After high school I wanted to be a ski bum, but not the dirtbag kind, so I stacked the deck in the best manner I could and signed up to be an exchange student in Switzerland. The Hüsler family took me in. They lived in a small village lined with willow trees near Lake Geneva, where on clear mornings I could see the Alps gleaming over the water.
Geri, my host father, was a wealth manager and a magnificent powder skier who had clients around the world with property at some of the planet’s best ski resorts. He was a compact, muscular man with a broad grin and an easy manner. One day he came home to announce a client had invited the whole family to his condo in Zermatt for a long weekend. That’s where I would turn 19.
Winter had arrived warm and sluggish that year, but that didn’t matter to me. I’d already logged more days skiing those first few weeks of the season than I ever had growing up on the eastern shore of Maryland. While abroad, I skipped school to test my mettle on mogul runs at Portes du Soleil and played off-piste at a place called Bettmeralp. On weekends, I would head up to a mom-and-pop joint in the Jura called La Dôle, where my classmates and I would build kickers between the larches. It was all so easy for a car-less teen: Just hop on a train in the morning, ski all day, then wobble back onto the train for the lazy ride home, legs still on fire.
But this was something else entirely. We were going to Zermatt? The place with the Matterhorn? I had won the lottery.
Zermatt is often the first place people think of when they picture skiing in Switzerland, and for good reason. It sits in the heart of the rugged Valais, the Swiss canton with the largest concentration of the highest peaks in the country. The resort covers a whopping 98 square miles of glaciers, glades, and alpine valleys riddled with more than 120 miles of slopes, including one that’s nearly 16 miles long—the longest run in the world, they say. With a summit elevation of 12,790 feet, Zermatt is a place you can ski all year long. True, few of the runs are steep, just five of the 76 trails are rated expert, but who cares when you can spend a day skiing and hop over the border for a quick limoncello in Italy?
Having mostly experienced only mid-Atlantic ski resorts, I could hardly fathom such abundance. Then there were all the ingenious contraptions the Swiss have installed to ferry you back to the top of the mountain. Six cable cars, 18 gondolas and chairlifts, two funiculars, countless surface lifts, and one very cool cogwheel train—a train!—all of which punches up through forests or across broad rolling shoulders peppered with farming huts for tending summer pastures. That was the first time I realized that going up could be as much fun as going down. “Heidi,” the classic Swiss story, wasn’t set here but that didn’t stop me from imagining it.
We loaded up Geri’s silver Saab and made the three-hour drive to Täsch, the last village in the valley before Zermatt, where we parked the car and took a tiny electric taxi bus for the final three miles into town. Those first few minutes left me speechless. It was as if I’d walked into some fancy fairytale—if fairytales had fondue and smelled like sheep.
People have been living in this valley year-round since about the 7th century, long before the need for city planning and traffic control, and so the streets are much too narrow to allow for normal cars. It’d be another 1,200 years before the first hotel arrived, the three-bed Hotel Cervie that’s now the opulent Hotel Monte Rosa. Instead, a warren of alleyways twisted around wooden houses and storage buildings perched on stilts (to better keep critters out of the larder). The Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, a five-star palace, rose near the town square. A river, the Matter Vispa, roars through town. And over it all looms the Matterhorn.
We spent the next three days skiing in a manner that would influence me for the rest of my life. We rode the cable cars up to Fluhalp, a panoramic spot near the 10,100-foot Rothorn and the Findel Glacier, where we warmed up on a few runs before stopping for coffee at a little hut near Tuftern. We cruised around the open expanses of the Hohtälli and rode the cogwheel train up the Gornergrat. Up near the Klein Matterhorn, at 12,700 feet, the highest I’d ever been, I burned nearly an entire roll of film taking pictures to piece together into a panorama that I later hung on my wall. We never seemed to go more than two hours or so without stopping to drink apple wine, down a Rösti, or sit on a sun-slathered deck, watching the shadows creep around the Matterhorn like a sundial.
We eventually did ski down into Italy, which felt like a birthday present stacked inside a birthday present. Truthfully, I don’t remember much about the run itself, but the impact it had on me was clear. From then on skiing wasn’t just about turns or conditions or how much vertical you could log, but rather a door that opened countless excuses to eat, to explore, and to linger in some of the planet’s most spectacular places that too many of us will never see.
Two decades after my exchange days came to a close, I landed back in Switzerland for a second stint. By then I was a married man and a journalist with a baby on the way, and we stayed for nearly three years. Just before moving home we took our daughter high into the Alps to a viewpoint near Leukerbad. I pointed out the Matterhorn to her as it ripped into the distant sky. Some day she’ll ski Zermatt. I’m guessing it’ll change her, too.
Classic Spots to Visit in Zermatt
Set inside a historic wooden barn, Chez Vrony is the standard bearer when it comes to authentic mountain huts. Snag a terrace table on a clear day for the best Matterhorn views around.
A lively, traditional après bar with live music and an outdoor terrace with all the views, Hennu Stall is the best spot in Zermatt to dance on tables in your ski boots.
Of course, you want the most authentic Swiss Alpine cuisine, and it’s at Schäferstube, the rustic, cozy restaurant inside the Hotel Julen. The lamb dishes are the specialty, made with meat from the Julen family farm.
This is the traditional grand hotel right in the heart of town, with the convenience and the ambience to anchor any trip. Bonus: They send a horse-drawn carriage to fetch guests from the train station.
Gornergrat Cog Railway
The Gornergrat links the town of Zermatt to the 10,140-foot summit station of its eponymous mountain peak. It’s a wondrous experience that’s not to be missed.