Seeing much more than I expected around Zermatt25th December 2017
In early September 2015, I got to make good an intention to savour some alpine scenery. When I pondered the option in July of the same year, the predicted heat looked off-putting so I chose Iceland instead. In any case, summer temperatures among the Alps can be such that shoulder seasons are preferable so long as winter conditions neither linger late nor arrive early.
In my case, waiting until the end of the summer holiday season paid dividends. What I was hoping to do was to keep the cost of my Swiss escapade under some sort of control and the weather did not disappoint either. Within a single week, temperatures had declined to more comfortable levels so it was with some pleasure that I wandered around Geneva on my first day in the country. The city’s famous fountain on the edge of Lac Léman was in operation as I strolled along the lake’s shoreline as far as the city’s botanic gardens where I stayed a while before retracing my steps to my hotel near the train station. As I did so, I passed the buildings occupied by the United Nations under now clouded skies.
The clouds broke again to leave a ravishing evening to be enjoyed by all who were out and about. Though I could not pick out Mont Blanc either through lack of visibility or lack of knowledge, there were other French slopes to see as I crossed the River Rhône to the other side of the lake where views of their Swiss counterparts were to be gained. All this ensured a late finish in spite of any shortening in the hours of daylight and I still diverted around by the city’s main cathedral church as light failed. Later again, I returned to the shoreline to try my hand at some nighttime photography.
While this kind of thing scuppered arrangements in Iceland, there was little such impact in Switzerland. For one thing, the next day came dull and cloudy and the country enjoys an efficient if expensive public transport system. In any case, I was bound for Bern where I spent some time sauntering along the banks of the River Aare that partially encircles the heart of the Swiss capital. There was more exploration than that and I got to see the improbably larger clock on one side of the Zytglogge too, though overhead wires for powering both trams and trolley buses do not help photographic compositions. Nevertheless, it was good to explore another Swiss city and sample more of its famed rail network than that between Geneva and its airport. Returning to the former at a reasonable hour allowed for planning of the next day’s outing among other necessities.
Seeing the Matterhorn
Macclesfield’s proximity to Shutlingsloe means that I have stood on top of it more than a few times. The distinctively wedge shaped hill also manages to earn the soubriquet of being Cheshire’s “Matterhorn”. It is a comparison that flatters other hills, with Yorkshire’s Roseberry Topping and Wales’ Cnicht falling into the same category. As ever, the real Swiss mountain is a very different prospect though its profile is known to many. The obvious difference is a summit height that more or less guarantees the presence of snow and ice together with the need for hiring a mountain guide.
My own encounter was not to need such things since I stayed low and looked up from there. Though the summit lay over 2000 metres above me, its 4478-metre altitude meant that I too was up higher than I ever had gone before. Even so, I did not notice the altitude as I strolled up and down Zmuttal in the bright sunshine. My own route’s highest point was at around 2179 metres above sea level, a height gain of over 500 metres above that of Zermatt itself. This became a pleasant day trip would bring many rewards.
Once I had paid for a train ticket using cash withdrawn from an ATM, I was set to commence a sunlit journey to Zermatt. Weekend computer system maintenance had put paid to my acquiring a Swiss travel pass as much as buying a train ticket using a credit or debit card. All that was left after me with wonderful views across Lac Léman to occupy much of the travel time. After rounding the lake and seeing views sampled the day before in better weather, we left the waterside at Montreux in a French-speaking part of Switzerland to head east to Brig in a German-speaking one. From Brig, a cog railway conveyed us through often narrow valleys to its terminus at Zermatt.
Zermatt is a car-free town with car travellers needing to park up at nearby Täsch before using the railway to get the rest of the journey. There were additional shuttle services so Brig-Zermatt trains are not doing the work alone. Coming out of the station, I noticed some horse-drawn carriages for conveying visitors to their hotels and electric vehicles shuttled about too.
Even with some vehicles going about their business, the place felt largely pedestrianised so I could walk freely. The sunny day had caused others to visit the place too, but that was no intrusion. The strength of the sun was enough encouragement for me to address an oversight, so a set of sunglasses was acquired and much used.
