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Zermatt, Springboard for the Matterhorn

Switzerland

The alpine resort town of Zermatt is well-served by plenty of unforgettable lifts and trails, so its guests can best enjoy the area around the iconic Matterhorn.

Complete Video Script

Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, was essentially built for enjoying the Alps. It’s hugely popular with skiers in the winter, and hikers in the summer. With its many lifts, it’s a springboard for countless trails and unforgettable viewpoints.

The weather’s great, and we’re hopping a train to one of the most dramatic views in all the Alps. The Gornergrat cogwheel train has been wowing visitors since 1898. The trip comes with sweeping views, first of the town of Zermatt, then of the iconic peak that draws so many to this region: the Matterhorn.

The train climbs steeply into the high country. It takes us to over 10,000 feet, where we reach the end of the line. Across the tracks an old hotel solidly caps the Gornergrat ridge. Grand views stretch in every direction. Stunning Matterhorn views demand the attention of hikers. But there’s more. Monte Rosa is actually higher than the Matterhorn. In fact, at 15,200 feet, it’s the highest point in Switzerland. And a thousand-foot sheer drop below the platform stretches the mighty Gorner Glacier.

It seems many of my favorite hikes start part-way down my favorite lifts or train rides. Hopping off this train about mid-way, I’m in for a sensational, yet easy, hike. Getting to these exciting spots with so little work and so far from the crowds, I feel like I’m cheating—and I love it.

There’s just something about the Matterhorn, the most recognizable mountain on the planet, that attracts people. It’s a dangerous mountain to climb. Each year, while several thousand make it to the summit, about a dozen die trying. And with global warming, the permafrost that keeps it solid is thawing, making falling rocks a new hazard.

Surrounding Zermatt, as if to enjoy views of the Matterhorn from every angle, are dozens of lifts and hundreds of miles of trails. As is the case throughout the Alps, handy signposts make it clear where you are, what’s the altitude, and how long it takes to hike to various points.

It's always nice to hike with a local expert. And to get a little more out of my next walk, I'm joined by a passionate fan of all things alpine: climber and guide Amadé Perrig.

Rick: Amadé, this is just a beautiful spot. Tell me about yodeling.
Amadé: Well, in Switzerland, we have four different official languages… but we have another one, the language of the mountain. It's called yodeling! And if you want to communicate with somebody way over in the other valley then you yodel; that's a loud voice. But not everybody can do it because it is a special voice. When I speak, I speak out of my chest. In yodeling, it's back in here — then it sounds like that: [ Yodeling ]
It's a totally different voice. And you have the voice or you don't have it, but you cannot learn it.
Rick: So, if you're very happy, give me a happy yodel.
Amadé: Well, when you're very happy then maybe you yodel a little bit, in a different way, like: [ Yodeling ]
Rick: So, centuries ago the farmers would communicate. Your son is up in the high alp, what would you do?
Amadé: Well, then I just give him a yodel and see how he is doing like: [ Yodeling ] Now he can hear me and I know everything is good…and I know maybe the cows are giving more milk.
Rick: Nice!

While hiking above Zermatt, you can drop in on centuries-old farm hamlets. A favorite of mine is Zum See.

