Matterhorn & Zermatt
A mountain in the Swiss
Alps, which is not only one of the most iconic peaks in the world, but also one of its deadliest, and the town near the foot of that mountain that features a museum about it and a mountaineers’ cemetery. A place where dark tourism, Alpine mainstream tourism and mountaineering adventure meet.
More background info: The Matterhorn (“Cervino” in Italian) has been called “Berg der Berge” in German, which can be translated as ‘the mother of all mountains’. And indeed it is quite probably the most iconic peak in the world (and not just because the shape of a well-known type of Swiss chocolate is said to have been inspired by the mountain).
At 4478m (14,692 feet) it is one of the highest peaks of the Alps. It is also exceptionally steep and of high prominence. It’s just the most picture-book peak you can imagine. It’s probably a noteworthy fact that its rock is actually a fragment of the African tectonic plate! But I won’t get any deeper into geology here.
The Matterhorn’s shape resembles that of a pyramid (only much steeper) and its four faces are roughly aligned north, east, west and south. The view from the nearest town, Zermatt, is probably the best known and goes to the east and north face. The north face is one of a set of infamously dangerous sheer rock faces in the Alps (together with e.g. the Eiger North Face – see Jungfrau Railway
), though the other three are not far behind.
Until the arrival of international mountaineers and then tourism, Zermatt was just a small, impoverished mountain village and the Matterhorn well known only to locals and a few outside specialists. But that changed with the “alpinism boom” that set in in the mid-19th century. This involved not only climbers from the Alpine countries themselves, especially France
, but also outsiders, in particular from Britain
. It was also the age of discoveries and explorers and British alpinism can be seen as part of that context.
By 1865 almost all the major peaks of the Alps had been conquered, but the Matterhorn remained unclimbed. The locals considered it “unclimbable”, given its steepness and the risk of rockfalls and avalanches. There had been numerous attempts but they all failed to reach the summit.
Until July 1865, that is. There were a few mountaineers who were getting ready to finally conquer the Matterhorn’s peak. One group of Italians, who were making the attempt from the south, and a French and a British mountaineer, who decided to join forces and make the attempt from Zermatt.
The group was led by an ambitious Englishman named Edward Whymper who earned his money through illustrations for the press back home who were keen on the subject of bold explorers. Whymper had already had several failed attempts at getting to the Matterhorn’s summit, but came up with a new route to try, along the Hörnli Ridge (now the most common route climbers take these days).
He teamed up with Frenchman Michel Croz and they took along three more Brits: fellow climber (and cleric) Charles Hudson and two inexperienced climbers, one from the aristocracy, namely Lord Francis Douglas and 19-year-old Douglas Hadow. In addition they hired a couple of local mountain guides from Zermatt, father and son Peter Taugwalder.
They set off from Zermatt on 13 July and overnighted in a bivouac set up part of the way along the ridge. At dawn on 14 July they embarked on the final attempt at reaching the summit. They made good progress but had to overcome difficult stretches, and the inexperience of especially Hadow began to show, as he required lots of assistance.
Close to the summit, with the last stretch a comparatively easy ascent on snow, Whymper and Croz detached themselves from the safety rope and made a dash for it, reaching the target at ca. 1.40 pm – they had made it! The very first successful ascent of the Matterhorn.
From up there they spotted their Italian competitors, who at that point were already quite high up on the difficult south face. Whymper and Croz caught their attention by yelling and throwing stones. And when the Italians spotted them, realizing they had lost the race, they gave up and turned back.
The rest of Whymper’s group also arrived at the summit and they spent some time there before beginning the descent. Whymper stayed behind a while to complete a sketch but then joined the rest of the party as the last one in the row. At the front was Croz, assisting Hadow, followed by Hudson and Douglas. They were all roped together with a special rope they had brought from Britain, but as that was apparently too short (so it is assumed) the other three were joined to these four by a rope Taugwalder Sr had brought along.