It took me some time to get clear of Zermatt and the track towards the village of Zmutt was what I sought. The unmistakeable beacon that is the Matterhorn lured me in the right direction and I sated my appetite for capturing it in some photos of my own. There were other sights to savour too, for the light remained so glorious that many photos were made. For the whole day, I was going to be in my element taking in what lay around me.
In the midday heat, I was appreciative that my route took me through some tree cover. There are times when trees obstruct wider views of a landscape, but this belt of woodland was not to outstay its welcome. Any shade while breaking the back of an ascent had its uses and others were going the same way. This was no intrusion and any concentration of humanity petered out the further along the valley that I went. My pace was to be mine alone.
Looking back on it now, I reckon that Zmutt was the chosen destination for any fellow travellers because continuing beyond the place had me meeting with scarcely anyone at all. Eateries were open in the aforementioned village and I was tempted to stop awhile but decided to keep walking. My desired loop was larger than the one that I nearly made through error. Others could enjoy the smaller circuit while I carried towards and beyond the closed hut at Chalbermatten.
The longer that I continued along the trail, the wilder things felt. Having an open mountainside brought ample views of mountains all around me. However, what I had not realised then was how much I could see; that only became apparent while I was creating a new online photo album afterwards. When naming photos, I just had to counter my usual scepticism to admit that lofty heights like Gornergrat and Monte Rosa had come within my sights. Such was the collection of mountain tops that I passed that a very long list would appear if I were to mention them all here.
Much of my time on this hike, my eyes were led back down the valley along which I had come. It was not just the developing sights but the fact that the sun was in the way for photos in other directions. That included the Zmuttgletscher at the valley head as much as the Matterhorn itself. While the other side of the valley was clothed in tree cover, the steeper aspect of that where I was walking made both for barer surroundings and for loftier sights less accessible to my camera. The latter was to be resolved among the trees where I was to turn to start on my return to Zermatt.
Leaving the path that would have taken me to Schönbielhütte, I made for a crossing of the Zmuttbach without much in the way of any sign of the pools shown on my map. Any views towards the Zmuttgletscher and its neighbour glaciers were to be left behind me too as I made for the track that was to carry me through woodland for much of the way back to Zermatt. After all that I had enjoyed, any restriction in views was no irritation as I passed Stafel and Biel. Others linger in those spots and I was left the trail to enjoy because not so many were using it. It seemed that visitors to this valley dissipated in the late afternoon much in the same way as their counterparts would in Britain and Ireland.
Loss of height was not a thing that the track did rapidly so I was granted views overlooking the village of Zmutt and other parts of the valley below. Enjoying these may have involved peer between trees, but that felt like a mere triviality. Eventually, I was to leave tree cover after me and regain views on the way to the Furi cable car station that looked resplendent in the evening sunshine. Cows were grazing in what would be an improbably high pasture if it were to be found in Britain or Ireland. The shelter of high mountains has raised this as much as the tree line.
Dropping some 100 metres of height, I passed Zum See on the way towards the path that I had used on the outbound leg of my walk earlier in the day. My mind was by now focussed on reaching Zermatt’s train station to start the return journey to Geneva. Everywhere lay quieter compared to earlier in the day and I made steady rather than hurried progress. The day had been pleasant and memorable for all sorts of good reasons and I still marvel at the number of photos that I made and how well they look. All the effort proved more than worthwhile.
It may be that this could become a start of a series of visits because there remains much more to see. For one thing, there is a higher level walk around Zmuttal, at least on the valley’s northern side, that could reward any added exertions. More leisurely pursuits like taking the train up to the Gornergrat remain tempting prospects, as could making use of cable cars in spite of my sense of exposure every time that I have used one. After all, they could give me a leg up for exploring other lofty spots such as Stellisee. Zermatt is surrounded by wonders and there are enough hiking trails to keep anyone going for a good while.
Return air travel between Manchester and Geneva with EasyJet with rail connections to and from Geneva. Return train journey between Geneva and Zermatt with changes of train at Brig.
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