Switzerland for skiing: Don't look down, look up
You're going skiing. Head for Switzerland and you can take in of one of the world's greatest mountains too, says Stephen Goodwin
Sunday 17 December 2006
What are we seeking? A mountain landscape to stop you in your ski tracks and hold you there spellbound; a mountain of such overarching scale and power that you are rendered an insignificant speck in its presence, yet paradoxically want to shout aloud with joy.
There are such mountains, actually quite a lot of them if the Himalaya, the Andean chain and the pristine ranges of Antarctica are included. But this one should be within the compass of a holiday skier rather than a latter-day Scott of the Antarctic. And on that basis the selection becomes easy, an open and shut case.
The Matterhorn towers above all contenders just as it does above skiers descending the Furgg and Theodul glaciers to Schwarzsee, above Zermatt. The Furgg glacier has to be the viewpoint for maximum impact, seemingly right beneath the planed rock slope of the east face, like a playground slide for giants and one of the mountain's most distinctive features. Improbable as it may seem, even to the most extreme off-pisters, the face has been skied on several occasions.
It may be the most photographed mountain on Earth, the face that launched a thousand chocolate boxes (and always the east face with its dark, cowled head looming over the snow-streaked ramp). Walt Disney re-created the mountain in California, and 200 climbers a day crowd its "normal" ascent route in high season, but this recognition is not without reason.
Despite the trappings of the ski industry that have grown around its base since, and a swish resort in the valley, the mountain has lost very little of that nobility. True, the Zermatt guides have drilled in bolts and fixed ropes on the easiest ridge, but these are not visible from the glacier, and the Matterhorn has taken to shrugging off such minor irritations of man, in cannonades of crumbling rock.
To the locals in Zermatt, the great peak that dominates their valley was known simply as Das Horu. Its closest resemblance is to the horn of a rhinoceros, though this was probably not the beast that the villagers had in mind. Complementing the Matterhorn's distinctive shape is its peculiar isolation. Alpine peaks tend to bunch together in chains, each jostling its neighbour. Not so the Matterhorn. From the Schwarzsee (you will have seen the popular shot of the mountain reflected in this chilly tarn) it rises uninterrupted for almost 2,000m (6,561ft) to the summit at 4,477m. Plunging ridges form the skyline to either side, an eroded pyramid set in a glacial desert.
My first sight of the Matterhorn was on a ski tour, starting in Saas Fee, sleeping in alpine refuges, climbing 4,000m peaks such as the Alphubel and Allalinhorn, and gradually making our way towards the Zermatt area. I think it was on the Alphubel that I heard a Dutch ski-mountaineer who was about to take a summit photo of his companion ask: "With Matterhorn or without?" So omnipresent is "the horn" in this part of the Alps that it takes a conscious effort to keep it out of shot.
There it was again, but closer, in our summit photos on Monte Rosa, the last major peak on our tour before the glorious glacier ski down to Zermatt - one of the finest ski runs in the Alps, a drop of 2,750m over about 17km (10.5 miles). There is an interesting comparison to be made here, of the "size isn't everything" variety. The peaks of Monte Rosa form the greatest massif in the Alps and include the highest point within Switzerland, yet hardly anyone could form a mental picture of the mountain, let alone draw it.
Visiting Zermatt in 1894, the young Winston Churchill insisted on an ascent of Monte Rosa rather than of the Matterhorn, not only because of its superior height but also because the guides' fee was substantially less than for Das Horu. The Matterhorn always commands a premium. Hotels charge more for rooms with a view of the mountain - and it's worth it.
Our own descent of Monte Rosa remains indelible in my mind. It had been a very long day and the final roped climb along the summit ridge to the Dufourspitze, at 4,634m the highest of Monte Rosa's tops, had been tricky in strong winds and with a lot of ice-glazed rock to negotiate. Back on our skis, legs soon became tired. The middle section of the descent is a long schuss down the Gorner glacier. For much of its length it is flattish and I guess could be slow going in soft snow. For us, though, it was rutted sheet ice. My abiding memory is of struggling to keep control on wobbly legs while directly ahead the setting sun painted the sky with dark fire behind the silhouette of the Matterhorn. Pain, panic almost, and a deep pleasure all wrapped together.
No photograph can capture adequately the powerful emotion a mountain can evoke. When I initially pondered this "best view" question I forgot the holiday skier element and first thought of the endless plod up Everest's Western Cwm, a snow-blanketed, glacial trough enclosed by three of the highest mountains on Earth: Nuptse and Lhotse to one side, the huge south-west face of Everest to the other. Some view. Ego is crushed, yet paradoxically the experience can be one of a liberated unity with this high, wild place.
Carrying the need for a sense of awe over to a skier's landscape, the big glacier setting becomes important. It is no good having the mountain framed by pine trees, however pretty. The Vallée Blanche above Chamonix might be a contender, and possibly the Wengen pistes below the north face of the Eiger. But the peaks that wall the Vallée Blanche abut one another, and beneath the snows of Wengen are meadows. From the pistes, the outright winner is the so-called "Matterhorn glacier paradise".
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