Scaling the Heights

A skier's pilgrimage to Switzerland--and how to afford one

Only when nature has been conquered can it be enjoyed. For most of human history the mountains, the ocean, the frontier, were dangerous and terrifying places. One didn't trifle with them. Sitting with my children on a beach in Cornwall last summer, I wondered whether generations of Cornish sailors and fishermen who had wrested a grueling livelihood from the sea and all too often perished at its hands would have believed me if I had told them that the little boats dotting the horizon were being sailed for pleasure. As for those folk closer inshore who were apparently trying to ride the tops of the breaking waves on little planks, the old mariners of Padstow and Port Isaac would surely have thought them votaries of a bizarre cult, or else deranged.

Similar thoughts had crossed my mind a few months earlier. I was dressed in strange, shiny, bright clothes, my feet were tied to narrow slats, and I was standing at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, in the shadow of the most famously recognizable of mountains, whose peak seems to lean at a crooked angle like the spire of Chesterfield church. What would those who had for centuries past dwelt under the Matterhorn have thought of me and the casual insolence with which I was treating their mountain range? Could they have believed that I was there to enjoy myself, by gliding down to Zermatt across the snows that had always been the local people's deadliest enemy? For most of history these Alps had been as awesome as the ocean, a place where human beings went in fear of the destructive power of nature. They were among the most sparsely populated and least visited wildernesses of Europe.

alps picture

Then came the English. My countrymen have a lot to answer for--or, at any rate, a curious catalogue of achievements to their name: along with this language and team games, winter sports are among the legacies that will survive England when the country itself is forgotten. The English discovered nature, and at the same time they invented tourism: the word "tourist"entered the language to describe those who were visiting the Lake District of northwestern England 200 years ago, just at the time when Wordsworth was there wandering lonely as a cloud.

From Cumbrian fells we moved on to majestic Alps, admired from afar by Byron and Shelley. And then, toward the end of the nineteenth century, we found (how very English of us) ways of revering nature while exercising our muscles. The first was alpinism, or mountain climbing. Zermatt became its cathedral, the Matterhorn its high altar--and the overtones of sacrifice are all too accurate. In 1865 Edward Whymper, of London, still commemorated by a Whymper Room in the charming Monte Rosa hotel in Zermatt, became the first man to climb the Matterhorn. Four of his companions fell to their deaths--the first four climbers of many. One of the bleaker spots in Zermatt is the large corner of the cemetery that is filled with the gravestones of young men--most of them English, though there are Americans also--who died trying to conquer that magnificent but daunting peak.

To this day Zermatt has more visitors in summer than in winter. But just as Whymper was climbing, another sport was being born in Norway: cross-country racing on the wooden skis that had been used for centuries in Scandinavia. Englishmen are said to have brought skiing to Europe's greatest mountain range, and gradually developed in the Alps the previously unknown art of downhill skiing. Those pioneers couldn't have guessed that this was to become one of the most popular recreations--and one of the great worldwide multibillion-dollar leisure industries--of the twentieth century.

The essential technical development that made this industry possible wasn't the skis themselves but the means of getting up a slope before coming down it at speed. It's painful even to think of the early days, when skiers would spend exhausting hours climbing up through the snow so as to make one downhill run lasting several minutes. All of that has been changed by cable cars and lifts. And so here I stood in the dazzling sun, gazing down on the glorious panorama, a lucky beneficiary of that once unimaginable conquest of nature.

Before cable cars there were cog-wheel railways. One of the most famous still runs from Zermatt to Gornergrat. The journey cannot be called fast, but it is one of my favorite ways of starting the morning: breakfast early, walk down the main street to buy the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the International Herald Tribune, and then sit reading them like any other commuter, first on the cog-wheel train to Gornergrat and then on one of the cable cars that ascend to Stockhorn. From there you can ski over to the Blauherd and Unterrothorn lifts and, if you don't want to ski all the way down at the end of the day, take the fast subway down from Sunnegga. Zermatt offers a large skiing area east of the Matterhorn and another on the slopes of the mountain itself, at the southerly head of the valley. A series of cable cars takes you to the Klein Matterhorn, and then a smaller lift brings you to the highest lift station in Europe, at 12,795 feet. From here there are half a dozen possibilities, among them skiing over to Italy for a decent cup of coffee--the border is a few hundred yards away--or skiing gradually down all the way to Zermatt, stopping at one of the excellent mountain restaurants for lunch.

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