Zermatt, the glamorous Swiss village made famous by a tragedy on the Matterhorn

“Who doesn’t know the Matterhorn?”

I was enjoying a delicious meal at Madre Nostra, an Italian restaurant in a beautifully restored chalet in Zermatt, as Janine Imesch, my table companion, pondered why people around the world can instantly recognize the iconic Swiss peak. Until the end of the 19th century, nobody knew the Matterhorn, nobody knew Zermatt, said the former marketing director of Tourism Zermatt. At that time, Zermatt was like any other village in the Swiss Alps: a poor farming village. “How come everyone immediately recognizes the Matterhorn when they see a picture?” she continued. “The Matterhorn is not even the highest mountain in Switzerland. So how did Zermatt become so famous?’ Stopped for dramatic effect. “It’s because of a tragedy.”

It is hard to imagine that an attractive, lively town as legendary as Zermatt, surrounded by a stunningly beautiful alpine panorama, could have initially become world-famous due to a terrible accident. Walking along Bahnhofstrasse, the narrow main street, which is lined with elegant hotels, ski shops, luxury watch boutiques, cozy restaurants and aromatic bakeries and konditorei (sweet shops), it’s easy enough to miss.

Zermatt was put on the map thanks to—or no thanks, depending on how you look at it—British mountaineer Edward Whymper. The Matterhorn was considered “the most inaccessible of all mountains,” Whymper wrote in his memoirs, Scrambles Among the Alps. It was one of the last peaks in the Swiss Alps that had yet to be summited and Whymper was determined to do so. On July 14, 1865, after seven failed attempts, Whymper, along with six other climbers, reached the summit. The men were victorious.

But then, just an hour later, the triumph turned to tragedy. As the seven men began their descent, one of them slipped and the rope tying the climbers together broke. Four of the original seven fell to their deaths.

The disaster is chronicled at the Matterhorn Museum. The tiny Matterhorn-shaped glass structure standing in the town square is deceiving since from the outside it appears to contain only a ticket booth and gift shop. But, invisible from above, the museum houses an underground representation of an alpine village that includes a town square, a vicarage, a barn, a teahouse and a mountain guide’s house. Zermatt’s history as a mountaineer’s destination is told here, along with the story of the ill-fated first ascent of the Matterhorn by Whymper and his men, with the torn rope, which is displayed in a glass case.

The museum also highlights the achievements of women: Lucy Walker, who, in 1871 and wearing a long flannel skirt, was the first woman to reach the summit, and Meta Brevoort, who also in 1871 was the first to cross the mountain from Zermatt to Breuil, on the Italian side.

Those particularly interested in Zermatt’s early climbing history can also stop at the climbers’ cemetery in the center of town, a poignant reminder of lives lost and mountaineering dreams abandoned. About 50 climbers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are buried here.

After the disaster surrounding the first ascent, Zermatt became an overnight celebrity. As news of the terrible accident spread around the world, people wanted to see—or climb for themselves—the 14,691-foot mountain that had killed four climbers, not on the way up but on their way back. The village rushed to build more hotels to accommodate the sudden influx of new tourists.

From left to right: Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, Gorner Glacier, Gornergrat Railway, Meta Brevoort and Lucy Walker

Photo: Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast; Getty; The Alps Club

Today, people still travel to Zermatt to climb the Matterhorn, but the town is now much better known as a glitzy, year-round world-class ski resort. The only sign of this prosperous town’s agricultural past are the historic wooden grain storage sheds, known as ‘spychers’, dotted around the town and on the hillsides.

Over 2 million overnight visitors descend on Zermatt each year, with another million day visitors, making the permanent population of 5,424 seem much larger. The town is home to 107 hotels, as well as other types of accommodation such as backpackers, mountain huts and guest apartments. With 118 restaurants, 15 mountain hut restaurants and 59 bars, there’s no shortage of food and drink options here.

Indeed, Zermatt has earned a reputation as the culinary capital of the Swiss Alps, with two Michelin-starred restaurants and 20 chef’s toques from the prestigious Gault-Millau food guide. Impressively, six of these Gault-Millau restaurants are mountain huts, including the beloved Chez Vrony, a local institution for more than 100 years thanks to its excellent cuisine, gorgeous decor and enviable Matterhorn views from its popular terrace .

In winter, skiers and snowboarders in Zermatt benefit from 217 miles of ski slopes, including Cervinia on the Italian side. Non-skiers can also take advantage of the snowshoe and cross-country trails, or try their hand at Swiss-style tobogganing — elevated wooden sleds with steel runners underfoot. There are three dedicated toboggan runs in the area, with the Rotenboden/Gornergrat being the highest in the Alps as well as one of the most panoramic, but not as long or steep as the Täsch run.

In addition to excellent skiing, Zermatt attracts outdoor sports and nature lovers all year round. In the summer, mountain bikers can ride 125 miles of bike trails. Hikers, for their part, can take advantage of a network of 250 miles of trails, 30 of which are walkable in winter. Mountain wildflower lovers should try the Rotenboden-Gornergrat hiking trail over the side moraine of the Gorner Glacier. This area is the best in Zermatt for alpine flower viewing. Here you can find Edelweiss, gentian and alpine roses, in addition to flowers that are endemic to the Zermatt region and cannot be found anywhere else.

A popular activity in Zermatt that doesn’t require much physical effort is to take the Gornergrat electric train to the top of the Gornergrat, a rocky ridge overlooking the Gorner Glacier. The train ride from Zermatt to the top of the Gornergrat offers stunning views of the Matterhorn and the Gorner Glacier, the third largest in Switzerland. The summit is also home to the Kulm Hotel Gornergrat, Switzerland’s highest hotel at 10,170 feet, and the Stellarium, a scientific research center used by the universities of Bern and Geneva.

Also of interest to tourists is the cable car ride up to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. At 12,739 feet, Glacier Paradise is the highest mountain station in Europe. Those who want to fly even higher can take the summit lift from here to the 360-degree viewing platform. Glacier Paradise also includes an ice palace, cinema and restaurant.

On the day I was to climb Glacier Paradise it was raining hard in Zermatt and there was a blizzard at the summit. The gondola operators were not allowed to take us further than the midway station, where I walked in the blizzard for a few minutes just to feel the crisp fresh air and the force of the wind blowing the snow around. It was a complete whiteout outside and I couldn’t see more than 10 feet ahead, but I found it beautiful and refreshing nonetheless. At one point I lost my balance on a downhill slope, my unsteady foot slipped under the safety rope, and I was briefly reminded of Edward Whymper’s unfortunate companions who did not live to tell their tale of glory.

Back on Bahnhofstrasse I bought a box of Matterhörnli, handmade chocolates in the distinctive shape of the Matterhorn, a specialty from Fuchs, a favorite local bakery and chocolatier. The chocolates were a gift to myself, an edible souvenir of the Matterhorn, one of the world’s most mythical mountains.

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