The moment I reach the precipice, it’s too late. I’ve told myself over and over again not to look, but my eyes are instantly drawn over the edge. And that’s before I spot the 30-metre ladder, our only way down. “I’ll go first,” says Richard Biner, my mountain guide, and quickly drops out of sight. I swing around, turning my back to the Swiss Alps, and hang on tight, staring at the vertical rock face scoured smooth over millennia by glacial moraine.
We’ve descended 500 metres from our starting point on top of the 3,089-metre Gornergrat ridge when Biner stops to trace our route. The steep path is gobbled up by the Gornergletscher glacier below us, then spat out on a rocky incline that stretches skyward to our destination, the Monte-Rosa-Hütte. The mountain hut is barely visible on the other side of the ice sheet, whose undulating topography is splashed with the odd aquamarine lake, as if a giant had tossed a handful of marbles. Biner picks up his ice axe and motions toward the glacier. “Ready?” he asks, donning his Ray-Bans.
The ice crunches underfoot, belying its half-kilometre thickness. Boulders the size of mini-chalets rest atop ice columns, like trays held aloft by white-gloved waiters. At one point, we skirt a black hole. Biner grabs a rock the size of a tennis ball; he throws it into the abyss and grins when, several seconds later, we hear a faint plouf.
I feel like we’ve covered all 400 kilometres of marked paths that extend from the village of Zermatt, which is located an aerial tram ride from the Italian border. But this is only a snippet in a web that includes both pretty meadow walks and hard-core hut-to-hut hiking trails, which connect – sometimes via glacier crossings – high-altitude mountain shelters. These spartan lodges were established over 100 years ago to serve climbers, who would head to the hut closest to “their” peak to eat and sleep, then make the summit ascent the day after. With a countrywide network of Berghütten, Switzerland’s mountains are now accessible to peak baggers and stragglers alike.
The new Monte-Rosa-Hütte, where I’m headed, though, only welcomed its first guests in 2010. Capable of hosting 120-person sleepovers, it supplants an 1895 cliffhanger of a house below it with such technological and architectural flair that it’s become the crown jewel in the Swiss Alpine Club’s mountain-hut portfolio. The crystal-shaped building is equipped with its own sewage treatment plant and solar panels that crank out 90 percent of its energy needs. I, for one, am looking forward to the hot showers, a seemingly simple amenity previously unheard of in off-the-grid Berghütten.
By the time we arrive at the futuristic-looking mountain lodge, its faceted aluminum shell gleaming in the early-evening sun, my legs have turned into fondue. No wonder: We’re more than halfway up Dufourspitze, which, at 4,634 metres, is the country’s highest summit. I can’t wait to find a quiet nook, put my feet up and drink a panache (a shandy made with Sprite) while the sun sets behind the Matterhorn – Zermatt’s emblem and, thanks to Toblerone, the world’s most iconic peak.
But as soon as I open the door to the minimalist dining room (the only decorations are the carvings on the wooden beams, resembling the contour lines on a topographic map), I feel like I’m crashing a wedding party. Rosy-cheeked guests, peppering their chatter with “Santé!” and “Prost!,” spill onto the patio. Inside, people clad in merino wool and soft shells swill grappa like there’s no hike back tomorrow, and the group of Zürcher friends I end up sharing an eight-bed dorm room with are celebrating a 40th birthday. There’s even a grandmother passing a toddler a juice pack, so he, too, can partake in the festivities. You’d think a three-hour-plus trek – including a climb so precipitous someone has installed wooden steps and metal cables to help you along – would be a bit of a deterrent. But when it comes to hiking, the Swiss really walk the walk.
“Where we’re going, there’s no need to bring anything but sunscreen,” says Amadé Perrig, watching me stuff trail mix and a hydration bladder into my backpack. When I notice that the former Swiss Army officer and his wife, Gina, are wearing light hiking shoes (not sturdy backpacking boots, like me), I start worrying that this is going to be a walk in the proverbial park. But leaving hotel Cervo, my Zermatt base camp, we veer uphill to a trail shaded by larch trees. We pass swaths of alpenrose bursting with pink blossoms and walk through meadows dotted with 500-year-old granaries on stilts before reaching Tuftern. The hamlet where we stop for Rivella, Switzerland’s favourite pop, belongs on a postcard, as do the Swiss silver pines and wildflowers competing for my attention as we scramble up the Direttissima, a steep shortcut that takes us to the gondola above the treeline at Sunnegga.
Many of the people I cross paths with on the valley’s northwest-facing slopes admit that part of the area’s beauty lies in the fact you can have an Alpine experience without so much as wiggling a toe. A warren of ski lifts, gondolas and trams can take you as far as Europe’s highest viewing platform and Zermatt’s only summer skiing on top of the Klein Matterhorn at almost 3,900 metres. (If the altitude makes you woozy, there’s oxygen for sale at the café.) We take the gondola to Blauherd, where paragliders slice the sky, and hike down toward the village, stopping for a drink now and then. “If the water in a stream has passed over seven stones, it’s clean,” says Perrig, cupping his hands under a crystal-clear cascade rushing from rocks and moss. It’s so refreshing, it’s like the liquid equivalent of Ricola. Perrig belts out a loud “yodel-ay-ee-dee,” turning people’s heads and sending sun-tanning marmots down their burrows. “I can’t help myself,” says the one-time competitive yodeler. “I do it when I’m happy.”
