The Heart of the Matterhorn - Ski Mag

The Heart of the Matterhorn

Travel
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The Heart of Matterhorn, March 2005

The Matterhorn fills the sky, its famous pyramid

silhouette, with its hooked crook and jagged edges, plain as day. Otherwise, the approach to Zermatt's renowned Chez Vrony restaurant doesn't seem all that promising. A winding trail drops away from the expansive boulevards of the sprawling Swiss resort's higher elevations, switchbacking its way down a mud-spotted mountainside to a small huddle of rustic and occasionally decrepit mountain huts. But the largest of these huts has at least 100 gleaming, current-model skis strewn about the snow in front of it. And inside the hut's weatherworn door are velvet settees, goatskin barstools and crystal chandeliers hovering low over postmodern dining chairs hewn from aged woods.

The interior is vacant, but only because on a sun-kissed day like this, every skier who knows how to savor the Alps is out back, through the narrow doors, on Chez Vrony's secret garden of multilevel decks, which curve toward the magnificent view.

[NEXT ""]Stemware glitters in the sun. Silver clinks against china. Couples curl toward each other on semi-reclined double-wide dining chaises, leaning forward to taste from artfully arrayed dishes of grilled lamb and fresh fish. Laughter rises as bottles of wine are passed at tables of four and tables of ten. A waitress, dressed in white, whirls out of the kitchen bearing chocolate confections and steaming espresso. German, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, British English, American English and Swiss German swirl in the air, mingling with tongues unknown.

Whatever their language, everyone on this deck knows there's no ski experience on earth like a week in the Alps, and that nowhere in the Alps rivals Zermatt for culture and magnificence mixed with expansive skiing and serious soul. They know this is a place where history, innovation and a passion for mountaineering mingle, and that diverse bounties reward those who find their way into Zermatt's concealed folds. Most of all, they know that to "do" Zermatt just right, one must seek to savor and not to conquer-a pursuit that includes spending time at hidden gems like Chez Vrony, where nothing in life is more important than talking, eating and basking in the view.

Zermatt-which means "the meadow"-sits along the southernmost edge of Switzerland, touching Italy's border. The town lies in a mountain valley at an elevation of 5,310 feet. The canyon is framed on three sides by steep rock faces and hulking mountain flanks, which in turn are crowned by massive glaciers and a circle of 13,000-plus-foot peaks-the densest such cluster in the Alps. Originally a pristine meadow with a river running through it and a few poor farmers and a priest as inhabitants, Zermatt is now home to 5,500 year-round residents, 1.7 million overnight visitors per year and a densely packed array of hotels, restaurants, shops and homes. The entire basin is car-free, with electric taxis and horse-drawn carriages ferrying guests to and from the train, lift stations and hotels. Looming over it all is the mystical, 14,692-foot Matterhorn.

[NEXT ""]The best skiing happens, as a rule, before melting into the deck of Chez Vrony or any of Zermatt's 40 other on-mountain restaurants. Zermatt has 62 ski lifts and hundreds of miles of trails on three mountains, so a guide is vital for at least your first few days. Today, mine is Michi Meier, 30, who has lived in Zermatt for 10 years. Meier, freckled and tousled, with a broken nose and a pierced ear, worked as a groomer on the mountain before going into partnership in an array of tourist-oriented businesses with his brothers and two friends. He shows me around the Sunnegga-Blauherd-Rothorn and Gornergrat-Hohtà¤lli-Stockhorn sections of the resort, where we ride gondolas, trams and high-speed chairs, then swoop at G-force speeds down spacious boulevards, past views of gnarled glaciers and cresting peaks.

It takes two full days of cruising the pistes with Meier to acquire a basic overview the in-bounds sections of the resort (as well as to learn the correct pronunciation of their unwieldy Swiss-German names). The slopes-which were developed by different groups and gradually interconnected over the years-form a semicircle around town. The area called Sunnegga-Blauherd-Rothorn is closest to the mouth of the valley and accessed by the Sunnegga Express funicular. Guests at the north end of town tend to start their day here. Gornergrat-Hohtà¤lli-Stockhorn is one giant step nearer to the Matterhorn and is served by the scenic Gornergrat Cog Railway. The resort's other two sections, Klein Matterhorn and Schwarzsee, can be reached via the Klein Matterhorn Talstation, a dual tram-gondola station at the southern edge of town.