About an hour into the tricky descent, disaster struck. Hadow, who wasn’t even wearing proper mountaineering boots, slipped, fell on to Croz and both went over the edge of the ridge, pulling Douglas and Hudson down with them. Taugwalder Sr managed to attach himself to a rock and tried to stop the fall of the four men. But the rope snapped. It had never been strong enough to support the weight of four grown men. In horror Whymper and the Taugwalders watched as their four comrades tumbled down the rock face and out of view.
In shock and in silence they eventually continued their descent, found a place to overnight and arrived back in Zermatt on 15 July.
A group of Zermatt mountaineers reported having seen bodies on the glacier below the Matterhorn and a search party set off to recover them. They discovered the dead bodies of Croz, Hadow and Hudson, but that of Douglas was never found. The three bodies were buried in Zermatt (see below
Soon controversy ensued. Whymper and Taugwalder Sr were tried, gave their witness reports and eventually were acquitted. Yet the rumour that Taugwalder Sr may have cut the rope deliberately to save his life persisted. At one point it was even suggested that it could have been Whymper who cut the rope. But that seems unlikely given that he was bringing up the rear and it would have required him to dash forward, past Taugwalder Jr, to get to the rope.
The tragedy was long discussed, in Switzerland
and especially in Britain
, where there was even talk of banning mountaineering. That didn’t happen, but the deadly accident spelled the end of the golden age of alpinism in the 19th century.
Whymper went on to pen a book about his Alpine adventures, including the first ascent of the Matterhorn, and it soon became a bestseller, entitled “Scrambles amongst the Alps”. So financially he profited well from his alpinism in the end.
The second successful ascent of the Matterhorn followed only three days after Whymper’s group had managed it, but this time from the Italian south-west face. And many ascents have followed since. Yet the mountain has always remained dangerous. In total over 500 climbers are estimated to have perished on the Matterhorn, averaging at 10-12 per year. This makes it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.
The story of Whymper and the first ascent, however, remains the most legendary of all those tragedies and is still visible in Zermatt – e.g. in the form of a commemorative plaque with a relief portrait of Whymper attached to the hotel from where the party set off back in 1865, as well as another plaque listing all members of the first two groups to make the Matterhorn ascents. The graves in Zermatt of Hadow, Hudson and Croz, as well as the Taugwalders, are also powerful reminders of the Matterhorn’s dark legacy (see below
One after the other, the remaining rock faces of the Matterhorn were conquered too, but in the case of the south-eastern face that was not until 1942. Today, with better equipment and experience, hundreds of climbers go up the Matterhorn so that there is even a problem of “overcrowding” developing (it’s similar with the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest).
Throughout the 20th century Zermatt kept growing as a mountain tourism hub, not just for climbers but especially also for tourists who are content with just taking in the majestic scenery and/or go hiking and skiing. This was helped along by the arrival of the railway in the late 19th century and the subsequent construction of additional railway lines and a whole host of cable cars.
Nominally Zermatt has a permanent population of under 6000, but these are clearly outnumbered by tourists, especially in high season.
What there is to see: The main star here is obviously the Matterhorn as such. You can catch glimpses of the summit from within Zermatt, the further south within the town, the better. That is as long as the peak isn’t shrouded in clouds, which does happen a lot, due to its prominence and location.
When I was there in August 2020, it was typically obscured from the morning to the afternoon, but completely cleared in the late afternoon/evening. I did catch a glimpse of it one morning though, when the clouds briefly parted and revealed the sunlit east face. Later in the day, when the sun is in the west, the mountain is rather backlit when viewed from Zermatt.
The very best views of both the Matterhorn and the surrounding Alpine scenery can be enjoyed from the Gornergrat ridge. This can be reached by the special mountain railway Gornergratbahn. At its terminus there is a large building housing an observatory, a hotel, a large restaurant, shops and even a craft gin distillery. It’s quite touristy, but the views from the open-air terrace are awesome, going not just to the Matterhorn but also over other peaks, the Gorner glacier and the Monte-Rosa massif in the background.
