Friday, September 09, 2022

Return to the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn. When I was a child it was a mythical place, evoked by its namesake ride at Disneyland and by the bodice-and-red-skirt-clad women sounding the alpenhorn for Swiss Days in Midway, Utah. As a teenager, I watched a documentary about the first ascent of the Matterhorn and decided as an aspiring mountain adventurer, I would someday make my way to this storied pyramid. 

But then I never did. I met a Swiss man and traveled with him to Europe nearly every year since 2011, touring far-flung places all over the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. Over that decade, I skirted the valleys beneath this summit several times but never quite caught a glimpse of it. Finally, in 2022, Beat signed up for a foot race that circumnavigated the Matterhorn and I finally saw the mountain from the Italian side. When we came upon our fifth and final week in Switzerland and the question of where we should spend the last few days arose, I proposed a visit to the Swiss side of the Matterhorn, from the village of Zermatt. 

Beat was reluctant for all of the reasons we never made our way here before. It's touristy, it's crowded, and it's ridiculously expensive. I countered that I was accustomed to such crowds. For years I had been crammed into Chamonix during UTMB week, sharing the narrow streets with tens of thousands of racers, spectators, and other tourists. It was madness that Beat never had to experience because he was galavanting off in the remote backcountry of the PTL course. Zermatt is expensive, but not necessarily more than any other place if we stuck to our usual habit of preparing our own food and hiking all day. And yes, it's touristy ... but we're tourists. 

Beat agreed: "You have to see it once."

The week before Zermatt was really rough for me. We were spending those days with Beat's mom in her small apartment. The asthma symptoms that have been exacerbated all month hit a level I haven't experienced since my early days with the condition. I was wheezy most of the time and woke up in the middle of the night to terrifying attacks. It's difficult to say what sparked this, although I suspected I might be reacting to Beat's mom's cat. When I first tested for allergies in 2016, I showed a strong reaction to cat dander ... which I found strange because I had lived with one for more than 10 years. The doctor shrugged, said we sometimes desensitize ourselves to specific allergens, and suggested he'd add cat to the list of serums they'd be injecting to help desensitize my body to a much more severe grass allergy. Allergy shots are essentially micro-dosing our personal poisons and agreeing to unpleasant micro-symptoms, and I've been subjecting myself to this for six years. Everything got better for a while, but the past two summers have brought setbacks. So a sudden flare-up of cat allergy makes some sense. 

I also, admittedly, was starting to mentally unravel amid a near-complete lack of alone time. It seems to me that most introverted people emerged from the 2020 quarantine either a little more outgoing or leaning hard into their introversion. I'm in the latter group. Put me in a dark room by myself with nothing for stimulation but my own thoughts, and I'll still be happier than I am in an overcrowded airport. For a week, my only chance for alone time was to go stumbling through the woods, physically unable to run because my breathing was too pinched, until I found a quiet picnic table to sit in 90-degree heat and write on my laptop. 

Unsurprisingly, I arrived in Zermatt in poor shape. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday when we stepped off the train, schlepped our gear to our rental studio — which was lovely — and made a quick turnover to squeeze in a hike before evening. Beat mapped out a random route and I tried on my new hiking boots, which we purchased in Switzerland when I realized that many of my troubles with loose terrain and boulder-hopping might be solved with more supportive footwear. Most people on these rugged Swiss trails wear boots, not trail runners, and I think there's a good reason for that. It's not that they haven't discovered sneakers ... it's that sneakers suck on talus and boulders unless you are nimble and sure-footed. And I am not. 

Still, I haven't seriously worn hiking boots in 20 years. I should have taken some precautions to prepare my baby-soft feet for a trek of any distance. Mistakes were made on this day.

We took off toward downtown Zermatt, which was pulsing with noise and music. As we approached, we realized that the main street was blocked by huge crowds watching a parade. There was no way to get to our route without cutting through the parade, so that's exactly what Beat did. He wove through the crowd at a clip I could barely manage, shouldering spectators, weaving through marching bands, and ducking as people tossed batons. I was horrified. All of my social anxieties boiled to the surface and I couldn't breathe. Why did we have to cut through the parade? Why couldn't we just turn around and go back to our apartment and maybe spend the afternoon crying in bed? 

We made it through the parade, but my breathing was already compromised when we hit the trail. And of course, this trail that Beat chose was "Zermatt's Ultimate Fitness Test" — an Ultraks "Vertical" that gains 2,200 feet in just 1.4 miles. The average grade is 43%. It's not a great spot for an asthmatic 40-something woman wearing hiking boots and fighting off a panic attack. 

Beat surged ahead and I stumbled and gasped behind him for some time, maybe 1,000 feet of vert, before I faltered so badly that I almost lost consciousness. My head was spinning and by vision was blacking out. Inhaler puffs did nothing. I texted Beat and told him that I didn't care what he did, but I was stumbling my way back to that terrifying parade to wait until he returned.

