I learnt on my last day there that people in Switzerland travel on average more kilometres by rail than anyone else in the world and that they have the densest rail network. What the information didn’t include was that it’s possibly the most expensive network with the most confusing ticketing system. I got a two day pass that included free travel between certain points, and half price travel between some others even though for one trip I was on the same train. The two day pass itself can also be had at discount price if you have a half-price card, but not quite half the price. On the other day I bought a pass for the cable cars and trains between certain points. But I bought the wrong one and it didn’t include the second set of cable cars up to the viewpoints. The right one would have cost 8 Swiss francs more, the two extra trips it included were worth about 50. By the time I realised, I’d already paid half price for one of the viewpoint trips after they let me on by mistake. Lose the passes and bring all the prices down to compensate so that everything comes out even. Easier for staff, easier for locals, and most importantly of course, easier for me!
From the train when I arrived on Thursday night, I could see snow covered car parks and snow covered banks besides the rail tracks. There was snow all about the place when I walked to the hotel. Drunk lads flung snowballs at each other on their way to their rooms. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sleep with so much wonderful snow around, but it was late and I did. It was grey and overcast in the morning. The world a monotone of dark brown timber to white snow, dull in the limited light. The weather forecast didn’t look great for up on the mountains either, but the webcam at reception showed perfect blue skies ‘upstairs’. So up I went.
The cable car goes up about 1200 metres in one go, and pretty steeply. (Another mode of transport for my trip!) Over the tops of pine trees growing on steep slopes, into the clouds, swinging forwards and backwards crossing over the points where pylons hold the cables, up out of the clouds into blue and white. My first experience of a ski resort. Snow piled high on rooves. A fellow slowly shovelling snow from a doorway into a sliding scoop to be emptied over the edge. The only seats were associated with establishments so I found an extra large pile of snow to sit on and have my lunch. It was relatively warm in the sun.
The not-included cable car was to a viewpoint another 600 metres up on Eggishorn, to look out over Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps. It’s retreating by about 50 metres a year at the end as well as narrowing, likely due to climate change. It’s covered in snow at this time of year, but the snow has patterns of cracks in it visible even from the height of the viewpoint. I moved down the slope a little to take some photos, keeping out of the way of skiers and snowboarders, but got too cold in the shade. The wind picked snow off edges like it does sand on a dune. Back down to the resort level for me.
I walked along a groomed winter walking trail to the next resort, away from the noise of ski lifts and the squiggly snow of the ski slopes. I loved the wild smooth slopes away from the skiers, but I told myself it was only fair to share and to let the skiers have their fun on some slopes. I even thought that maybe I could have joined the three and four year olds in their lesson, but they probably would have shown me up.
From the moment I’d got out of the first cable car, I couldn’t get over how sparkly the snow was, and my wonder continued as I went along the walking trail. The snow was light and fluffy. Pines and rocks and huts poked out here and there. Fluffy cloud sat in the valley and the Alps stretched away up and down the valley on both sides, the Matterhorn visible at the far end. The blue sky, bright light and distances to be seen were such a contrast to how the valley felt in the morning.
The track became icy on the downward slope towards the second resort. I think this is where crampons would have been useful but I saw no sign of them having been used. Like others I stuck to the edges where there was still some grip, and edged my way down. Approaching the forest, the sun reflected up out of the clouds with a slight scattering of colours. At the edge of the forest sparkles of tiny ice fell dancing in the sunlight. After the next turn of the zigzagging path, a sun dog sat between trees, and still further down a panoply of ice halos formed in the falling sparkles. I was more excited by this than the snow covered glacier.
The next day I went up to Zermatt for a closer look at the Matterhorn, the shape of which is supposed to have inspired the Toblerone. The train to Zermatt went up some crazy slopes for a train, with the aid of cogs. The train would slow on approach to these sections, then I guess when the whole train was lined up over the cogs, it’d pick up speed again. This took us up nearly 1000 metres in an hour. The valley dropped away to the side, rock cliffs at points. The road was covered in sections to protect from either snow or rock falls.
The fellow on reception had said to take my time going up from Zermatt on the smaller trains and I guessed he was referring to avoiding altitude sickness. After walking around Zermatt for a little bit, I wasn’t feeling great, but this was lower than I’d been the day before and lower than the point where it’s usually a risk. Whatever the cause, I didn’t want to feel worse, so I didn’t go any higher. There was a view of the Matterhorn from town anyway, and the sky was clear enough that I didn’t feel I needed to escape above the clouds here. Frozen waterfalls clung to the cliffs above town. In town was full of tourist shops, mostly watch shops. A different class of tourist tack. I hadn’t had a great day, but on such a long trip that had to be expected at some point. The next day would be better.