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In Search of the Matterhorn: The Gornergrat Railway, Zermatt

Stepping into Zermatt is like stepping into a real life snow globe. It embodies every stereotype of a Swiss ski town, with timber chalet style buildings scattered up steep hills, and a car-less street where brightly coloured people walk past, skis casually slung over their shoulder.

I chose to end my journey on the Glacier Express in Zermatt, however it’s reputation for high prices meant that we opted to stay the night in neighbouring town of Täsch, just a 15 minute train ride away. Staying in Täsch is no less beautiful and I found myself hanging my head out of our top floor hotel room marvelling at the sheer size of the mountains that surrounded us, mesmerized by the beauty of the falling snow.  

Täsch however is quite small with limited restaurant choices, and the ones that are there served set menus with a big price tag attached. Instead we opted to run (quite literally) down the road to ensure we got to Coop, the only supermarket around, before closing to pick up a few items for a hotel room picnic for dinner. Luckily the next morning was a lot easier with breakfast included in the room cost, so we could relax and sit and sip our coffee looking out the window at the fresh, thick snow that blanketed the landscape.

Heading back into Zermatt, I was excited to explore the town and see the Matterhorn in all its glory. The skies were blue but there was still a bit of cloud hanging around the tops of the mountains so I was worried about visibility. It was cold, the coldest we had experienced so far sitting at -9 degrees celsius. We were prepared though with our warmest layers, big coats and even bigger scarf (me), while the lack of wind in town made it perfect for walking the streets.

I couldn’t see the Matterhorn when we walked into town. I figured maybe I just needed a better vantage point so off we started walking. I had read that the best views are from the bridge behind the church in town, so there we went with our fingers crossed. Once we arrived I worked out the right direction to look in and the disappointment hit as we realised the big massive white cloud in front of us was literally covering the entire mountain.

I’m not going to lie, I was pretty deflated. There was bad weather on our trip, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself to come all this way and not see the one mountain that made me want to visit this town. It was about 10 am and we had planned on being on the 2 pm train to Montreux that day, so we needed to work out (quickly) how to make the most of our short time in town now that I couldn’t check off ‘view the Matterhorn & take a million photos’ from my Zermatt to do list.

What to do when something doesn’t go to plan? Well apart from sulk, I find Google is the best option. Enter ‘best things to do in Zermatt when you only have a few hours’. The options all really pointed to one thing, and that was the Gornergrat Railway.

If you are travelling around Switzerland using a Swiss Rail Pass, you get this trip at a discount. The Eurail Pass which we were using does not allow for such discount, so we paid the really expensive price tag for the 1 hour return journey, closed our eyes and pretended that transaction never happened. I was still crossing my fingers that we would glimpse the Matterhorn and really really hoping this trip was worth my hard earned cash.

The Gornergrat Railway is a mountain rack rail that begins in the town of Zermatt and takes you through the mountains to an elevation of 3,089 m. The train ascends the 1485 m to the mountain station in 33 minutes which as you can imagine makes for a very steep train ride not unlike a very slow, steady, rollercoaster. Well that is how it felt to me anyway…

As soon as we pulled out of the station in Zermatt we began the journey upwards and instantly, I was glad we had come. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the top, but at that moment I didn’t mind. The view of the town as we crawled higher and higher was impressive to say the least as we watched the little brown houses looking like gingerbread covered in snow get smaller, and the sheer scale of the mountains becoming clear around us. Still no Matterhorn but I started to feel like I would be ok with that outcome.

After passing many skiers and many incredible mountain sceneries, we arrived at the top station. It was -18 degrees celsius with a windchill factor of I don’t even know what, light snow was falling and it was a complete whiteout.

I wrapped my gigantic, almost comically sized scarf around my neck and my face, thinking what a smart purchase it had been, and made sure my bennie and gloves were on properly. We noticed most people walking to an enclosed area, and shocked by the cold we instantly followed without question. They were headed to an elevator that would take them up 2 stories to the viewing platform. Taking the moment of relief that the enclosed area gave, we jumped into the elevator and made our way up.

Now I can’t tell you what the views are actually like on a clear day, probably incredible. But what we experienced was the whitest landscape I have ever seen with more snow than I could comprehend. It was like landing on another planet, nothing was familiar. We scanned around, trying to work out where the Matterhorn would be. And I of course took way too many photos of one of the prettiest churches, surrounded by thick, soft, powdery snow.

We looked up, and saw that we could go higher still. So up the short steep path we went. Now I don’t know if it was the altitude or the freezing temperatures or simply an embarrassing display of my lack of fitness, but I was out of breath really really fast. Drawing the icy air into my lungs, I realised this was both the highest and the coldest I had ever been, and that I was on the top of a mountain in the Swiss alps, breathing the crip, fresh air. I let that thought settle in and fill me with happiness before I started behaving like a child and jumping in big piles of soft snow and kicking the powder around.

I took heaps of photos, mainly because I knew that there were giant mountains in front of me and glaciers below regardless of if I could see them or not. We could just make out the bright blue strip of the frozen ice of the glacier but visibility was extremely low so really, we didn’t see much more than the vast whiteness.

After realising that I could no longer feel my entire legs, we decided that we had certainly made the most of the trip and it was time to get out of the snow and enjoy another scenic 30 minute train ride back down the mountain.

The ride down was just as spectacular as the one up and we had the carriage pretty much all to ourselves meaning I was running from side to side depending on which window gave me the best view. The lower we got, the more blue sky we saw. My excitement grew, maybe, just maybe I could catch a glance.

The wind moved the clouds quickly, and ever so faintly we could see the distinct shape of the Matterhorn through the clouds. It totally counts. Tick! My camera was not as quick as my eye and the clouds moved and changed so fast. I think the below photos are possibly the best I have come home with.

I am so ridiculously happy when I look at these photos. They remind me of an unexpected morning playing in the fresh snow, on top of a mountain, among the clouds. The real world as we know, thousands of meters below. It was an incredible experience and as soon as that train pulled out of the station, the sting of the ticket price was forgotten. Or at least justified 😉

There is a very good reason that everyone on Google tells you to do this when visiting Zermatt. You don’t need much time and the experience is incredible. I would love to hear from someone who has done it in another season to see how it compares. And in the interest of full disclosure, I did end up coming down with a flu a few days later, not saying it was the extreme colds fault, but it may have been a factor. Still, I am so glad I did it and I would recommend it to anyone who loves mountains, loves trains and loves to be amazed.

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