From the Gornergrat various hiking trails radiate out. One to consider, even if you’re not such a keen hiker, is the trail down to the Riffelsee – a smallish lake about a mile (1.6 km) away downhill, parallel to the Gornergrat railway line. This is a popular spot, especially for photographers, because the Matterhorn is evocatively reflected in the lake’s surface … provided the air is still enough for the surface to be smooth and the mountain isn’t obscured by clouds. When I was there I was only able to see the bulk of the mountain but the summit was still hugging some cloud, so the reflection wasn’t quite the postcard-perfect image I had hoped for.
In order to get to see the Matterhorn in comfort from a different angle, you can take the cable cars (you have to change twice) all the way to the Klein Matterhorn
(meaning ‘little Matterhorn’; but it's still a big mountain). The cable car station there is the very highest in Europe at nearly 4000m high (14,000 feet). There is an open-air observation desk from where you can see the Matterhorn’s east and south face, i.e. you get a glimpse of Italy
from here too. From this angle the peak takes on a shape quite different from the usual iconic images, but it’s still impressive. When I was there early one morning clouds filled the valleys but up there it was well above the clouds. It was quite magical.
Also at the Klein Matterhorn station is another one of those carved out systems of tunnels right inside the adjacent glacier, called “glacier paradise
” here, featuring a number of ice sculptures (see also Jungfrau Railway
). There is also a self-service cafe/restaurant.
On the way up, my wife and I were the only non-skiers, everybody else headed straight out to the pistes to the south. It was early in the morning, just after 8 o’clock. Luckily one of the staff opened up the observation deck for us early, otherwise it would have been an hour’s wait in the freezing cold. We then had a hot drink at the cafe, just after it opened to warm up and enjoy the views through the panoramic windows in the warmth.
The ride back, now by glass-bottom gondola, down the valley was fabulous (and by then largely cloud-free) and went across glaciers, colourful lakes and eventually mountain forest, before reaching civilization again on the outskirts of Zermatt.
Within Zermatt, one main point of interest for (dark) tourists is the Matterhorn Museum. You enter it through a glass dome opposite the church, but the exhibition space is all underground. Parts of this are a recreation of a traditional Alpine village with wooden blockhouses with stables with stuffed animals, living spaces and workshops (including a cheesemaker’s).
Natural history, geography, wildlife and the evolution of mountaineering are all covered in the museum. A key section here is the one focusing on the tragic story of the accident following the first ascent to the summit of the Matterhorn by Edward Whymper and his group (see above
!). Several of the climbers’ former possessions are on display. And the central exhibit is the actual rope that broke (or was cut?) sending four of the climbers tumbling to their deaths. A screen also plays video material related to the case. In addition other tragic cases of mountaineering accidents are covered too. Labels and texts are mostly trilingual (German, French and English, sometimes also Chinese), though a few are in German only.
The only other dark elements are some human remains discovered in a glacier that are some 400 years old (but not as well-preserved as the famous Ötzi).
Just behind the church opposite the museum to the south-east is Zermatt’s “Bergsteigerfriedhof”, or ‘mountaineers’ cemetery
’. Almost all of the ca. 50 people interred here died in climbing accidents on the mountains around Zermatt, including the Matterhorn – the only exceptions are the graves of the two Peter Taugwalders, father and son, who died of natural causes, but were buried next to Michel Croz, one of the victims of the tragedy after the first ascent to the Matterhorn’s summit in 1865 (see above
), for which the Taugwalders had served as guides. There is also a tomb of the unknown climber, and some of the graves are adorned with mountaineering mementoes, such as pickaxes, ropes or climbing boots.
Two of the British victims of the tragedy of 1865 are not buried here but, fittingly, at the English Church of Zermatt. Hadow’s grave is in the small churchyard, Reverend Hudson’s body is buried inside the church under the altar. (The body of the fourth victim, also a Brit, Lord Douglas, was never found and thus has no grave – see above
Finally, I also spotted a WWII
memorial monument in Zermatt. How can that be, given that Switzerland remained neutral and didn’t take part in the hostilities? Well, it didn’t take part actively, militarily, but on its borders it was affected and the odd bomb or shell strayed across the border. And these borders had to be specially secured between 1939 and 1945. And that’s mainly what this monument refers to, more precisely, presumably, to the border with Italy
, which is very near Zermatt.
