and that was a good forty five minutes each way by trail. These mountain people certainly are tough. I hope that I will still be hiking up and down mountain trails when I am in my eighties.

View of the Rimpfischhorn and Strahlhorn as we descend to Zmutt

Since I was thirsty after a long morning of hiking I downed my Coke pretty quickly. I decided that since the guy still owed me three francs, I should be able to get some more Coke. After a discussion he sent me into the house to have his wife give me three francs worth of refill. That started a really long discussion between the two of them as to exactly what she was supposed to do. It came out alright as eventually she poured me a mostly-full glass of Coke. She eyed it carefully, I guess to make sure that it was really six/sevenths of a regular glass of Coke. But in the end everyone was happy.

While the restaurant at Kalbermatten was definitely an experience and well worth the stop and the ten francs, we still hadn't had lunch yet. It was time to head down to Zmutt. There we weren't taking any chances and stopped at the Restaurant Jagerstube, the largest of several places in Zmutt. By now we had our routine down. Sandy ordered roesti and I ordered pasta. After the long hike lunch was delicious.

Almost home - we reach the outskirts of Zermatt

After lunch we just had the home stretch. We took our time hiking back to Zermatt and our hotel. It was warm and sunny and again the shade in the forest was welcome. We didn't envy the people who were laboring up the trail, working hard and sweating going up the big hill. But we could just casually stroll down.

We finally got back to our hotel. An excellent hike. We cleaned up and headed for the main street in Zermatt. We were lucky and found a table at Edward's Bar, at the Monte Rosa Hotel. This is a very famous because it is the hotel that Edward Whymper stayed at before his first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. It's also a great place to people watch as the crowds pass on the main street of Zermatt. But it is a great place to order a beer after a long, hard hike. They bring you chips and peanuts to snack on too. In Europe it is common for people to bring their dogs with them. I noticed that the waiter brought a water dish for the dog that was with the people at another table. Now that is service! Laney would like this place.

Additional pictures

Traditional Swiss buildings in Zmutt