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Published: October 22nd 2017
Geo: 46.0193, 7.74603
From the window of our youth hostel this morning, the sunlight on the cloudless Matterhorn literally took my breath away. A blazing white sabertooth cut against the blue sky, freestanding, seemingly disconnected from the earth. The flawless weather (after so many cloudy mornings along the Haute route) made it that much more difficult to part ways with Aaron and Mary who headed on to Germany with Aaron's sister. We so wished they could hike with us today. Before saying goodbye to them, however, Aaron left us his lucky hiking pole, which he had found near the beginning of our trek in Grimentz. "Take lots of pictures for us," he said.
Sean and I opted for the hike to the Hornli Hut (10,700 feet) on the Matterhorn itself, located above base camp for those planning the climb to the summit. From town, we took the Schwartzee gondola to get us above treeline (8,474 feet). Each gondola in Switzerland is a marvel of engineering, swiftly whisking passengers up impossibly steep montainsides and over narrow ravines with hardly more than a whisper. In fewer than 15 minutes we had soared above the trees and the greener foothills surrounding Zermatt and arrived
in an alpine playground of snowcapped Alps (invisible from the valley floor), hanging glaciers, and reflecting pools. The sky was blazing blue, not a breath of cloud in sight.
Just as with the rest of the Haute route, the trail to the hut was clearly marked with a yellow sign and red and white flags painted on rocks or cliffs, denoting a mountain route. But there was little doubt about which direction to go, for the Matterhorn itself loomed ever closer, an imposing peak now occupying almost the whole sky before us. We could see the Hornli hut balancing on a knife-edged precipice midway up the peak, a tiny plastic Monopoly piece in the distance that seemed hardly spacious enough for dozens of burly hikers. We took photo after photo of that dazzling white and blue and green vista, reticent to take the view for granted, so sure it would be obscured by clouds come afternoon.
The trail was only 4.1 kilometers, a breeze compared to our 18 km on the St. Nicklaus to Zermatt day. Yet with the exposure, crossing steep snowfields, and scrambling over ridges with hands and feet, this would prove supremely more technical.
In our first meadow, I squealed with delight to stumble upon a herd of Valais blacknosed sheep, each adorned with its own clanging bell. They were equal parts curious and dubious of our presence. One ram with his oddly curled horns stood his ground on the trail and tried earnestly to gnaw at Aaron's hiking pole. The ewes, also horned, shooed their bleating lambs off the trail away from us. But their movement was reluctant and I was able to fire off a couple of shots of the black and white babies who were as cute as could be, stumbling after their mothers. So tiny and awkward, knobby-kneed and polka-dotted, more like toys than mammals.
Many features of the trail made it a dynamic hike, not the least of which was the suspended steel ramp anchored to the mountain. Although logically sure of its security, it tried my emotional strength to climb narrow stairs through which I could see the thousand-foot drop below and hear pebbles glance off boulders, only to disappear far beneath us. We twisted and ascended, meeting only a handful of others along the way. One German family of four was working their way down
and told us they hadn't make it to the hut. "Too dangerous," the dad told us. "On the snowfields, it is not possible to reach the ropes. Be careful." Cognizant of the risk,we pressed on, deciding to take it one step at a time and not push ourselves beyond what was safe for our ability. The Matterhorn was just so beautiful though, paradoxically widening at its base as it came to occupy more and more of the sky before us, while also seeming to shrink as we gained vertical feet.
Eventually we reached the base camp at 9,448 feet, just as a tongue of fog curled in from the west. We could just make out the 25 brand new aluminum tent structures through the cloud that we had learned about back in Zermatt. Space-age looking amid the organic environment of rock and snow, the 25 shiny metal pyramids promised a safe haven for climbers. We vowed to check them out on our return down the mountain.
From base camp, the trail began its real switchbacking, zigzagging back and forth over the ridge. Most of the time a rope or cable was within reach for safety, but other times
we had to plant our feet surely on the rocks or snow. Steadily up, one foot after the other. The only scary part came when we were just below the hut. The trail stretched across a snowfield on the steep mountainside for 20 yards or so, only visible in a narrow line of footsteps. The mountain rose sharply on my right, and fell away just as sharply to my left in a 1,000 foot plunge. Without exaggeration, a misstep or slip on the ice could result in a fatal fall to the rocks far below.
Although the scree above the snowfield was loose, I opted to stay high above the snow instead. It just felt far safer to be in contact with the earth and scrub brush than leave my life to chance with the snowy footholds of hikers before me. So I left the trail and scrambled over the talus slope for 15 minutes or so, heart pounding in my ears. I was just as glad to set foot upon the trail again as I had been after crossing the Meidpass a few days before. A mere 10 minutes later, we reached our destination of the Hornli hut, only
20 minutes slower than the projected 2 hours and 10 minutes. I doubt the guide book accounted for time to photograph adorable sheep, however, so we felt very satisfied!
We lunched on a sandwich and crackers with Nutella while doing our best to own the moment--to be present and quiet and take in the view. After the hardest academic year of my life (teaching full time and attending graduate school at night), I reveled in the fullness of the Now. There were no papers to grade, no e-mails to attend to, no research to conduct. I tried to breathe deeply and suck out the marrow of the moment. All around me was clean air and jagged horizon and blue, blue, blue.
After the crescendo of our personal summit, the rest of the day was residual joy. We did take time to bask in the sunshine at the picnic tables of base camp. What luck! They had literally just opened that day so we were among the very few to see the new huts open for the first time. One man was still applying the crisp red decals to the front of each aluminum tent.
By the time we reached the
Schwartzee gondola again, we were immediately drawn to the Panorama Restaurant when we heard a live rendition of "Brown-Eyed Girl." The valley was flooded with sunshine and waiters on the deck were serving cold beer. We could not have felt more at home if it had been Reckless Kelly at Papa Brunee's in the Sawtooths. While we toasted the Matterhorn, I filed away the moment for future rainy days...right up there with Wonder Lake and McKinley, or Otter Bar and the Middle Fork. Such a special place.
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