"There's the Matterhorn!" I shout enthusiastically as we drive. My boyfriend is behind the wheel and is excited as I am. We have already had a long day's drive from Switzerland’s Graubünden to Zermatt and the sinking red sun is already starting to play hide-and-seek between the snowy mountain peaks on the horizon. I wave my camera around with excitement.
A few miles and curves down the road, the mountain unfortunately no longer looks so much like Matterhorn.
"Mmmh. Maybe not," I say, deleting the photos.
Five minutes later, my boyfriend begins to point excitedly toward another mountain that is just emerging into the sky. “That could be it!"
"Whoa, definitely!" I shout as I take new photos. Or not.
Just where is this cursed Matterhorn anyway?
How we finally found it, how we accidentally wound up on a vertical training trail for mountaineers, and how we ended up on a small, but enchanting glacier lake, you will find out in the second part of my travel report about our two-week road trip through Switzerland.
In addition, we were able to ride on the first trip of the season with the world-famous Glacier Express (Bucket List uber-deluxe!), looked at a waterfall plunging down 975 feet as a cow watched us and stood eye to eye with the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Well, that is at least what they looked like. I took photos just to be on the safe side. But look for yourself!
It is pitch-black when our train finally arrives in Zermatt. So, we still do not see the Matterhorn. Perhaps the whole mountain is just a huge conspiracy theory. Maybe Bill Gates beamed it to California! And why are we suddenly sitting on a train rather than driving? Well, at least I know the answer to the last question: Zermatt is car-free.
Seriously? Does the car-banning political German Green Party have an extension here or what? No, Zermatt simply has no desire to let the view of the Matterhorn be obscured by smelly exhaust fumes. In addition, the quaint streets, filled with wooden houses, are alarmingly narrow. Due to lack of space, you would probably wind up parking in the river, which tumbles turquoise green through the center of the city. That is why you must park your car in one of the many car parks in the nearby village of Täsch and take the train to Zermatt.
The enchanting and over-priced mountain and ski town of Zermatt is in a basin surrounded by mountains that is utterly dominated by the magnificent Matterhorn. And there it stops. Because of its unique location, it is difficult to see the Horn in Switzerland from any other perspective than directly from Zermatt.
The next morning it is light. What a surprise. And there is the Matterhorn! Even more awe-inspiring than imagined. Like a pointed puff pastry topped with meringue, at 14,692 feet, it towers over the city. Distinctive, alone, majestic. At the beginning of May a lot of snow remains here and some of the famous mirror lakes which famously reflect the Matterhorn (the Stellisee and the Riffelsee), are still frozen and snowed in. Too bad.
But there are also lakes that lie a little lower and are no longer ice-covered. That is where we want to go. We make our way to the 5-Lake Hike. Normally, the path is six miles long and you can take a cable car to the starting point. But because it is still so wintry, not all trains run. So, we set off hiking from Zermatt and decide to tackle the two lower lakes, the Leisee and the turquoise glacier lake Mosjesee.
However, we somehow end up on an extremely steep slope, which leads into an almost vertical wall. “Not again," my boyfriend says, just before he slides down and scrapes his arm. I almost faint because I can't stand to see blood. Then I step into a snow-covered hole, and I'm gone, up to my knee. We had had a fairly significant mountain drama two years ago, which could easily have ended badly. So, this the whole thing just feels like a shitty déjà vu to both of us. But we keep going. Of course.
When we finally reach a normal trail crossing our path further up the mountain, we see a sign: Matterhorn ascent training path. Well, that explains a lot. We decide not to continue training for the Matterhorn, but rather to simply continue hiking on the normal trail.
From there we soon reach the Leisee. Blue water simply lying between high masses of snow that look as if they are about to suddenly break off due to global warming and swim away. Meanwhile, the Matterhorn has worked its way out of the clouds and is now surrounded by frayed cotton balls. As if it were a cold fire emitting ice smoke.
Just twenty minutes from the Leisee lies the Mosjesee, which looks serenely surreal with its green glacier color. The wind is icy, the sun is shining. Otherwise, it is quiet. We are alone and nature consumes us with its enormity of colors, with its rugged mountain slopes that are as beautiful as a delicate watercolor, and with its eagles circling above us in the open sky.
And right in the middle of this grandeur is the majestic Matterhorn. This is not just any mountain. The Matterhorn has its own spirit. Its own charisma. And it leaves you feeling humble, enchanted, and moved.
"Sarah, this world is beautiful," my boyfriend says softly. I nod.
After three days in Zermatt, we set off on a train ride to St. Moritz. Four regional trains and 7 hours. What is this? Doesn't this trip flatten your butt? Sure. Definitely. But there is a good reason for the flat butt: the next day we want to ride on the first post-Corona trip of the world-famous Glacier Express from St. Moritz back to Zermatt.