[NEXT ""]On day two we ascend the Klein Matterhorn tram, then a second, then a third, finally topping out at 12,800 feet inside the solid rock summit of the Klein Matterhorn, or "little" Matterhorn. We walk out through a tunnel in the rock (a feat of engineering that took 14 years from conception to completion in 1979), then climb a set of stairs in the thin air to a platform at the summit, where the view is so vast that Mt. Blanc looks tiny and there seems to be nothing in the world but wave upon wave of snow-covered peaks. Below the viewing platform, Meier beckons me toward another tunnel-the entrance to a crevasse rigged with railings and walkways deep in the hoary ice.

From the Klein it's an easy glide across the Theodul Glacier to Italy. We pause at a wooden refuge called Testa Grigia, which straddles the border. "The coffee here is perfect," says Meier, and he's right. Over cappuccino and fresh croissants we meet Manfred Graven, the head of Zermatt's year-round rescue operations. Graven-whose father had the same job-is clean-cut with clear eyes and sharp features, a man who spends much of his life outdoors. He echoes other longtime locals when he says Zermatt is distinctive because it's car-free, because it's a place where people come "to be sporty in the mountains" (not to shop or be seen, as in St. Moritz and Gstaad) and because it remains "like a village," yet offers a massive amount of options, both indoors and out. I look at the walls of Testa Grigia, covered with etchings of former mountain guides, and think of what I've experienced in only a few days: Sumptuous breakfasts in the elegant environs of the historic Zermatterhof hotel. A slopeside beverage at a groovy open-air bar encircled by fake palms. An art opening of new paintings by Swiss comic book-style social satirist M.S. Bastian at Vernissage, a hip club/cinema/museum/cafe designed by Zermatt artist Heinz Julen. And there's the dense, clammy air inside the crevasse; the changing moods of the Matterhorn. It's as if everything that makes the Alps a must-do experience is rolled up into a one-of-a-kind package called Zermatt.

[NEXT ""]Back on skis, we descend toward the Italian resort of Cervinia and its additional 30 lifts and 125 miles of basin skiing (best for beginners and intermediates). The March sun is hot, and the snow quickly morphs into corn, perfect for carving. An Italian ski school instructor (a maestro di sci) glides past, his students trailing behind him while he holds both poles in one hand and dangles a cigarette from the other. Lunch mid-slope at Chà¢let Etoile is a bustling affair full of "prego," "grazie," "bene" and fresh pasta. (The line for tables on the sun-baked deck is 45 minutes, but like all good local instructors, Meier has reserved ours in advance.) From this angle the Matterhorn doesn't resemble itself at all, looking instead like just another hulking chunk of rock, but I don't mind. Skiing in both Switzerland and Italy in one day? Definitely a new esperienza.

On the winding trail back to Zermatt-a descent of more than 6,000 vertical feet-we stop at Blatten, where a sea of beach chairs stretches across the snow. Lounging in them with a cold Carlsberg is essential après. "Rock Around the Clock" and then "Johnny B. Good" ring out from tall stacks. Skiers clad in everything from lederhosen to the latest Burton gear pour off the mountain, some drawn into Blatten's rocking beach scene, others gliding past in favor of après joints farther down. It is the most diverse mix of ski styles and nationalities I have ever seen in one place, yet when Joan Jett blares through the speakers singing "I Love Rock and Roll," everyone begins to sing along. The sun falls behind the Matterhorn as people of all accents belt out, "Put another dime in the jukebox, baby." I belt it out, too, and suddenly feel a bit giddy. I tell myself it's the beer-or maybe the jet lag-but I notice everyone on the Blatten beach is beaming at everyone else, as though we're all feeling the same thing. Meier grins and nods. It's not me, I realize. It's Zermatt.