He called and urged me to follow a side trail toward a gondola station. My memory from this point is hazy, but eventually, we reconnected and stumbled back down to town. It was about here that  screaming foot pain finally cut through my oxygen-deprived daze. Indeed, after something like five miles and maybe 2,000 feet of climbing in the Gore-tex boots, I'd already managed to develop a heel blister, some serious maceration, and partially detached skin on the bottom of one heel. 

The following day, our plan was to climb the Mettelhorn — at 11,175 feet, it's one of the highest hikeable peaks (meaning no special gear or climbing skills needed) in the Alps. Our route plan had nearly 7,000 feet of climbing in just 12.5 miles. I lamented that I had failed Zermatt's Ultimate Fitness Test, so clearly Mettelhorn would be a non-starter. Beat urged me to try. The week's forecast called for increasing chances of rain, and Sunday — which was overcast but lacking thunderstorm threat — was likely our only shot. 

I was feeling better and had taken some care of my feet — which is to say I slathered on a bunch of lube and hoped for the best. We climbed and climbed, and Beat was patient with me ... I was moving slowly, but my breathing improved as we gained altitude. Not much pollen up here! I was glad to wear boots for the glacier crossing; the stiff soles held my microspikes like a serrated knife. I couldn't slide if I tried. 

The views from the Mettelhorn were stunning, even when muted by the flat light. It also was shockingly warm for this altitude, which is how I could describe our entire five-week stay in Europe. 

From the glacier below the Mettelhorn, we decided to climb to an adjacent peak called the Platthorn. My feet were in rough shape but my breathing finally felt clear, and I was buzzing with all of the accessible-to-me oxygen in this high-altitude air. 

The Mettelhorn as seen from the Platthorn. Those zig-zagging switchbacks to the summit are as steep as they look. I feel like this grade would have been impossible to ascend if my breathing was as pinched as it had been just a day earlier. So glad my lungs cooperated. 

The Matterhorn continued to loom in the distance. This is the view from the summit of the Platthorn, where we called Beat's dad to show him the view. He was so excited ... Mettelhorn is one of his favorite places. At 83, he still hopes for an opportunity to visit one more time. With some planning, training, and perhaps a night in the mid-mountain Trift Hotel, I bet he can do it. 

We looped around to ascend one more 3,000-meter peak, Wisshorn. Summits aren't easy to achieve in the Alps, so it was fun to tag three in one day. My feet were in so much pain. A thick layer of heel skin did fully detach although I wouldn't be able to remove it for a few more weeks, and the high temperatures meant my feet were soaking in a warm bath of sweat and mottled with heat rash. I am still sold on the potential of supportive hiking boots, but decided that maybe these eight-hour grinds were not the place to break them in. It was a good test, but I'd give my feet a break by completing eight-hour hikes in worn-out trail runners for the rest of the trip. 

Monday was supposed to be rainy, so we were surprised to wake up to partly cloudy skies. Our plan for this day was to climb to the Gornergrat and traverse along the Monte Rosa massif — the other side of the valley from the Mettelhorn. A cog railway travels to the crest of this ridge. We looked into riding the train but discovered that a round-trip ticket for the two of us would cost $265. That was close to the price of my new hiking boots. Although I didn't plan to wear them for a while, perhaps I could at least justify the expense if we saved the money and hoofed the 6,000 feet of vertical gain. Beat, of course, always prefers to hike. 

I understand why Switzerland can justify charging what they do for access to the Gornergrat — the route is stunning. Once at the top, the trail is a pleasant stroll with unceasing views of the Monte Rosa massif and the Gorner glacier pouring down the valley. 

We traversed to the lip of another glacier. It had been a nice respite of easy walking, soon to be broken when Beat marched us up yet another white-blue-white trail that gained 1,100 feet in 0.7 miles. 

Beat and the crest of the Hohtalli ridge ... I suppose the steep trail was worth it. We enjoyed our relatively cheap grocery store ham sandwiches and nut tarts, which are so much more delicious than anything you can purchase from a grocery store in the States. 

We looped around a minor peak with a closed gondola station and descended an unbelievably steep ski slope. Zermatt can host its share of crowds — not only did we find our way into a summer parade, but the town's annual folk festival was also that weekend. Like any mountain town, though, it's not that difficult to escape crowds. We'd make our way onto these lesser-known routes and see nobody else for an hour or more. 

Tuesday was forecast to be the rainiest day of them all. I was scheduled to work a full shift on Alaska time starting around 8 that evening, so I had the day to burn, but little faith that the weather would allow for much. We made amendable plans and then woke up to shockingly bluebird skies. 

On Sunday we'd explored north of the valley when we climbed to the Mettelhorn. Monday we turned and went south to Gornergrat. On Tuesday, we went west, climbing directly toward the Matterhorn through the Zmutt valley. 

This route was comprised almost entirely of reward. We knocked out nearly 4,000 feet of climbing in the first three miles, and then enjoyed a long traverse above the valley with stunning views of the Matterhorn. Beat went on a short diversion in search of a technical challenge, and I enjoyed an hour of alone time. 

