Monday, June 21, 2010

Zermatt: Glacier Trains & Lost Souls

Zermatt, Switzerland is an idyllic alpine village, tucked away in a deep valley, protected on all sides by a crown of peaks, many of which stretch 4,000 meters or more into the sky. It is quite literally the end of the track. This is as far as the main train line travels, and it’s past the end of the road for gas powered vehicles, which must park at Täsch, the village before Zermatt. Only electric vehicles, a handful of touristy horse drawn carriages, and shoe leather ply the streets of this town. It is an athletic village, located at the base of the Matterhorn, which draws climbers, adventurers, and skiers from around the world. The seniors in Zermatt are as likely to be sporting hiking staffs as they are walking canes. No matter where you are, you’re usually only a few metres from an enormous group of (usually) Japanese tourists snaking their way through town with bewildered expressions on their faces and looking from high above like single-file rows of ants going about their chores.

I departed Zermatt much more quickly than I arrived. Perhaps the legendary Swiss efficiency had made me lighter and easier to transport. The merchants, more so than any others I’ve encountered so far, swiftly hoist each tourist that enters the village by their ankles and with a single precision movement, shake free all of the hard earned coins that may have once resided in their pockets. That’s a metaphor, of course. In fact, they do this with $13.50 Big Mac combos at the local McDonalds, and by charging $35 including tax and tip for a simple plate of spaghetti and a coke that might have cost $15 in Florence or Rome. More likely though, the speed of my departure had to do with my choice of transportation.

I arrived on the Glacier Express. Immediately, this conjures visuals of a speedy locomotive hurtling through frozen tundra, stopping for no one. Not so fast. The brochure advertising the Glacier Express comes complete with the tagline “The slowest express train in the world.” With only a few days to see this country, I chose to take in the beauty of Switzerland’s mountains aboard a panorama car of this scenic train. It travels at an average speed of 24 mph between the ski resorts of St. Moritz and Zermatt, crossing 291 bridges, steaming though 91 alpine tunnels and using its cog wheeled engine to climb the 2033 metre high Oberalp Pass. Along the 7 ½ hour route, it passes rolling alpine meadows, rushing glacier-fed waterfalls and streams, stunning snow-capped peaks, and quaint mountain villages, each with chalets adorned by the white cross and red background of the Swiss flag, to remind visitors where they are, as if that were needed. With the World Cup soccer tournament dominating the attention of Europeans, I suspect there were a few more flags flying than usual. Moments before I stepped off the train upon my arrival to Switzerland, the Swiss team had shockingly upset tournament favourite Spain, setting off a display of national pride that may have even rivaled my own nation’s exuberance during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. We could have arrived in Zermatt twenty minutes earlier, but our train was halted at a level crossing in the small town of Andermatt to allow Lance Armstrong and his fellow Tour de Suisse competitors and their support vehicles to pass.

Tour de Suisse Passes Through Andermatt

My first day in Zermatt was dominated by an epic paragliding adventure which has left me with a memory that I’m sure will last a lifetime. I’ve covered this in another post. The second day, when not being relieved of my rapidly depleting funds by greedy Swiss merchants, I amused myself by watching a bunch of Marmots (which look suspiciously like the Caddyshack gopher) busily scurry about on the hillside, and wandered through the village waiting for the rain, fog and clouds to subside. I had hoped to head up the Gornergrat to do some hiking at the higher altitudes. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve enough to justify the $90 or so that it would cost for a single return trip to the top so I spent the balance of the day in town, watching World Cup matches and trying to catch up on this blog.

As I passed along the misty streets that morning, with the melodic ringing of church bells echoing further down the valley, I came upon this place quite incidentally. I’m not in the habit of visiting cemeteries, and likely would not have even stopped, but the untimely passing of a former friend a few days earlier had been troubling me and I found myself drawn to the place. This one was different. At first glance, I suppose it looked a lot like any small town cemetery might, with flowers, and crosses and well tended plots, juxtaposed against a smaller area that wasn’t so well looked after, with no impressive monuments. I imagine the families of the people buried there just couldn’t afford such things or worse, didn’t care. What struck me after a moment or two were the dates on so many of the memorial stones: 1989 – 2007; 1964 – 1991; 1972 – 2004. So many men and women here were buried at too young an age. Then I noticed that quite a number of the grave stones were just that – stones, roughly hewn and with familiar jagged shapes, four flat ‘faces’ and a sharp peak leaning off to one side. The Matterhorn. Other plots were identified with crosses adorned with ropes and ice axes. This was the Zermatt Climbers’ Cemetery and many of those who rest here were adventurers who had tested themselves against the mighty peaks of the region, and experienced the ultimate misfortune during their climb.

The Matterhorn alone has claimed well over 500 souls since it was first summited in 1865 and currently averages 12 fatalities each year. On the descent from that first successful summit, four of the seven men who had just made history plunged to their death off the cruel north face. All but one, whose body was never found, are buried here. The twenty minutes or so I spent in the cool morning air, thinking about the lives taken by these mountains and the families that were left behind, was quite surreal. I wondered about the stories behind each of these tragic monuments. In these days of high tech equipment and gear, and mini-Matterhorns at Disneyland I think many of us feel invincible when facing great challenges, until it is too late. This place is a somber reminder of nature’s power and a sober warning to take such ventures seriously.

Lost at Just 17.

Humbled and broke, the next morning I was run out of town on a faster rail, heading for Milan and a flight to Barcelona. The Spanish leg of the Great Odyssey is about to begin.


  1. Thanks for continuing to share your journey with us Craig!
    I look forward to reading your blog every weekend when I have a bit of a downtime. My 16 years old daughter has started reading your blog as well and have shared it with few of her friends. We all enjoy reading about your travel adventures but also love your writing style.
    We should find a way to get your writing published!

  2. I'm so glad you're enjoying the stories, Hesham. It's great to be able to share a few of my adventures!

    Your comments about finding a way to get my words published elsewhere are very kind - thanks! They do bring to mind the lyrics of an old Harry Chapin song though...