|In January, 2003 we (family of 8) made a run to Zermatt for a bit of
skiing and to experience the feel of the Alps. The Europe rail system
is quite amazing. I have watched Amtrak try to duplicate the European
rail system with little success. I suppose the low population density
and inability to tie to other transportation systems (we walked from the
airplane to the train in Zurich without leaving the building) will always
keep rail travel from becoming popular in the States.
The first impression standing in the town of Zermatt and looking up is "wow"! Whistler may have close to the same vertical but Whistler is not straight up (or straight down). There are trails that are skiable into Zermatt, but we chose to ride a tram or train the lower 2000 feet of the mountain. This left 3000 feet vertical to ski. The low runs looked like get-along trails and were a bit icy.
All of the literature we found before going listed 3 mountains, the Rothorn, the Gornergrat, and the Klein Matterhorn. In reality there are 2 areas. The Rothorn and Gornergrat are combined for one area and the Klein Matterhorn with Cervinia is the second area. The lift tickets are not interchangeable unless you pay a considerable surcharge which makes you buy daily tickets. If the mountain is busy it is advisable to buy your ticket the night before or at the Alpine Center across from the Mont Cervin Hotel before you head up to the Mountain. The ticket lines were the longest wait we found while there. Be sure to check the dates on your tickets, I had one outdated ticket sold to me while I was there. These are electronic tickets that can be carried in your left coat pocket. All you have to do is hug the turnstile to trigger the gate.
We found folks walking all over the mountain. Walking is encouraged and promoted and as such it is possible to cover the major lifts on foot. For instance, you can buy a lift ticket and ride the cog train up to Gornergrat, take a tram to Hohtalli, take another tram to Gant, walk 50 yards to a gondola to Blauherd, take a gondola to Sunnegga, and ride the Alpen Metro back to town. The Alpen Metro is an underground tram that Jeff compared to Space Mountain at Disneyland. There are two other trams that can be ridden on the loop that will take you to higher peaks. One of the main walking areas is down to Findeln from Sunnegga. Findeln is an area containing old farm buildings and some newer summer homes or huts along with 5 or more restaurants. The food is very good at Chez Vrony and reservations are needed if the mountain is busy.
If you can handle walking the 600-foot vertical between Sunnegga and Findeln, this area is a good way for people on foot to get a feel for the skiers mountain. The Klein Matterhorn also is rigged for foot traffic. The tram to the top of the this mountain has a dramatic entrance to the top and has a cave in the glacier with ice carvings. I did not see any people walking about on the Klein Matterhorn like I did on the other mountain. This was probably due to higher elevation and more exposed to the weather.
On to describing the mountain from an American skiers point of view. I will compare my impression of the skiing to what we find in the States. There were a few double black runs, they were the exception and we stayed off them. For the purpose of this review, high intermediate skiers could handle all of the runs on piste. The black runs were all groomed and were steeper than the intermediate. However, very few of the marked black runs would give you the fear factor found on Aspen, Snowbird, or Jackson Hole.
of the chair lifts were self-serve and not manned with operators or assistants.
I kept looking for someone to help and watch over the skiers getting on
the lifts but in most cases none were apparent. I assume someone
was in the background that could hit the panic button if there was trouble.
On the Rothorn, Gornergrat side the best skiing was in the Rothorn Blauherd area. If there were crowds we cut into the run labeled 22a and 22b off of Rothorn. No one skied back in that area. It leads to a nifty lunch spot at Tufturn. All they had was soup, cheese, sausage, and pie but it was good. We found that if the sun was out and the wind calm it was very pleasant to sit outside and eat. I cannot remember saying that about US ski areas in January Ė itís too cold. The locals do not ski if the weather is not perfect, much the same as in the States. That gave us the mountain to ourselves (and the family from Salt Lake City and Snowbird) on snow days. The groomed runs had 3 to 4 inches of powder on them and no traffic. If visibility is bad or the wind is up then chairlift D between Patrullarve and Baluherd is a good idea. There are some trees on the lower part of the runs and the area is fairly well protected.
My first day I warmed up on the Klein Matterhorn where the glacier allows
skiing year round. The glacier is flat and rather uninspiring.
If a chair lift was there instead of the long T-bars, it would be an excellent
beginner area. There is only one chair and 5 or 6 runs on the Klein
Matterhorn if you stay high - this is good for a warm up but it gets old
fast. The thing that makes the Klein Matterhorn interesting is the
link to Cervinia. Except for the lack of trees (above the tree line)
Cervinia more resembles a US area than any area on the Swiss side.
There are 5 or 6 chair lifts spread out below the Matterhorn and other
wide trails served by trams and gondolas that resemble the US slopes.
We also found there that few venture off the groomed trails. We enjoyed
powder skiing 4 days after the dump right against the groomed trails.
The few people that followed us into the powder did some very quick face
The food was as good as on the Swiss side with an Italian flair. All of the restaurants had waiters. This was a pleasant change from the self-serve cafeterias in the States. The Swiss and Italian restaurants reminded me of the atmosphere we used to have at the crepe place on Buttermilk, the old mid-mountain restaurant at Jackson Hole, or the far restaurant on Alta - all since replaced with sterile buildings that resemble airport hangers.
If you are a beginner then try the chair lift under Sunnegga labeled 5b. It is the easiest lift on the mountain. If you are comfortable there and do not mind T-bars then K1 at Riffleberg or R1 on the Klein Matterhorn will be the next step up. Katherine took a lesson and did quite well on Sunnegga.
We didnít find the light fluffy Utah snow but the snow was good.
Without fresh snow it can be a bit icy, nothing like the East Coast ice.
Snow making equipment was very prevalent so they should have the ability
to keep the major runs passable even in marginal snow conditions.
The German and Italian speaking people as a rule could speak English, some
of the French speaking people wouldn't try. The atmosphere, ambiance, views,
and overall experience are all quite different from anything in the States.
All of our group had a good time and felt the trip was well worth it.
A native of South Texas and 4th generation cotton farmer, Kenneth started skiing in upstate New York while attending Cornell University in the '60s. He has since skied most all the Rocky Mountain resorts, including Banff and Whistler in Canada.