The only segment I did not love was a short section along the edge of a crumbling moraine. This part of the trail has been rerouted and was not mandatory, but Beat headed up there anyway. I admit that it did seem like the more scenic route but soon became difficult to escape and so severely eroded that every step seemed precarious. 

As we climbed higher up the valley, we began to wrap around the north face of the Matterhorn. For having never viewed this mountain before 2022, I can now say I've seen it from all sides: From the south and west while hiking around the Italian side, and the north and east from Zermatt. 

We climbed as high as the Schonbielhutte, with stunning views of the Dent d'Herens. A few clouds arrived in the afternoon, but it was altogether an unexpected clear day. 

Wednesday was our final full day in Switzerland and would be a long day of transitions to Geneva for an early Thursday flight. We still squeezed in a shorter hike to the Europaweg — a trail that traverses the main valley — to check out the longest suspension bridge in Switzerland. The bridge is 500 meters across and rises 80 meters above the crumbling gully it traverses. I was intrigued but also concerned ... I'd freaked out on the bridge spanning the Aletsch glacier valley just a couple of weeks earlier. This one wasn't as bad — there was no raging torrent below and higher cables on which to cling. 

It is impressive that Switzerland invests in this level of infrastructure for hikers. A similar route in Colorado would almost certainly traverse a crumbling path through that avalanche gully and its gauntlet of rockfall, and for obvious reasons would be an unpopular and little-used route. That also is the difference between "wilderness" and "mountains which have been utilized by humans for hundreds of years and heavily developed in the process. 

I appreciate wilderness, of course. Wilderness immersion is why I cherish my Alaska experiences, why I'm drawn to the desert even though I'm terrified of it, and how I soothe my social anxieties in a world of 7.7 billion people. Still, I'm grateful for the nearly endless network of trails — more than I could hike in a lifetime — and other infrastructure — I suppose, yes, even the gondolas and $200 trains — that make these beautiful mountains so accessible. 

Despite my physical and mental difficulties, I'm grateful for my experience in the Alps this summer. My 40s have brought emotional turmoil that I would not have expected when I was a 20-something diving head-first into my first Alaska and bikepacking adventures. If you asked me about my motivation then, I would say that I was an anxious person who wanted to face my fears, which was true, but I also carried this assumption that you tackled a problem and thus conquered it. I was going to will myself to be brave and strong and that would be the end of it. 

Now, I have this sense that life is likely to only get harder, that I'm becoming weaker and less equipped to confront a growing roster of monsters, that my anxiety is getting away from me, that it might just become sentient and take over entirely. Even what many would consider the relatively benign and undoubtedly privileged experience of getting on a plane and traveling to Europe for five weeks was intimidating, and I didn't always cope well. But ultimately it was a wonderful experience — so much beauty and shared joy with Beat, so many exhilerating moments interspersed with a few of abject terror. 

And I got to see Zermatt — at least once, but after these incredible few days, I hope I can go back.


  1. Not to put myself in your brand new not broke in boots, but it all seems worth the struggle(s) as I view this post's photos. Real glaciers, albeit doomed to climate change. I will likely never see them before they are gone. We did go to Glacier National Park to see them some 20 years ago, but they were already reduced to near nothing crevice ice...not the broad expanse type you found in Europe. Bravo for sticking it out with difficult breathing, sore blistered feet and verticals that challenge even the best of Beat. Keep it up, never stop, if you want to still be moving through the mountains in your mid 70s (like us).
    Mark from Lovely Ouray

    1. Thank you! The Alps are spectacular and soul-filling, and I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to experience them. I admire your drive to continue moving and seeking challenging and beautiful places through your 70s. It’s difficult to imagine what the world will look like 30 years from now, let alone my own life. But I do hope I’m still alive, and if I’m still moving through the mountains, then I will be content with the life I’ve lived.

  2. Such an incredible place to spend time in. So spectacular. Thanks for sharing all the views. Hope your feet have recovered. Studies show that hiking boots are not more stable on ankles than running shoes although feeling the leather around your ankles may help with proprioception (knowing where your ankles are at in space). There may also be a placebo effect with them. And they do usually have a stiffer sole which helps some people when hiking.

    1. Interesting. I wonder if those studies were conducted on people walking on typical trails versus people walking over loose scree, blocky talus, off-camber tundra, etc. The ligaments in my left ankle seemed stretched to capacity these days. I roll it frequently, and and although I rarely incur a sprain or even feel pain, the joint does not inspire confidence in my footing when the stakes are high. The placebo effect alone, even if that’s all there is, would be worth it. Plus, the stiff sole means I can edge into loose dirt and scree, which also inspires more confidence … like holding an ax on steep snow. Still, I need more self-experimentation. I’ve admittedly only managed two hikes in these boots … my feet were so torn up after the Mettelhorn that I’ve been nervous about using them again.


Feedback is always appreciated!