Matterhorn Trail to Nowhere

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Sep 30, 2010

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Hotel Elite Garni

Flag of Switzerland  , Swiss Alps,
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Trails abound in the Matterhorn/Zermatt area, but alpine walking can be quite challenging, and our objective for today was to find a trail that highlights the beauty of the area, including the marquee sight – the Matterhorn – that we could give a difficulty rating of 3 or lower (on scale of 1 - 5)

We spent an hour or more at the tourist information office interrogating staff, pouring over maps, and watching the weather monitors. Cloud cover was pervasive around the area and we set out around 10:30 am to test walking trails not expecting to see the Matterhorn.

Of the four Zermatt areas served by gondola or high mountain train, we chose Rothern, farthest from the Matterhorn but reputed to have the best classic views. The trails we were most interested in started from the Blauherd station, reached by walking through a tunnel for several hundred meters, boarding a funicular (inclined train) running up through the depths of the mountain, then transferring to a gondola (small 8-person bubble cars).

After experiencing Chamonix and the Mount Blanc area system, and Lauterbrunnen, and the Jungfrau area system, we found the Zermatt lifts and train system a bit confusing. Signs are unclear and have frequent gaps, generating a mouse-in-a-maze feeling, hoping you make the right turns. Tickets are required when not expected, usually upon entry, but almost always when disembarking as well.

We exited successfully, nevertheless, at 8,500 feet elevation, into a terrain draped with a skiff of snow and a silver layer of hoarfrost. It seems winter beat us to the punch in Zermatt as well as Lauterbrunnen. 

After rejecting a short trail due to poor footing, we tried the Blumenweg (Flower Trail), winding down the mountain ostensibly through what were fields of flowers a few weeks earlier. Frequent signposts along the way identified various species listing fun facts and we could only imagine the spectacle of the Matterhorn serving as a backdrop to this idyllic Alpine scene.

About 3 kilometers into our trek, we arrived at a group of old mountain chalets and a hillside restaurant. "You want something to eat or drink?", called the proprietor as we walked towards the terrace. “No”, I said, “but we're coming back with a group next year.” Stone-faced, all I could squeeze out in response to subsequent queries and comments were grunts and chopped-off, one-word answers. 

Clearly cash in his pockets today was all that motivated this miserly man of the mountain. I looked at the sign pointing towards “toilets” and felt him watching me, ready to challenge any move I made towards a free comfort stop!

Linda and I shook his dust from our boots and resumed our walk, strolling now on a level dirt road offering what we presumed would be stunning views of the Matterhorn on a day with any kind of visibility. We finished at the Sonnega station at about 4.2 kilometers, and rode the lift uphill, again disembarking at Blauherd station. Linda’s idea was a figure-8 walk, alleviating the hardest uphill aspects of the area and combining two trails that started at Blauherd and finished at Sonnega.

We picked up the 5-Lakes Trail (5 Seenweg in German) and soon encountered the same missing-sign dilemma we’d found in the gondola stations. Nevertheless, we think we avoided wrong turns, and enjoyed great views of a glacier and several of the five lakes for which the route is named.

The trail is listed as 7.6 kilometers in length, and free trail maps show the gradation on a graph, detailing ups and downs and showing a total elevation loss (about 450 meters in this case). Using my GPS watch, I was tracking our progress. At about 6 kilometers, we could see the lift station that served as the finish point above us on a ridge, and we were still going downhill on the opposite side of a steep ravine. The gradation graph showed the trail as all downhill with a slight uphill of a few meters at the finish. Something was amiss!

Picking our way over the mountainside through scarlet-colored blueberry bushes took us into a golden canopy of larch trees, needles turning quickly in the cool of late September. Our route switchbacked down into the ravine, then across to a footbridge over the glacier-fed stream. Trail signs were confusing, indicating either a very steep climb to Sonnega – our objective – or a more gradual ascent on the 5 Lakes Trail. We opted to stay with the 5 Lakes Trail, though pretty sure that by now it had disqualified itself in two categories: distance and elevation gain.

At 9 kilometers, we passed through a cluster of old wooden homes, some under renovation. Now on the same side of the ravine as Sonnega station, our finish point, we backtracked a bit to see if we could identify how to cut the 5 Lakes trail off and stay in this side of the ravine.

Having already walked about 16 kilometers of mountain trail at elevations of 7000 to 8500 feet, we fluctuated between weariness and silliness. The absurdity of the trail, and how badly it was misrepresented was disappointing, but by this time, our main interest was in getting off the mountain.

One more surprise awaited as we crested a rise that put us in view of Sonnega. A herd of what I thought, from a distance, were ibex greeted us on the trail. Linda thought she heard bells. She was right; they were domesticated goats with the most curious markings. The front half was black and the back half white (later we noticed these distinctive goat skins for sale in Zermatt). Again from a distance and at a glance, the back half was sometimes invisible, white hair blending in with the surroundings – a black two-legged goat!

As I labored up the hill, I must have either represented food or maybe resembled a member of the herd in my trail-worn condition. In any case, one of the goats came bounding up to me, licking my hand and giving me just a little more attention than I was comfortable with. Perhaps Swiss goats have a different concept of personal space than this old American goat.

We barely survived the trail, climbing the last few hundred meters to Sonnega and flopping into the funicular for the ride back to town. It was a great day with intriguing and beautiful trails, even without the wildflowers and the main attraction – the Matterhorn. We obviously have some adjustments to make, but I can only imagine what it will be like to walk these trails in the summer! Unfortunately, we will not be offering the 5 Lakes “trail to nowhere.”
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