The Swiss Alps are most commonly enjoyed during the winter when ski resorts such as Verbier and St. Moritz lure people with their well groomed slopes, glitzy aprez-ski environment and a host of fine dining venues.
It was at one of the eateries, leaning over a shared raclette after a long day on the slopes, that I decided with a group of loyal skiing friends to head back during summer. We wanted to experience Switzerland when the mountains are not covered in a think blanket of snow, and the mode of transportation is not a pair of alpine skis, but rather, a strong pair of walking boots.
Something for everyone
There is no shortage of trekking routes in the Alps. The mountain range runs over 1,200 kilometres and covers eight alpine countries including Austria and Slovenia to the east and Switzerland, Germany and France to the west. Climates vary greatly with the highest peaks reaching more than 4,000 metres above sea level and are covered in ice year around. Depending on your fitness level, you can enjoy one-day strolls through picturesque villages or embark on challenging, multi-day excursions that will take you over high passes and steep ascents. We liked the sound of the latter, so decided on an eight-day hike around Switzerland’s most famous peak, the Matterhorn.
To start and end the hike we had rented a chalet in Verbier, which is just some 30 miles from St Niklaus, the trip’s starting point. Having visited Verbier only during the skiing season we had always chosen chalets more for their location in relation to the slopes and lifts and less for their amenities and appearance. This time, however, with no ski-in and ski-out to worry about, we chose accommodation in a different part of town and the result was a stunning timber chalet with pointed ceilings and a private spa area, sauna and fitness room, cinema and outdoor Jacuzzi. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to gear up to (and later recover from) the Matterhorn hike.
On the first day of the trek we went up steep ascents to the Augsbordpass pass at 2894 metres above sea level. All the way up we had magnificent views of higher peaks in the distance, some covered in ice resembling giant ice cream waffles and others more bare with the grey granite a stark contrast to the clear blue skies. The high season for hiking the Tour du Cervin, as the route is also known, is during August when the weather is mild even at higher altitudes. The route therefore gets crowded at times and the experience lacks the peace and quiet that attracts people to hiking in the first place. We went in September when the weather was still mild but the crowds had retreated.
We spent the first night in a small village in the Turtmann Valley which is beautifully framed by lush forest. Accommodation during the Matterhorn hike varies depending on what tour operator you choose and some places are more basic than others. Most nights during our trip we stayed in mountain refuges or hostels, but for those wanting a bit more comfort there are other options available. The mountain refuges, however, offer a great opportunity to meet fellow hikers and they’re clean and comfortable.
One of the highlights during the trip was walking over the Arolla glacier, a small glacier located in the Walliser Alpen. The glacier has been retreating for several decades and is today only about 4 kilometres long. During the mid-20th century, it was connected to the Bas glacier and reached as far as Arolla Village, but today the two glaciers are more than 2 kilometres apart. The Arolla glacier has a gentle slope, which requires no equipment and thus renders it popular with amateur hikers and climbers. The stark contrast between the lush, forested Turtmann Valley and the barren land surrounding the glacier is a rare and wonderful sight.
The Matterhorn hike also took us through several territories, from French- to German-speaking Switzerland and into the Italian hamlet of Prarayer in the valley of Aoste. The border area has a rich history as it was once used by caravans passing between Switzerland and Italy through the Colon pass at almost 3,000 metres above sea level. The differences between French- and German-speaking Swiss territories are subtle for the outsider, and perhaps most visible in the use of street signs, but dig a little deeper and you will find more pronounced differences in both the food and the culture.
Matterhorn in all its glory
On one of the last days of the hike we spent the night in Zermatt at the foot of the Matterhorn. The town was a nice respite from the more remote areas along the route and offered entertainment options, restaurants and bars. Zermatt is also a popular ski resort and cable cars and ski lifts operate year round carrying skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. The town’s oldest restaurant Cafe DuPont is famous for its cheese fondue, which, admittedly, was pretty tasty. In keeping with the mountaineering feel of the town, the town centre is also car free.
We also spent one day exploring a remote Italian territory up steep ascents, which required metal ladders and a fair degree of courage and stamina. We reached mountain peaks, crossed rivers, and finally, at the end of the day, were rewarded by full views of the iconic Matterhorn peak – literally breathtaking.
The Matterhorn circuit
Like most hiking trips, the Matterhorn circuit is best enjoyed with some planning and preparation. In addition to stunning natural landscapes there’s also an appealing combination of fine food and fascinating culture to be explored. Here are some tips to set you on your way:
- “The best fondue in Zermatt” and also one of the oldest restaurants in town. www.dupont-zermatt.com
- Zermatt is a great place to kick back and relax after some challenging hikes with splendid views of the Matterhorn summit. http://www.riffelalp.com/the_resort.html
- For detailed descriptions of hikes, accommodation and points of interest, visit the official site of Switzerland Tourism, http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/interests/hiking1.html
- The Zermatt Museum is built as a village with original old buildings to showcase the town’s rich history as an alpine resort. An account of the first and fatal ascent of the Matterhorn, in which only 3 of the 7 climbers survived the descent, is also displayed. http://www.zermatt.ch/en/page.cfm/zermatt_matterhorn/zermatt-stories/fokus_matterhorn_museum