It’s pretty hard not to feel joy when the hills are alive. At Grünsee, a cluster of log houses, we cross a flower-speckled meadow, kept at bay from time to time by grazing cows, before grabbing the last table on the patio of Berghaus Grünsee. (Every hamlet has at least one restaurant, and there’s even a Gourmet Trail connecting a slew of Zermatt’s 40-plus slopeside eateries.) Pius Perren tells us he raises the lambs that eventually end up on the restaurant’s menu as Lammtrockenfleisch, a valley specialty. He rubs the meat with salt and a secret herb mix – everybody here has a secret recipe – then cures it in a wooden box for three weeks before hanging it in a granary to air-dry for at least two months. I dig in, washing down the tender delicacy with a glass of Humagne Rouge (one of five local varietals), a full-bodied red with velvety tannins. The Perrigs suggest we keep walking – at least to Riffelalp, a five-star resort down the hill, where we finish our hike on a sweet note.
“When you DO see people on this side of the valley, you know they have the same passion as you,” says Emmanuelle Baumgartner, a self-described outdoor freak in her mid-twenties. She’s just conquered the 4,206-metre Alphubel and easily outclimbs me on the steep trail from Hotel du Trift – the light-pink Berghütte with green gables where we stayed last night – to the high-Alpine Höhbalmen trail. On these southeast-facing slopes, there are no gondolas, no ski lifts, no trams. “It’s different from seeing people on the developed side of the valley because there I don’t know if they’ve taken the train up,” she says.
Baumgartner isn’t keen on cheaters, so I do my best to keep up with her. It’s a challenge once the path suddenly turns into a vertigo-inducing tightrope that’s barely clinging to the mountain. I don’t know where to look: at the Matterhorn’s north face ahead of me or down to make sure I don’t lose my footing. (The night before, over dinner at Hotel du Trift, another hiker told us of his wife’s demise 10 years ago on this very section of the trail; he’d returned to pay tribute to her.) Over the course of four hours, we don’t spot a single hiker. This is where you get a true sense of Alpine solitude: The silence is broken only by the sound of meltwater rushing from glaciers, the chime of lonesome birds and the whistled warnings of marmots.
When we finally arrive at the Schönbielhütte – a stone house with bright red shutters that serve as blazes in the monochromatic rockscape – Yolanda Biner-Perren welcomes us with a stern instruction. “Leave your boots in the hall, and put on house shoes before entering.” When I find a pair of Crocs in a cubbyhole marked with my size, I wonder why the Swiss Alpine Club hasn’t commissioned native son Yves Béhar to dream up a designer version produced by Victorinox.
Looking around the rustic mess hall decked out with sepia-toned photos of mountain men, it occurs to me that while the new Monte-Rosa-Hütte may be taking hut hiking into the 21st century, it owes its existence to century-old lodges like Schönbiel. Zermatt itself landed on the tourism map thanks to the mountaineers who flocked here after Briton Edward Whymper successfully scaled the Matterhorn in 1865. Biner-Perren delivers our drinks: Grog, a traditional climbers’ concoction of rum, hot water, lemon juice and sugar, for herself and Baumgartner; and Wolfsblut, rosehip tea and red wine, for me. She then sits down and tells us her great-great-grandfather, Peter Taugwalder, was one of the guides on that expedition.
Surrounded by 38 peaks that reach above 4,000 metres, the village remains a magnet for alpinists. Like her ancestor, Biner-Perren has also stood on the top of the Matterhorn, and her husband, Fredy, is a climber and mountain guide. At Schönbiel, you feel like a mountaineer, too, sharing anecdotes not only with hikers and skiers completing the legendary Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt but also with peak baggers who, like you, sleep in dormitories with space for up to 15 people each. The dorm-room doors bear signs with the name of one of the nearby summits, while a sign downstairs tells you when you need to get up to reach your peak; climbers who are scaling the Dent Blanche or the Dent d’Hérens have a 2 a.m. wake-up call. We’re in no rush, though, so we sleep in until 7:30 before carbo-loading for a four-hour hike with muesli, bread and apricot jam, possibly the most ubiquitous breakfast spread in the region. And then off we go. ®
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The chalet-chic Cervo provides an über-comfortable base camp between your rustic mountain-hut outings. (Think plush beds, steam rooms and a Gault Millau-lauded restaurant.) For the best view of the Matterhorn, book a room in chalet 1 and head to the ground-level hot tub – with a bottle of Petite Arvine in hand.
01 Four locations of Bäckerei-Konditorei Biner ensure you’re never far from post-hike snacks like hazelnut milkshakes and chocolates.
02 A self-sustaining architectural gem, the gleaming Monte-Rosa-Hütte draws as many mountaineers as design buffs.
03 The Schönbielhütte offers a glimpse into the area’s storied climbing past – 15-person dorm rooms, mountain-spring-fed wash basins and outhouses included.
04 Swing by Bayard Sports & Fashion to rent a pair of crampons or to buy sturdy hiking boots by homegrown brand Mammut.
05 Hotel du Trift welcomes with spartan double rooms, heaping dinner plates and – if you’re lucky – an alphorn performance by host Hugo Biner.
06 Find out what a glacier really looks like by descending into one at the Glacier Palace, tucked under the Klein Matterhorn’s summit.
07 For a taste of the valley’s dry-lamb specialty, steer uphill to Berghaus Grünsee, which also dishes out Käseschnitte, Swiss toast with loads of melted cheese.
Zermatt via Zurich or Geneva
Air Canada offers the only non-stop service from Toronto to Zurich, with six weekly flights. Air Canada also offers the only non-stop service from Montreal to Geneva, with five weekly flights. A picturesque drive or train ride connects both Zurich and Geneva to Zermatt.