It was a tough winter for skiers. I got my kit down from the attic in early December, only to pack it away again by Christmas as borders shut. Possible windows came and went, hopes rose and fell. Would the situation come good in time for a weekend in Scotland? A late-season trip to the Alps? An even later one to Iceland? No — the skis stayed in the attic. The worst thing was that by late spring, I could feel the yearning for snow starting to fade. Would it be such a loss if I gave it up? I was becoming institutionalised as a non-skier.
Then, out of the blue at the end of June, the door to the lost ski season unexpectedly creaked ajar. Switzerland announced it was to begin admitting the fully vaccinated without quarantine from the US, UK and many other nations. And Switzerland just happens to have the highest ski lifts in Europe where, though many skiers don’t realise it, you can get your fix 365 days a year. Within a week, I was heading for Heathrow, the only person on the sweltering London Underground network to be carrying ski boots.
I flew to Zurich, then took a double-deck intercity train to Visp, on the floor of the Rhone valley. There, I switched to a little red narrow-gauge train that would take me 30km south, almost to the mountain wall that separates Switzerland from Italy. It was a hot Friday night and we opened the windows, letting in the breeze as we passed through bright green vineyards. Soon we were rattling through sheer-walled rocky gorges, the rack-and-pinion noisily engaging to pull us upwards — by journey’s end, in Zermatt, we would have climbed nearly 1,000 vertical metres.
Waterfalls poured down on either side of the deep valley. Chamois stood motionless beside darkening forests, watching us pass. And high above there were glimpses of snow, glowing gold in the last light. The Swiss teenagers onboard were oblivious, noisily watching the European Championships on a phone. When we got to Zermatt, they jumped out and on to their skateboards, sliding down the station ramps, skis in hand.
From the train you don’t see the Matterhorn — the mountain that graces every Toblerone only comes into view when you arrive in Zermatt. Instead the toothy peak you see through the carriage windows at the high, distant end of the valley is the Klein Matterhorn, 3,883 metres tall, and if you squint you can see the cable car station drilled right into its summit.
I arrived there early the next morning, the cable car having carried me from the lush pastures around Zermatt into a world of glaciers and moraines, deep crevasses you can peer down into and chaotic tumbling ice cliffs. With me was local ski instructor Ralph Schmidhalter who laughed at my woolly hat — “I see you have the Austrian helmet!” — and showed me how much the glacier had retreated since he skied here as a schoolboy. The glacier might be shrinking, but coming up after a year’s exile in the muggy lowlands, it still seemed pretty miraculous. From the docking station you walk through a long dark tunnel, roughly hewn from the rock, to emerge onto a dazzling expanse of snow-covered glacier, a high plateau sequestered among the clouds.
To our right, we could see the ski pistes and T-bar lifts, the slalom gates set out by race teams who come up for off-season training, and the jumps and rails of the freestyle park. It amounts, of course, to a fraction of what’s available in winter: on my visit there were 18km of pistes open out of a possible 21km, and six lifts, compared with a maximum of 360km and 54 lifts in winter. But it still feels substantial — the “vertical” (the difference in elevation from the top of the highest lift to the end of the lowest run) is 980 metres. That is more than celebrated US resorts such as Alta, Park City, Squaw Valley and Killington can manage even in the middle of winter.
And the snow was good. We made a few gentle laps of the T-bars before taking a blast down the long, gentle and deserted blue run to Trockener Steg. Skiing is like riding a bike, in that you don’t forget the basics, but you can certainly revert to bad habits and find last year’s advances have been wiped out. I tried not to worry, instead just relishing the return of once-familiar sensations, the snappy rhythm of short turns and the rush of carving a good wide arc, when the skis seem to come alive and you just let them run.
Apart from Chamonix, Zermatt is the most storied of Alpine resorts — its fame built on the majesty of the Matterhorn but also in being perhaps the first and most successful example of “dark tourism”. The Matterhorn was the last great alpine peak to be climbed and when the Englishman Edward Whymper made the first ascent on July 14, 1865, it marked the end of the “golden age of alpinism”. That would have been notable in itself but what catapulted it to international notoriety was the accident on the way down. The seven-strong party were roped together but when one man slipped, three others were knocked off their feet. At the top of the rope Whymper and two local guides hung on, but the rope tightened, then snapped. The lower four, including the 18-year-old aristocrat Lord Francis Douglas, tumbled to their deaths; Douglas’s body was never found.
The tragedy caused a sensation in Britain; newspapers were furious — “Why is the best blood of England to waste itself in scaling hitherto inaccessible peaks, in staining the eternal snow?” the Times thundered. Queen Victoria apparently considered a ban on climbing. But the public was enthralled — Whymper became climbing’s first big star, and tourists flocked to Zermatt to see the site of the scandal.
“That short valley is a picture-gallery of a notable kind, for it contains no mediocrities; from end to end the Creator has hung it with His masterpieces,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting in 1878. Theodore Roosevelt, the future president, climbed the Matterhorn in 1881; the following decade Winston Churchill summited the neighbouring Monte Rosa. By 1891 the railway up from Visp was complete, prompting a rush of hotel building.
Even now the fascination with that calamitous first ascent persists. In the main square there is a plaque marking the hotel from which Whymper set out; a 1955 film Whymper’s Way up the Matterhorn is still screened every week. In the Whymperstube restaurant you can eat a Whymper-Teller, a SFr29 (£23) plate of beef, ham, bacon and cheese. And in the excellent museum, where I stopped by after skiing, you can look at Zermatt’s holy relics: Whymper’s ice axe and, on a red cushion in a glass case, the fateful rope itself, frayed end held out for inspection.