[NEXT ""]Originally called Prato Borni, Zermatt is a real town with a long and storied past, a place that has evolved-without any master plan-as a destination resort. And it shows. Many of Zermatt's buildings display classically charming Swiss-Alpine style, with colorful shutters, stone slab roofs and tulip shapes cut into balcony railings. A few, tucked in the heart of town, are original, weathered timber huts, some still sheltering sheep. There are family-run bakeries, hole-in-the-wall crêperies and outdoor ice rinks where local kids shout and play. There are smoky, pine-paneled fondue restaurants where talking loudly while puffing on cigarettes, sloshing wine and swabbing huge chunks of bread in pots of melted cheese is a cherished way of life. But there are also five-star hotels, the de rigueur Swiss watch shops, an abundance of expensive restaurants, an aggressively hip Oakley store and occasional structures of steel and glass sheltering sleek Euro-urban bars. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic church, rebuilt in the 1930s, still anchors the town, the tone of its bells-three blind mice, three blind mice-reverberating through the valley every quarter hour and for a full 15 minutes before each Mass.

While the destination ski experience here is among the best in the Alps-reliable snow, terrain for all levels, unbeatable cuisine (particularly at lunch) and rich Alpine charm-the Matterhorn remains Zermatt's strongest lure. First summited by Englishman Edward Whymper in 1865, the famed fang is probably the most recognizable mountain in the world. For many North Americans that familiarity comes from southern California's Disneyland, where bobsleds have been rocketing on tubular steel rails through the 1/100th scale, 147-foot-tall, mini-Matterhorn since 1959. (Lore has it that Walt Disney was on a ski vacation in Zermatt when he was inspired by the real thing and sent a postcard to his theme park designers inscribed with two simple words: "Build it.") Uncle Walt was one of many Zermatt visitors captivated by both the skiing and the distinctive peak. This place casts such a strong spell that people return here again and again. (In fact, awards are given to visitors who've come for more than 20 years.) Those who move to town for one season, like American expatriate Bill Baker, a ski-boot guru, or Zurich native Meier and his entrepreneurial brothers (who own Zermatt's friendliest ski school as well as its hippest snowboard and clothing shops and its best Internet cafe) remain for decades. Yet the true locals, like Vrony of Chez Vrony, who descends from one of Zermatt's original land-owning families (and whose father, August Julen, led Robert and Ted Kennedy up the Matterhorn) and third-generation guide Anjan Truffer, who has climbed the Matterhorn more than 140 times, are as integral to life here as ex-New Yorkers are to Aspen, Colo.Truffer-a calm and understated man with a keen wit-grew up at the base of Sunnegga's old lift, running home to catch the last run after school. At age 10 he got a summer job washing dishes at the Hörnli Hut, where climbers prepare for their ascents on the Matterhorn. He first summitnd then "Johnny B. Good" ring out from tall stacks. Skiers clad in everything from lederhosen to the latest Burton gear pour off the mountain, some drawn into Blatten's rocking beach scene, others gliding past in favor of après joints farther down. It is the most diverse mix of ski styles and nationalities I have ever seen in one place, yet when Joan Jett blares through the speakers singing "I Love Rock and Roll," everyone begins to sing along. The sun falls behind the Matterhorn as people of all accents belt out, "Put another dime in the jukebox, baby." I belt it out, too, and suddenly feel a bit giddy. I tell myself it's the beer-or maybe the jet lag-but I notice everyone on the Blatten beach is beaming at everyone else, as though we're all feeling the same thing. Meier grins and nods. It's not me, I realize. It's Zermatt.

