Wednesday 26 September 2012

Walking Matters: Zermatt 8th –19th Sept 2012 – Day 1

Where’s Wolli? – 9.75 miles / Ascent = 924m / Descent = 898m

There’s often a mild sense of disorientation associated with waking in a strange place for the first time, with a slight jarring experienced during the transition from light sleep to alertness. And this morning was no exception. Ah, yes: that’s where we are, the apartment that is to be our home for the next dozen days. Pulling back the curtain a fraction, I looked out: early morning sunshine was clipping the high peaks at the head of the valley, and the skies were a clear, unblemished pale blue. Our first full day in Zermatt was set to be fine weather.

By way of acclimatisation – both to the conditions and the unexpectedly warm weather – we opted for a fairly easy walk: from town, up and along the valley-side, down to the hamlet of Furi (where the annual Zermatt Shepherd Festival happened to be taking place) and back again.

We took a narrow alley from the centre of town that soon gave way to a switchback path up the hillside. At each junction we took the highest option heading south-west, passing through a tiny collection of houses and barns at Herbrigg to reach Hubel, a climb of about 350m.

As we gained height, views began to open up – firstly, back over Zermatt, then ahead towards the Matterhorn.

There was hardly a cloud in the sky.

In case the term “acclimatisation” appears a little dramatic, here are a few facts. The village of Zermatt sits at the end of the Matter Valley at an altitude of 1,620m. That’s a full 276m higher than the summit of Ben Nevis. From there, the lift and rail system can deliver you to around the 3,000m mark – well above the level at which medics advise us altitude-related health issues such as AMS (or worse) can begin to kick in.

The highest peaks in the area are then a further 1,500m or so higher still, with the high point of the Monte Rosa massif – the Dufourspitze, the second highest summit in the Alps (and Western Europe) – topping out at 4,634m. Of the top twenty highest Alpine peaks, no fewer than fourteen surround this valley.

So, as you can see, altitude does have a bearing in these parts, and the air is definitely thinner here than in the flatlands of the East Midlands where our home stands at a not-so-towering, oxygen-rich, 110m above sea level. And it’s not only about health, it’s also about not wanting to be seen struggling up the hills with all the nip, zip, lightness and speed of an over-laden, badly tuned traction engine.

But back to the walk. We followed a contour path along the valley-side, gently rising to skim the 2,100m contour, with the hamlet of Zmutt sitting in the sunshine below us. The trails were clear and made for fairly easy going, which was helpful given the surprisingly warm morning.

Gradually our bearing swung more towards the west as we worked our way into a side valley beneath the mighty glacier-ridden North Face of the Matterhorn. Here, the power of the Zmuttbach stream had been harnessed by man as part of a Hydro-electric power generation scheme, and dammed to form a small lake.

As it was still quite early, we decided to follow the valley for a little way – partly by way of a recce, and partly to find a nice rock on which to perch for lunch. The view towards the Schönbielhütte and the end of the valley proved enticing, and we would visit this area again in days to come. The constant dodging of waves of MTBers, however, was less welcome, polite as they were.

Retracing our steps, we passed through the confluence of paths that is Zmutt, crossed the river by a high bridge over the narrow gorge, and joined a tarmac road leading down towards Furi. Temperatures were now up into the 25°C+ range, definitely T-shirt weather, but which at altitude and with cooling breezes is definitely a recipe for sunburn – if suitable precautions are ignored.

The tree-lined road offered the first shade we had encountered all day, and with wild Raspberries growing in the roadside verges to provide a tasty, refreshing snack, we enjoyed the short spell of cool. These roads are largely traffic-free, providing easy going for walkers and cyclists.

It was party time in Furi. We stopped for a quick beer then caught up with the festivities. The Shepherd Festival was in full swing, with judging for the best sheep underway as we arrived.

It was also the “birthday” of Wolli, an illustrated character of sheepy heritage and star of several children’s story books, who made an “appearance” at the show – much to the delight of the hundreds of kids in the audience. I must admit it looks kind of scary to me, but the kids seem to love it.

However, it was time to move on. We picked one of the several routes back towards Zermatt, a steady trundle back to town passing through another picturesque hamlet – Zum See – on the way: a very pleasant, if un-taxing, first walk.

Back in Zermatt, we popped into the Co-op for a few supplies before retiring to our balcony to relax and read. For dinner, we rustled up a more-than-adequate Meatballs in Tomato Sauce and Pasta in our little kitchen, before taking a short evening stroll around town.

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