Rick: So why did people live in a little village like this?
Amadé: The people — they used to live here mostly in the summer.
Rick: Okay, so this was a high alp.
Amadé: Yeah, exactly the high alp air and then there's been the cows and everything up here.
Rick: How old might this be?
Amadé: Oh, these houses I would say they're between four and five-hundred years old.
Rick: This would be my image of Zermatt when it was —
Amadé: Yeah exactly, that looks like Zermatt from four, five-hundred years ago. There are houses around that age.
Rick: There's nothing new.
Amadé: No, no, no. When they built these houses, I have to tell you, they did everything by themselves. And they didn't have nails, they had to put everything together with wood. You know the wood was little sticks and then they put them nicely in them. They put all the lumber nicely together like that.
Rick: And this lumber that we're looking at, it must be very old.
Amadé: Oh yeah, that's from a special tree, the larch tree. And that's very, very hard wood. Look at that on the roof, it's all these heavy stones because in the winter there was a lot of snow and they didn't shovel the snow off. And they had to put heavy stones on the roof.
Rick: So, how did the people survive?
Amadé: You know, the people they had their own gardens. For instance, they got their own food, and the garden was growing mostly potatoes, salad, and also some lettuce… but not a lot more.
Rick: So, this garden could have been here 300 years ago?
Amadé: Oh, I would say at least or even longer because every family had their own garden.
Rick: These little storage houses, what did they store?
Amadé: We hang the meat in there, because here, in this area, in Zermatt, we never smoke the meat — we always air dry.
Rick: Air dried?
Amadé: Look at those storage houses and how they're sitting on stone. And you're asking yourself: why are they sitting on the stone? When the rats and the mice and all the bugs kind of climbing in and they keep everything's nice and clean.
Rick: So these stones that are like plates, they frustrate the rats?
Amadé: That's right. They're sitting there like mushrooms.
Rick: And today, tourism makes this little hamlet much more wealthy.
Amadé: Exactly. In the old days, we had a lot of goats, so we milked the goats. Today, we'd rather milk the tourists.

Zermatt, straddling its tiny river, is a small town of 6,000 with a big tourist industry. It has more hotel beds than residents—and they’re often completely full. Nearly everyone earns a living one way or another from tourists, who flock here for a peek at the peak.

About two million visitors a year arrive by train—cars are not allowed. Electric carts weave quietly through the pedestrians. The town is a collection of over a hundred modern, chalet-style hotels with a well-organized and groomed infrastructure for summer and winter sports.

And this crowd-pleasing herd of traditional blackneck goats, which parades through town every day, has had it with selfies, and is headin’ for the barn.

If you explore a bit, you can discover pockets of traditional charm. Two hundred years ago, Zermatt would have looked more like this—little more than a gathering of humble log cabins.

With the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, Zermatt helped kick off the Golden Age of mountaineering. Then — with the arrival of the train — shortly after that, the town became more accessible and more popular. Appropriately grand hotels were built to accommodate aristocrats who came from all over Europe — especially from England — the mountaineering. The church marks the town center…

And just behind it is the lovingly tended little Mountaineers' Cemetery. It's dedicated to great climbers and mountain guides, many of whom died on the mountain. And this tomb remembers the unknown climber.

Zermatt works hard to keep its visitors entertained, and tradition-loving locals seem delighted to do just that.

And I'm capping my day in Amadé's favorite restaurant to learn about Swiss cuisine and wine.

Rick: What are we eating?
Amadé: Well, we're eating here the typical local menu. It's called raclette. And as you can see it's melted cheese, boiled potatoes, pickles and silver onions.
Rick: Very simple.
Amadé: It's very simple… And this started many, many years ago in our area.
Rick: How do they make the raclette?
Amadé: Well, it's actually really simple: You need a raclette stove. When the raclette stove is at very high heat, on the top you put the cheese on that heat and then it melts. As soon as it bubbles, you scrape it off, put it in a plate, and serve it with boiled potatoes, pickles and onions. Very simple.
Rick: Swiss white wine, I find it very good. What is the name?
Amadé: It's Fendant.
Rick: Fendant?
Amadé: It's a simple local wine and it fits very well with the raclette.
Rick: Yeah.
Rick: You do not see Swiss wine in the Unites States.
Amadé: Not really, no. Because we don't export it a lot. First of all, we don't produce a lot. Secondly, it's quite pricey to export, and third, we want to drink the wine ourselves.
Rick: Cheers to Fendant!
Amadé: Cheers! And wish you all the best.
Rick: Nice! All the best.

From the town of Zermatt a mighty cable car takes us to the summit of a peak called the “Little Matterhorn.” Prices are steep, as the community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their mountain lifts in recent years. These lifts are absolutely state-of-the-art, and just experiencing them is worth the splurge.

At 12,700 feet, this is the highest cable-car station in Europe.

While the view of the Matterhorn from this angle is not the iconic postcard profile, the views from the observation deck are stunning. On a clear day, the Alps fill the horizon with all their glory.