Travel: Take a deep breath and say Ah]: Swiss air is just what the doctor ordered. Charles Moseley explores the paths around Zermatt

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The Independent Travel
THEY queue to get up - and down - the Matterhorn these days. People congregate at its foot in Zermatt itself or, in good weather, at the top of the lift to its shoulder at Schwarzsee. Serious walkers can be made to feel distinctly ridiculous as, booted and rucksacked, they thread their way through the casually dressed and lightly shod tourists eddying round the viewpoints from which the mountain, Switzerland's biggest visual cliche, can fill a camera lens.

If you want peace and quiet, you will not find it in summer in Zermatt. Nowhere in the town does one escape the crowds. The pressure of numbers on this valley is intense, and the authorities have responded to the problem with courage: non-residents must leave their vehicles five miles below in Tasch, and take the not-too-expensive rail shuttle the rest of the way.

As a result, Zermatt is quiet. The dominant sound is of voices, with a ground bass of horse-drawn carriages or the swish-burp of electric buggies from the smarter hotels that meet their clients off the trains. Occasionally, from the helipad above the station, you hear the whirr of a helicopter supplying the mountain hotels and refuges.

Once, the town must have been beautiful: now it can be dispiriting after a long day's walking. Nevertheless, the valley is a delight for the walker and it is surprising that so few know of the excellent and varied trails it can offer. There are places only a few minutes' away where the only noise is of grasshoppers and rushing water, where the far peaks of the Weisshorn or Monte Rosa can be framed by the elegant stalks of arnica or martagon lilies, and their whiteness highlighted by the scarlet stonecrop carpeting the path.

As the sun attenuates the shadows of the hills to the east, the paths empty of people, the valley quietens save for the distant roar of glacial melt-streams, and the marmots emerge from their burrows and give their impudent whistles.

The well-maintained paths make long distances possible. Walkers new to the valley might well start with a pleasant stroll - you will not want for company on the first stretch - up the valley to the north of the Matterhorn to Zmutt, where there are several small restaurants. Over a Cardinal beer, you can contemplate the vast face that you have no intention of climbing, and pity the crowd at the Hornli hut high on the ridge at the bottom of the last stage, waiting . . . and waiting. You can then continue up the valley to the moraine above the glacier.

Here there is no vegetation, and the impression of a landscape in rapid change is extraordinarily powerful: the forces that built the mountains and cut the valleys are everywhere apparent. This path will bring you to the Schonbielhutte belonging to the Austrian Alpine Club, where you can get a drink or stay the night. The dormitory accommodation is basic, the food more gourmand than gourmet, but the place, perched on its spur above two glaciers, is so magnificent one might forget to eat or sleep.

To return to Zermatt the same way would be tame: far preferable is the route over the Hohbalmen, running high above the valley (2,600-2,700m) below the great wall of the Untergabelhorn, through delectable meadows, before the last headlong plunge down the ravine from Trift. That side of the valley gets the sun, so no lifts have been built for winter skiers. On the other side are lifts, telecabins and funiculars aplenty. The energetic can struggle up the steep slopes, through the pines, until they reach the meadows above the tree line where the gradients level out a bit.

The railway to Gornergrat is popular, since the hotel at the terminus (3,135m) has a terrace from where may be seen Monte Rosa, the Breithorn, the Matterhorn and the Dent Blanche. But the walk up from, or down to, the station at Riffelalp (2,211m) is not busy, offers the same magnificent views and takes you through meadows that, in July and early August, are rich in flowers and wildlife. Below the path, the shapely pinnacle of the Riffelhorn is silhouetted against the glacier, looking as if you could run up it in five minutes.

Over the glacier is the lift station and the rocky shelf of Trockenersteg, a jumping-off point for a splendid walk on the ice over to the Theodulhutte, to Testa Grigia and to the lower slopes of the Breithorn. The only hazard is the need to dodge the summer skiers who come careering down from the Kleine Matterhorn. From Testa Grigia you can walk down the old drove road into Italy - or cheat and take the telepherique.

These are not, however, the classic Zermatt walks, which, too, are often almost deserted. The underground funicular to Sunegga emerges into the light high above the village, and some change there for the cable-car on up to the Unterrothorn - a boring mountain when denuded of snow. But the discerning walk on past Blauherd to Flue, have a beer at a pleasant small hotel, then follow the path for a further two miles along the knife-edge crest of the moraine to Rimpfischwang. The views of the Rimpfischorn, the Adlerhorn and Monte Rosa are stupendous, the path itself is rich in interest, and the glacier below is dotted with pools and swallow holes of every shade of blue.

Fit walkers can go from Flue up the path to the sharp summit of the Oberrothorn: a red mountain, where slabs of rock alternate with frost-shattered fragments and where, in July, there may still be snow.

This walk demands a good finish. Descending to the col that bridges to the Unterrothorn, a turn north goes into a long valley, Tufternkumme, which even in August can be full of snow. But lower down, the flowers appear - gentians and edelweiss among the marmot holes. It is full of sounds: the mew of buzzards, wind on the rocks, the babble of a stream, the hollow clang of cowbells. Apollo butterflies flitter among the flora. Grasshoppers sun themselves.

At the end of the valley, another turn north takes one on a breathtaking route at over 2,200m for three miles to a point above Tasch, whence a series of zigzags drops one quickly to the valley floor, a beer and bed.

The other classic is hard work, but worth it. The gradient up to Trift from Zermatt is punishing, even to fit muscles. It is in the sun all day and the Edelweiss Hotel, perched at the mouth of the ravine, does a fine trade in refreshments. But at Trift the slope eases and a valley opens out, with the ruins of a summer village, a little church still in good repair, and the friendliest of hotels. Everyone eats with the family and conversation can be excellent. There is copious food, herb teas - and comfortable, if basic, beds in rooms with a view that quietens the most animated conversation as the stars come out over the darkening hills.

Next morning, take the path that winds its way up a higher valley to the snowfield below the marble peaks of the Platthorn and Mettelhorn. Few dare to stand on the summit of the Mettelhorn, for it is big enough to accommodate only one person, and the drop is cruel.

Trift is a good base, since it gives access to the Hohbalmen and the strenuous walk to the Swiss Alpine Club's Rothornhutte on the Zinalrothorn. Or one could just sit and watch the shadows change on the hills.

(Photograph omitted)

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