Switzerland is famous for its alpine dream routes on tracks. There are several train
journeys you can take in the country. But the Glacier Express is somehow the reigning Queen among these trips. The railway line travels about 180 miles, over 191 bridges, through
91 tunnels, along the Rhine River Gorge, which drops as much as 1300 feet below, and it crosses over the 6,700-foot-high Oberalp Pass. Because the height differences are so extreme along the
journey, the track switches from simply using friction to pull the rail cars, to using a toothed cogwheel traction to lift the train up the steep inclines again and again. Normal
wheels have only enough friction to pull a train up an incline of about 79 feet every mile while cogwheels can lift a train up to a change of
altitude of 725 feet every mile.
We board at St. Moritz (mega ugly and overly expensive city with hotels that charge what you would expect at the Ritz, but with rooms the size and amenities you would expect at a flophouse - sorry!).
The sparkling red train is already at the station. Inside, each car is lined with clean carpets and decorated with stylish wooden strips, engraved with alpine flowers. The huge panoramic windows reach into the roof. The Glacier Express has not yet fully started, and they serve a complimentary round of Riesling. A complete journey on this train currently costs around $240 per person [May 2021]. But you can also get on at a stop further down the line. However, I would always ride the whole distance. I mean you only live once. And it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
From St. Moritz, the train glides almost silently through the first tunnels, over massive bridges with huge stone arches through snowy forests, and along rugged mountain slopes. We cruise down to the city of Chur, where bright, solid-yellow rapeseed fields bloom and sheep stare in amazement. Then we ride through beautiful Rhine River Gorge, which is also known as the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland". I was already at the real Grand Canyon in the USA and can only say about the Rhine River Gorge: Holy Cat Manure, this is breathtaking!
From there, we begin to ascend more rapidly until the train switches to cogwheel traction, clicking loudly and slowing down as it does. We break out a pretzel from the baker's bag we purchased before we started, because the expensive lunch menu on the Glacier Express was not included in the cost of the train ticket.
The train now groans up to the Oberalp Pass. We enter a dark tunnel for quite a while. And then—wow—we shoot back into the daylight between huge, blinding white walls of snow. At this moment, all the passengers on the train jump up and a murmur rushes through the compartment. Goose bumps. The train skims through the unreal landscape of ice, glaciers, and snow. In addition to the tracks at the top of the pass, there is also a road where motorcyclists and bicyclists (!) stop and take out their mobile phones to take photos of the Glacier Express. I wave.
Afterwards we go down to the mountain village of Andermatt, where the train stops for a short break. My boyfriend and I get off. The air is cold, the sky bright blue. “I'm so glad we're doing this here," I say. “Together."
He takes me in his arms. These are the moments we both live for.
Once back aboard, the Glacier Express passes through the 10 mile long and dark Furka Base Tunnel buried far below the Furka Pass. Each seat has a console where you can listen to a great audio guide via headphones – or you can switch to traditional Swiss music. Let us just do that now. It is dark anyway.
Afterwards I show my boyfriend photos of traditional clothes in Switzerland and Bavaria on my cell phone.
"It's nice if tradition persists. Just never force me to put on those clothes," he says diplomatically.
From there the train descends into the valley at Visp, at only about 2,000 feet above sea level. Just so the train can put on the cogwheel again while it chugs off and higher and higher toward Zermatt.
"Where is the Matterhorn?“ I ask and grin. My boyfriend looks at me as if he wants to say, “Not again.” But he is too nice to say that out loud.
On the way back, driving toward Basel and Germany, we make a stop at an incredibly famous mountain formation: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, and the Jungfraujoch—a saddle between the two 13,000-plus foot peaks of the Jungfrau and the Mönch.
But instead of spending another $240—because that is how much a (cable)train ride to the Jungfraujoch [as of May 2021] costs—we drive to the small Swiss village of Lauterbrunnen. What is there—in the middle of beer gardens and souvenirs? An insanely high waterfall! The Staubbachfall. It falls from a huge cliff almost in the middle of the village. It is 975 feet high. And because it falls so far down, the water atomizes on the way down. The drops just turn to mist and the entire waterfall essentially just blows away. Hence the name Staub-Bach, or “dust-stream.” An incredible phenomenon.
We also find a cow that looks curiously into my camera and moos loudly when I say she should laugh.
You can find a photo of it at in my picture gallery below.
Opposite the Staubbach Falls are the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. My boyfriend and I have both seen a moving drama about the North Face of the Eiger. We are fascinated.
That is why we decide to hike the whole 975 feet up to the edge of The Staubbach Falls, where we find a breathtaking view of the mountain formation as it opens before us. As we look, a silent wave of clouds seems to break over the Jungfraujoch. For a while, we just standing there, simply breathing in and out.
Two weeks in Switzerland. One of the best trips we have ever taken. Great natural wonders, fascinating panoramic trains, deep gorges, ancient cities, crazy bridges, raging rivers. Adventure. And yes, even a Matterhorn.
You can find the first part of our trip from Bern to Lucerne and the Viamala Gorge in the report A Giant's Kettle and an Island in the Alps – Roadtrip Switzerland I.