Wednesday 14 October 2015

Zermatt September 2015 - Day 6

Gornergrat, the Glacier and back to Zermatt

19.38km / 482m Ascent / 1933m Descent

The morning began with a better forecast than of late, so we took the opportunity to take the mountain train up to Gornergrat and see what conditions were like.

Even if you're not into walking, the ride up to the Gornergrat is something to look forward to, as some of the best views in the area are to be had during the trip. It passes through a number of village stops on the way up, until reaching the complex at the top. If the word complex sounds misused, it's not: there are souvenir shops and a cafeteria style eatery, plus chances to have your photo taken with a St Bernard dog complete with medicinal brandy barrel round its neck.

Ridge behind the Gornergat complex

Despite all the retail opportunities presented to us, we opted only for a coffee before setting off. The view point to the rear of the complex is great for studying the surrounding mountains (including the Matterhorn) but it also acts as a stepping off point for a good walk.

The first part took us along the ridge towards Hohtalli, an undulating rocky path that allows you to get your breath (you are at about 3100m altitude here) without too much difficulty. Though the forecast had shown promise, we were having a real mix of conditions: clear blue skies and views one minute, mist and low cloud the next. Oh yes, and snow!


This set the tone for much of the day: sunny and clear, or misty with little snowy pellets like the polystyrene granules you find in packaging.

Alpine plants beside the path

From the ridge, a path leads down towards the Gornergletscher. It's very steep and comes with a warning: one false step, and the next human contact you have may be when you pop out of the glacier in a few hundred years’ time, an archaeological curiosity like Otzi the Iceman.

On the descent: the blue and white marking
indicating the path difficulty

Care was taken, and about an hour later we were on the lower path, heading for the toe of the glacier. I've mentioned before that this is an amazing place, especially for anyone with an interest in geology, glaciology or simply the raw power of nature. The Gornergletscher is fed by no fewer than 7 main named glaciers, with the peaks of the Breithorn, Castor and Pollux, and the Monte Rosa massif rising to around 4500m behind.

By the toe of the glacier, big summits behind

We had lunch overlooking the glacier, watching as some parties were readying themselves to walk out on to it. The weather was behaving itself, and we were just happy to gaze in awe at this beautiful but frightening place.

Looking down on to the glacier

We retraced our steps to the path junction, and carried on along the glacier-side path, high above the ice, until we reached the Riffelsee - a small lake beside the Riffelhorn that on a good day reflects the Matterhorn in its still waters. By now, the weather had closed in and snow was falling, and we can report that on a bad day, it looks like pretty much any other cold mountain lake.

Approaching the Riffelsee with the
Matterhorn behind

Between the Riffelsee and Riffelberg, the misty, snowy weather continued, so much so that we struggled at first to find the path to Riffelalp. But find it we did, and headed down, through the village and past the station, to pick up the zigzagging path down to Zermatt. It's a fair descent, and is hard on already-tired knees, but the switchback path through the woods is lovely - especially as the weather brightened up and the sun came out. We even had an unexpected treat on the way down: we were resting at one hairpin, looking at the view, when a huge eagle soared past and circled for a few minutes.

Eagle spotted here - on the last descent to Zermatt

The last couple of kilometers through Winkelmatten and into Zermatt are hard going with tired feet and knees (it's quite a tough walk) but soon we were back at the flat and ready for a good meal, a game of Scrabble and some rest.

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