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Zermatt, Switzerland: Mountain Guide Central

By Randy Johnson, Epic Magazine (See Actual Article)

Crag-savvy Swiss farmers and herders started shepherding parties of Brit alpinists up Zermatt-area summits in the mid-19th century. To this day, guides and guiding are the lifeblood of a town that symbolizes the appeal of the peaks.

Click for a large version of a map of Zermatt!

Anyone arriving by train in this iconic Swiss town—no private cars are permitted in the village—can tell that the local mountain guides are busy folks. Headquarters for the local guide group, the Zermatt Alpin Center, is just steps from the train station, up the main street, Bahnhofstrasse.

Explore the offerings, but before you engage a guide, visit a handful of Zermatt’s mountaineering landmarks. Here’s an EPIC tour.

Keep heading up the main street toward the Matterhorn—you can’t miss it—truly one of the planet’s mesmerizing natural monuments. No wonder mountain guiding got its start here!

As you enter the open Kirchplatz, the plaza facing the town’s biggest church, look right at the bas-relief plaque of Edward Whymper on the Hotel Monte Rosa. This is one of the Zermatt’s first tourist hotels, built in 1855, and the actual site where Whymper planned his climb of the Matterhorn. Hard to believe he walked out the front door, turned right, and made mountaineering history. It’s a decidedly cool but pricey place to stay.

If you can’t afford a room there, but find yourself famished, take the steps to the right of the plaque and go downstairs into the rustic quiet of the Restaurant Whymper-Stube (site in German), a great place to soak up the ambience, try some local brews, and fill up on delectable, reasonably priced cheese specialties, including raclette and various kinds of fondue.

Just across the street, a new plaza dips down to the glass superstructure of the Matterhorn Museum, just opened last winter and easily Zermatt’s most awesome interpretive experience. Enter and go underground to a space that once housed a casino. Town officials no doubt decided more people here want to gamble on first ascents than blackjack.

This high-tech new museum replaces Zermatt’s quaint “Alpines Museum” of old. Indeed, it incorporates many of that earlier museum’s artifacts, some of which were collected early on by the hotelier who started the Hotel Monte Rosa. Among those items are the rope that parted on the first climb of the Matterhorn, leaving Whymper and his Swiss guides, the Taugwalders (Peter Sr. and son Peter Jr.), staring from the peak in disbelief as their four fellow climbers plunged thousands of feet onto the Matterhorn Glacier. The museum’s trove of historical memorabilia recounts the history of climbing, tourism, human habitation, and the local lifestyle in the Zermatt area.

The coolest exhibit: a two-story, morphing mechanical Matterhorn. With lights and projected images, the multimedia experience shows how the Matterhorn came to symbolize not only Switzerland, but the grandeur of all mountains everywhere.

Re-enter the Kirchplatz and go left on Kirchstrasse. Step right behind the church to see graves of the unlucky from a century and a half of local climbing. At night, the headstones flicker with countless candles.

Continue your brief mountaineer’s sightseeing tour of Zermatt by stepping out from behind the church, heading back toward Bahnhofstrasse, then turning right down Englischer Viertel. At the next little intersection, take a drink from the fountain bearing a sculpture of Ulrich Inderbinen. This legendary Zermatt guide died in 2004 at age 103. He climbed the Matterhorn 370 times—the last time at age 90! This “King of the Alps” actively guided till he was 95.

A bridge over the River Vispa, with a great view of the Matterhorn, lies a short distance to the right—but take a left, uphill on Hinterdorfstrasse, one of Zermatt’s most scenic lanes. Here, historic log houses perch atop round foundation stones intended to keep rats out of the buildings. Just beyond, you’re back on Bahnhofstrasse, Zermatt’s main drag, not far from the guide headquarters.

Now it may be time to climb the Matterhorn. Sign up!

Randy Johnson is the editor of EPIC. Zermatt Switzerland is one of his favorite places in the world.

Posted on August 1, 2007

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