After its 150 years of fame, Zermatt has the occasional tendency to glitz — luxury car adverts flash at you in lift stations, and does it really add anything to have “embellished” some of the cable cars with Swarovski crystals? For the main part though, it has managed to preserve a sense of authenticity, perhaps because the valley sides are too steep to allow for major expansion. In the car-free centre, you still see wooden barns from the 16th and 17th centuries, propped up on stone mushrooms against vermin and damp. I wandered past smart boutiques but also a parked tractor, and chalet gardens bursting with cabbages and lettuces. I stayed at the Hotel Bristol, unpretentious, delightfully welcoming and with good hearty food, the only drawback being that I had to lean out from the balcony and around the corner of the building to catch a night-time glimpse of the Matterhorn.
In the morning, I took the 6.30am cable car up, standing next to a skier in red team strip who told me his name was Erik Read. Was he training for anything in particular, I asked slightly patronisingly? Only when I googled him later did I find out he was a decorated member of the Canadian Olympic team. He told me Covid-19 had brought a renewed focus on glaciers for off-season training, since trips to southern hemisphere ski areas had become difficult. Zermatt isn’t the only option — Austria’s Hintertux and Stubai, Tignes and Les 2 Alpes in France and Stelvio in Italy are among about a dozen Alpine resorts to offer summer skiing.
Later I rode Europe’s highest T-bar to the top of the Gobba di Rollin, at 3,899 metres, then skied down for coffee at the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a wooden restaurant and climbers’ refuge perched on the cliff that falls away into Italy and the lifts and slopes of Cervinia. In early summer you can actually ski down into Italy and take the cable car back up, but the slope was now closed — bisected by a just-visible crevasse.
Ralph told me about the big plans in play — a new cable car, the Alpine X, is under construction, to link this Italian side of the summit plateau with the Klein Matterhorn. When complete, in autumn next year, the SFr30m project will make it possible for non-skiers to travel up and over the Alps from Cervinia to Zermatt without ever getting their feet wet. In part it is a diversification away from skiing, given the potential challenges of climate change, but it will also make it easier for visitors from Zermatt to access this flatter part of the glacier in summer, where there are plans to offer ski rental so absolute beginners can get a taste of the sport. “Once people have that first experience of the sensations, they will want to come back to see how the real snow is in winter,” said Ralph.
The big difference between winter and summer skiing is that with the latter, it’s all over by lunchtime. The exact schedule changes depending on the weather but during my visit the ski lifts were closed by 1pm when the lower slopes were getting slushy. That makes a summer ski holiday a much more multi-activity affair, leaving afternoons free for mountain biking, hiking, lake swimming, sitting on a sun terrace or, if you are Erik Read, doing some hard sessions of weight training and gym work. I went for a glorious run, up from the town, through forests and alpine meadows, to the Gornergrat ridge at 3,089 metres, from where I caught another historic mountain railway back down to spare my historic knees.
The one summer activity that Zermatt locals would never do for fun is skiing. “For us it’s winter about eight months of the year, so we really want to enjoy the warmth,” Ralph told me. He likes heading off exploring on his Harley-Davidson: “That’s real freedom for me”. The pull of the open road must be strong if you’re from a traffic-free town ringed by 4,000-metre peaks. For me though, being up there in the cold air at the height of summer felt like liberation.
When they turned off the lift on my second and last morning I sensed another familiar feeling, a craving for one more run, an urgent need for a few more turns. On the way home I started googling winter trips; my spell as a non-skier was definitely over.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Switzerland Tourism; Swiss Air Lines; Zermatt Tourism and the Hotel Bristol (doubles from about SFr160). Lessons with Ralph Schmidhalter can be arranged through the Zermatters ski school. A two-day summer ski pass costs SFr130; children under nine go free.
Switzerland is open to tourists from most countries, without quarantine for the fully vaccinated, for details see bag.admin.ch
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
More summer skiing
Hintertux, Austria Apart from Zermatt, Hintertux in Austria’s Ziller valley is the only other European ski area to have a 365-day-long ski season (although both resorts are subject to the occasional closure in severe weather). Comparing the size of summer ski resorts is tricky — they shrink and grow with the temperature as pistes and lifts open and close — but Hintertux usually offers one of the biggest areas in Europe, with skiing up to 3,250m. hintertuxergletscher.at
Stubai, Austria Only an hour’s drive from Innsbruck, the Stubai glacier is due to remain open until September 12, when it will close for lift maintenance before restarting in the autumn. The ski area is wide, with plenty for intermediate skiers, and tops out just over 3,200m. stubaier-gletscher.com
Stelvio, Italy The road that snakes up to the Stelvio pass is famous among cyclists — less widely known is that there is a ski area at the top. After a spring closure it opened on July 12; there are up to six lifts and skiing as high as 3,450m. passostelvio.eu
Tignes, France The popular French high-altitude resort Tignes offers summer skiing up on the Grande Motte glacier. It’s high — up to 3,456m — but the season is short, this year due to run only until August 1. tignes.net
Les 2 Alpes, France Les 2 Alpes trumps its better-known neighbour Alpe d’Huez when it comes to summer skiing. On the Monts de Lans glacier, the slopes rise to 3,500m and there is a huge snow park for freestyle. The closing date depends on conditions but is likely to be around the first week of August; the good news is that there was fresh snow this week. les2alpes.com
Mount Hood, Oregon Timberline Lodge, the hotel used as a location for The Shining, also has its own ski area, which offers the longest season in the US. The slopes are less extensive that places like Zermatt or Hintertux, and top out at 2,603m, but there is a lively summer scene, with mountain biking, hiking and climbing also popular. The lifts are due to continue running until September. timberlinelodge.com
— to www.ft.com