[NEXT ""]Originally called Prato Borni, Zermatt is a real town with a long and storied past, a place that has evolved-without any master plan-as a destination resort. And it shows. Many of Zermatt's buildings display classically charming Swiss-Alpine style, with colorful shutters, stone slab roofs and tulip shapes cut into balcony railings. A few, tucked in the heart of town, are original, weathered timber huts, some still sheltering sheep. There are family-run bakeries, hole-in-the-wall crêperies and outdoor ice rinks where local kids shout and play. There are smoky, pine-paneled fondue restaurants where talking loudly while puffing on cigarettes, sloshing wine and swabbing huge chunks of bread in pots of melted cheese is a cherished way of life. But there are also five-star hotels, the de rigueur Swiss watch shops, an abundance of expensive restaurants, an aggressively hip Oakley store and occasional structures of steel and glass sheltering sleek Euro-urban bars. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic church, rebuilt in the 1930s, still anchors the town, the tone of its bells-three blind mice, three blind mice-reverberating through the valley every quarter hour and for a full 15 minutes before each Mass.

While the destination ski experience here is among the best in the Alps-reliable snow, terrain for all levels, unbeatable cuisine (particularly at lunch) and rich Alpine charm-the Matterhorn remains Zermatt's strongest lure. First summited by Englishman Edward Whymper in 1865, the famed fang is probably the most recognizable mountain in the world. For many North Americans that familiarity comes from southern California's Disneyland, where bobsleds have been rocketing on tubular steel rails through the 1/100th scale, 147-foot-tall, mini-Matterhorn since 1959. (Lore has it that Walt Disney was on a ski vacation in Zermatt when he was inspired by the real thing and sent a postcard to his theme park designers inscribed with two simple words: "Build it.") Uncle Walt was one of many Zermatt visitors captivated by both the skiing and the distinctive peak. This place casts such a strong spell that people return here again and again. (In fact, awards are given to visitors who've come for more than 20 years.) Those who move to town for one season, like American expatriate Bill Baker, a ski-boot guru, or Zurich native Meier and his entrepreneurial brothers (who own Zermatt's friendliest ski school as well as its hippest snowboard and clothing shops and its best Internet cafe) remain for decades. Yet the true locals, like Vrony of Chez Vrony, who descends from one of Zermatt's original land-owning families (and whose father, August Julen, led Robert and Ted Kennedy up the Matterhorn) and third-generation guide Anjan Truffer, who has climbed the Matterhorn more than 140 times, are as integral to life here as ex-New Yorkers are to Aspen, Colo.Truffer-a calm and understated man with a keen wit-grew up at the base of Sunnegga's old lift, running home to catch the last run after school. At age 10 he got a summer job washing dishes at the Hörnli Hut, where climbers prepare for their ascents on the Matterhorn. He first summitted the famous peak at age 12 with his uncle, Franz Schwery, also a guide. Now 30, Truffer earned his full mountain-guide certification at 20, and has been working as a guide ever since-in Zermatt and throughout the world.[NEXT ""]On a morning when the Matterhorn is invisible, shrouded in grayish white, I join Truffer and clients Lee and Julie Miller from Aspen. Our planned heliski excursion is weathered out, so Truffer takes us instead on a lateral rock climb through Gorner Gorge, a narrow canyon hidden in the valley's upper reaches. The gorge is pristine and quiet, luminous with ice falls and green gneiss. We rappel, clamber and belay for four hours, then emerge into Zermatt's bustle through the gorge's slivered mouth. A long lunch follows on a deck in the sun, with wine and lively conversation and desserts of fruit-doused meringues and chocolate mousse.

Two days later I join Truffer's next group of clients, a gaggle of strong-skiing, world-traveling European businessmen who regularly adventure with Truffer. We meet at the historic, cog-driven Gornergrat Railway (opened in 1898 to offer summer tourists the best views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding panorama of 38 peaks), then spend the morning charging off-piste. After a few warm-up runs we roll over the steeps of Stockhorn into an otherworldly out-of-bounds zone known as the Lost Valley, where we slice fresh tracks through days-old snow. Our only company is a herd of chamois meandering on the glacial moraine, their white faces looking as intrigued by us as we are by them.

