Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

In Zermatt, the Mecca of mountaineers, more than 500 climbers have died attempting to reach the Matterhorn’s rocky summit

Zermatt is so close to Italy you can get there by ski lift. The Alpine resort village is home to Abba’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad, aka Princess Reuss, Countess of Plauen since her 1992 marriage to Prince Heinrich Ruzzo Reuss, Count of Plauen. Money, Money, Money, never seemed so apt as in Bahnhofstrasse, the cobbled main artery, where horse-drawn carriages or electric taxis convey tourists to designer boutiques, hotels and ski-lift stations.

Thanks to its high altitude and car-free policy, Zermatt’s air is so crisp you can crunch it. At the Christiania Mountain & Spa, I threw open the doors to my balcony overlooking snow-covered peaks and lowered myself to the ground for a press-up. Very invigorating.

Pity the mountaineer in these parts. To date, 500 mountain climbers have died attempting to reach the Matterhorn’s rocky summit.

Our guide from Zermatt Tourism told us that at least three people who set out to climb the Matterhorn die every year.

The first Matterhorn deaths occurred just after the world’s first ascent on July 14 1895 when a fraying rope snapped, plunging four of seven men led by the Englishman Edward Whymper, to their deaths on the descent.

The Matterhorn Museum displays the frayed rope plus the shoes and personal effects of the climbers from that fateful trip.

The real hero of the heights however was Ulrich Inderbinen, a Zermatt mountain guide who climbed the Matterhorn more than 370 times and lived to be 104. There’s clearly something to be said for the invigorating Alpine air.

On a stroll through Hinterdorf, the oldest part of Zermatt with barns built between the 15th and 19th centuries, our Zermatt Tourism guide showed us Inderbinen’s memorial fountain.

How did Zermatt get its name? An abbreviation of that emblematic 4,478m Swiss icon, Zer Matt(er Horn)?  I never did find out.Matterhorn Glacier Paradise and the Gornergrat offer views of the alpine massifs from a dizzy altitude. Fortunately you don’t have to clamber up on foot to appreciate them. A cable car whisks you up to a 3 883 m vantage platform and the Matterhorn station is connected to the highest glacier palace in the world. You walk into the palace through an ice tunnel almost 15 meters below the glacier surface to admire ice sculptures.

On the way down we stopped off for lunch on the terrace of the sun-drenched Restaurant Furri surrounded by mountain.

The Gornergrat train. Picture: Kevin Schmid

We also took Europe’s highest altitude open-air rack railway for a 33-minute ride through forests up to the Gornergrat at 3,089 meters, another peak that offers spectacular views over 38 giant massifs that include the 4,634 m Monte Rosa, Gornergrat, Klein Matterhorn and Schwarzsee.

With 300 days of sunshine a year, Zermatt is the place to see and be seen. Unless of course you happen to be the elusive Princess Reuss, Countess of Plauen …

  • SWISS International Airlines offers daily flights from Johannesburg to Zurich