Another fine, warm day beckoned, so – armed with our newly acquired lift passes – we decided to take the rack railway up to the Gornergrat. Trains run every 24 minutes from opposite the main railway station in Zermatt, and take about 33 minutes to reach the top pausing at a handful of intermediate stops on the way (the Swiss, famous for clocks and watches, are nothing if not meticulous about their timings). It has to be said: there can’t be many more picturesque and impressive journeys by train anywhere in the world.
The top station, at about 3,100m, is not quite what you might expect. Surrounded as it is by a shopping and café complex, the twin silver domes of the Kulm hotel, an Observatory and a small chapel, it has a very different feel to most gondola top stations – definitely more shopping mall than ski chalet.
It’s fairly busy, too, even early in the day, with people milling about taking pictures of the fantastic views – including the ubiquitous, dominant Matterhorn and a multitude of glittering glaciers – and enjoying the tourist thing before catching the train back down again.
The “grat” part of the Gornergrat refers to the narrow ridge that extends eastwards from this complex towards the Hohtälli and a succession of higher summits beyond. A clear path follows the ridge for around half a mile to reach a minor top with a convenient flat rock to sit on, after which things get a bit less distinct.
It doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind, and here you can get your bearings and take in the spectacular all round views on offer – including over the Gornergletscher to the Monte Rosa massif – in relative peace.
Besides a cluster of mighty summits, there are no fewer than 9 major named glaciers pouring from the icecap: awesome – in the true sense of the word – is the only way to describe it.
Retracing our steps slightly, we picked up a clear path leading down towards the Gornergletscher. Steep and perilous and slippery with loose rock, a fall here is not likely to be lethal (merely painful) but is not recommended. The grassy banks are covered in thousands of tiny alpine plants (at this time of year not at their best, but which in springtime must be glorious) and there are photo opportunities galore. Best to stop first to gawp, though, rather than miss your step.
At a comfortable pace it takes about 1 hour to reach the bottom, where the reward is a more sensibly graded path running alongside the glacier. After a brief rest, we headed left in the direction of the Monte Rosa Hütte.
The hut itself sits on a rocky buttress between two glaciers (centre left of picture above), and requires a glacier crossing to reach it. Although plenty were going for it, we didn’t have the skills or equipment required to take it on, and a crevasse rescue would be so time consuming. So we followed the path as far as we could, and found a rock to sit on – overlooking the confluence of two mighty glaciers – for first lunch.
For anyone remotely interested in Geology (in general) or Glaciation (in particular) this is an awesome place to be. Because of the massive timescales in which most Geological events occur and the devastation usually associated with them when they do, it is rare to be able to see Geology in action. But here you can really get a sense of it happening all around you, even as you sit and watch or walk amongst it. It’s a strange feeling, and hard to verbalise, but one which is at the same time both incredibly wondrous and slightly frightening.
After lunch we returned along the same path, past the junction with the path we came down earlier, and continued on a rising traverse above the Gornergletscher towards the Riffelhorn and the little lake of Riffelsee.
From the Riffelsee, a small lake in which the reflection of the Matterhorn can sometimes be seen, we headed over wet, grassy slopes towards Riffelberg. It was another warm day, but having completed the paths we set out to do in good time, we decided to walk back to Zermatt. We stopped at the Buffet & Bar in Riffelberg for a drink – a bit of a soulless, canteen-y type place but with one major attraction: a large terrace with tables and sun loungers all facing one thing. It’s big, and it begins with M: any ideas?
From Riffelberg we dropped off the plateau down a steep, zig-zag path across grassy hillside towards Riffelalp.
There are several routes down to the valley from here, but we wanted one that took us close to Zermatt. We passed the station (a stop on the Gornergrat line we came through on the way up) and picked up a path dropping through the woods. Now we were below the tree line, the shade provided welcome relief from the intense sun and warm temperatures matching yesterday. It was a very pleasant stroll, and we caught a glimpse of our first Black Squirrel of the holidays.
Crossing the railway line again, we entered the outskirts of Zermatt via the quiet suburb of Winkelmatten and weaved our way through the houses back to the apartment. We were pretty tired and perhaps a touch dehydrated after a long day in the sun, but had enjoyed a great walk and got a few solid miles under our belts as well – including, for the first time this trip, some at altitude.
Dinner (same as yesterday) and a quiet evening ensued.