[NEXT ""]At 2 p.m., we descend the same mud-spotted slope that leads to Chez Vrony, and dine amidst the low ceilings and intimate, rustic environs of the Findlerhof, which is owned by Truffer's aunt and mountain-guide uncle. Salsa music plays in the background, and my companions tell tales of other, more radical adventures with Truffer as the platters of rösti and grilled lamb, prawn salad and steaming pasta slide onto the table. A signpost outside the paned window points in the direction of climbing's coveted peaks: Everest, Fujiyama, the Eiger, Mont Blanc. It doesn't take much looking to find the Matterhorn, though. It looms there before us, filling the view, clouds wisping close to it like wind on a cheek. My new friends insist I join them for après at Elsie's-"You can't visit Zermatt without going to Elsie's," they argue-but once inside the renowned cafe and bar, wedged into a corner, surrounded by laughter and free-flowing wine, all I really want to do is go back outside. My room at the Zermatterhof is just across the street. I escape to my deck there, where I watch twilight fall, mesmerized by the view and the immaculate air. The hooves and bells of horse cabs echo; the church bells chimes (three blind mice, three blind mice); couples and families spill into the streets, wandering out for an evening on the town. From my perch I hear my new friends leaving Elsie's before I see them. They are with Truffer, talking about their plans for tomorrow. I wave, but they don't notice. It hardly matters. I sit there long after they go, bathing in the freshness of the night and gazing up at the great horned peak.

mmitted the famous peak at age 12 with his uncle, Franz Schwery, also a guide. Now 30, Truffer earned his full mountain-guide certification at 20, and has been working as a guide ever since-in Zermatt and throughout the world.[NEXT ""]On a morning when the Matterhorn is invisible, shrouded in grayish white, I join Truffer and clients Lee and Julie Miller from Aspen. Our planned heliski excursion is weathered out, so Truffer takes us instead on a lateral rock climb through Gorner Gorge, a narrow canyon hidden in the valley's upper reaches. The gorge is pristine and quiet, luminous with ice falls and green gneiss. We rappel, clamber and belay for four hours, then emerge into Zermatt's bustle through the gorge's slivered mouth. A long lunch follows on a deck in the sun, with wine and lively converrsation and desserts of fruit-doused meringues and chocolate mousse.

Two days later I join Truffer's next group of clients, a gaggle of strong-skiing, world-traveling European businessmen who regularly adventure with Truffer. We meet at the historic, cog-driven Gornergrat Railway (opened in 1898 to offer summer tourists the best views of the Matterhorn and the surrounding panorama of 38 peaks), then spend the morning charging off-piste. After a few warm-up runs we roll over the steeps of Stockhorn into an otherworldly out-of-bounds zone known as the Lost Valley, where we slice fresh tracks through days-old snow. Our only company is a herd of chamois meandering on the glacial moraine, their white faces looking as intrigued by us as we are by them.

[NEXT ""]At 2 p.m., we descend the same mud-spotted slope that leads to Chez Vrony, and dine amidst the low ceilings and intimate, rustic environs of the Findlerhof, which is owned by Truffer's aunt and mountain-guide uncle. Salsa music plays in the background, and my companions tell tales of other, more radical adventures with Truffer as the platters of rösti and grilled lamb, prawn salad and steaming pasta slide onto the table. A signpost outside the paned window points in the direction of climbing's coveted peaks: Everest, Fujiyama, the Eiger, Mont Blanc. It doesn't take much looking to find the Matterhorn, though. It looms there before us, filling the view, clouds wisping close to it like wind on a cheek. My new friends insist I join them for après at Elsie's-"You can't visit Zermatt without going to Elsie's," they argue-but once inside the renowned cafe and bar, wedged into a corner, surrounded by laughter and free-flowing wine, all I really want to do is go back outside. My room at the Zermatterhof is just across the street. I escape to my deck there, where I watch twilight fall, mesmerized by the view and the immaculate air. The hooves and bells of horse cabs echo; the church bells chimes (three blind mice, three blind mice); couples and families spill into the streets, wandering out for an evening on the town. From my perch I hear my new friends leaving Elsie's before I see them. They are with Truffer, talking about their plans for tomorrow. I wave, but they don't notice. It hardly matters. I sit there long after they go, bathing in the freshness of the night and gazing up at the great horned peak.

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