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Mad about the Matterhorn

It's the most famous and iconic peak in Switzerland: The mighty Matterhorn. Pyramid-shaped, isolated and powerful, it rules over the storybook village of Zermatt and its surrounding, snow-draped valley with a mystic presence. No wonder it's high on the bucket list of adventure-loving skiers from around the world.

Scenes from Switzerland's iconic winter wonderland: Zermatt
Photo courtesy Swiss Tourism
Skiing in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn in Zermatt
Photo courtesy Swiss Tourism

Located on the southernmost edge of Switzerland, right on the Italian border, the car-free village of Zermatt lies at the end of a long mountain valley at an elevation of 5,310 feet. The town, a charming mix of traditional and modern hotels, chalets, restaurants, shops and bars, is surrounded on three sides by forest and steep rock faces. Higher up are massive glaciers and a circle of 13,000-foot peaks, more than anywhere else in the Alps. The Matterhorn (the name is from the German words "matte" or meadow, and "horn" or peak), soars above the valley to a sky-searing elevation of 14,692 feet. Exposed to rapid weather changes, the peak's four steeply cut faces are covered with avalanche-prone patches of snow and ice, and its lofty summit attracts exotic banner cloud formations, especially in the afternoon and early evening.

A top-of-the-world ski adventure

After an overnight flight from San Francisco to Zurich aboard Swiss Airlines, we arrived in Zermatt with no agenda other than ski as much as possible over the next three days. We had a whopping 360 kilometers of piste (ski runs) and 74 lifts to choose from in Zermatt's three ski areas: the Sunnegga-Rothorn, Gornergrat-Stockhorn, Schwarzsee and Matterhorn glacier paradise. Among the must-do runs on our list: The highest lift-accessed skiing in Europe at the Klein Matterhorn, or “little” Matterhorn, where a ski run across the border to the Italian resort of Cervinia was our goal.

From many of the region's ski runs, the Matterhorn dominates the skyline. It's an almost overly familiar landmark—like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower—gracing travel guidebook covers and magazines, and Rolex and Tag Heuer watch ads. But to actually be in the presence of this hooked-shaped crag was somewhat shocking, and, given its century-old record of fatal climbing accidents, a bit intimidating. Stark and imposing, it rises in the cold mountain air—a monument to the raw beauty of the European Alps.

We started our Zermatt adventure with runs in the Sunnegga-Blauherd-Rothhorn (7,513 feet) area, which is served by an underground cable railway. Ski lifts here reach the Unterothorn at 10,170 feet. Fast cruising runs down wide pistes provided hours of entertainment before we headed to the wide open runs at Gornergrat-Hohtälli-Stockhorn (10,134 feet), served by a colorful cog railway.

The highlight of our Zermatt skiing experience was a day on the Klein Matterhorn, which we reached via a series of cable cars. In clement conditions, which we were fortunate to experience, you exit a tunnel carved in the rock and climb a set of metal stairs to the highest viewing platform in Europe (12,740 feet). Here, in thin air and feeling like we were on top of the world, we took in surreal panoramic views of the Alps and Switzerland's winter wonderland. Near the platform we toured an “ice palace” carved into the glacier, where rooms of glowing ice and ice sculpture were a curious sight. After touring the top of the Klein Matterhorn, we followed an easy glacier run from the Theodulpass to the Italian ski region of Breuil-Cervinia, Italy—a must for passport-carrying skiers. It was a unique thrill to experience a cross border ski run and to enjoy the fantastic food found on the Italian side of the mountain.

Speaking of meals, skiing tradition throughout Europe's Alps calls for mid-mountain meals at the eateries and chalets scattered about the slopes. Zermatt's most charming mid-mountain lunch spot is Chez Vrony, where warmth, hospitality, and stunning views of the Matterhorn have been a family tradition for over 100 years. On their sunny deck or inside the small, former farmhouse, skiers and snowshoers are pampered by traditional Swiss hospitality and lovingly prepared dishes. Their cuisine uses locally produced organic products, such as dry-cured meats, homemade sausages and Alpine cheese, all made with traditional recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. A meal here is an authentic Swiss Alpine treat—a great place to soak in the views of the Matterhorn and the beauty of Zermatt's mountain paradise.

Planning Your Visit

Ski conditions in Zermatt are typically best from February through April. For further information about Zermatt and Swiss travel in general, visit www.zermatt.ch. and www.myswitzerland.com. Getting to Switzerland has never been easier thanks to frequent direct flights from San Francisco to Zurich aboard Swiss Airlines. Visit their website at www.swiss.com for reservations and flight schedules.