All in all
, though a bit pricey and upper-classy, especially some of the fashion and jewellery shops, I enjoyed Zermatt; the town is quickly explored (see below
for more), and there are numerous eateries and bars, not necessarily all that posh, actually, but quite relaxed. And as a base for seeing the Matterhorn and its surroundings, this town is simply second to none.
As for the Matterhorn – I admit, it had been a dream of mine since childhood to one day go and see this mother of all mountains with my own eyes … and it did not disappoint. Clearly a top highlight of my 2020 trip to Switzerland!
in the south of the Valais canton in Switzerland
, right at the border with Italy
. The Matterhorn can be viewed from various locations. The museum and mountaineers’ graveyard are right in the centre of Zermatt.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: Zermatt is fairly easily reachable by train (only); but quite expensive.
Details: Zermatt is a car-free town, the only vehicles allowed are electric shuttle minibuses/taxis and police cars. When travelling by car you have to park your vehicle at the large facilities in Täsch further north up the valley, and then proceed by train (or taxi).
But by train
you can get right into the centre of Zermatt. The cogwheel trains to Zermatt link with the main Intercity lines at Visp and Brig, from where there are connections to Interlaken, Bern, Zürich and beyond. From Zürich
the ride takes between 3 and 4 hours, from Bern or Interlaken a bit over 2 hours.
Getting around within Zermatt is mostly on foot, or else by those electric taxis. But the central parts are quite easily walkable.
The Gornergratbahn railway line up the ridge opposite the Matterhorn departs from its own station that is just opposite the main train station in Zermatt. This is a private enterprise but with a Swiss Travel Pass (STP) you get a 50% discount.
The cable cars going from Zermatt all the way to the Klein Matterhorn depart from a separate station in the south of Zermatt, a ca. 20-minute walk from the main train station. These gondolas operate regularly year-round; prices vary seasonally but are never cheap. Again you can get a discount with your STP if you have one (which you probably would).
The Matterhorn Museum is located right in the centre between the Grand Hotel and the St Mauritius Church, under a glass dome with the entrance, ticket desk and souvenir shop. Admission is a relatively reasonable (by Swiss standards) 10 CHF; opening times: daily 3 to 6 p.m.
The mountaineers’ graveyard is right next to the church on its eastern side and is freely accessible during daylight hours. This also applies to the English Church’s graveyard by the road called Chrum, which branches off to the west from the main drag Bahnhofstrasse. The church itself is open daily 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., except on Sundays when there are services at 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. (there may also be a service on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.), but between services it’s freely accessible too.
Most people will make do with admiring the Matterhorn from the various viewpoints, which as such is obviously free. Those who want to actually climb it too need to refer to proper mountaineering sites for information as to what is required in terms of permits and equipment. Expect it to be demanding … But I know no details.
Accommodation choices in Zermatt are vast – when you look at the town and its environs on Google Maps it looks like every other house offers guest rooms, ranging from vacation apartments to luxury hotels, with a matching price range (i.e. from relatively affordable to astronomical).
Options for eating and drinking out are similarly numerous, and range from fast food joints to Swiss staples, and from international standards like pizza to extravagant fine dining. There’s no shortage of bars either, from kitschy clichéd après-ski joints to cosy inns (including the nice craft-beer bar “Grizzly’s”).
Time required: between just a single day for a few glances at the Matterhorn and seeing the graveyard and museum, to several days, when also engaging in hiking and/or climbing (or skiing).
Combinations with other dark destinations: none in the vicinity. The nearest other dark sites covered on this website are all several hours away by train.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Zermatt is primarily a non-dark tourist destination, and the related infrastructure is extremely well-appointed – and mostly rather upmarket. Still, shopping seems to be major pastime here, despite the prices.
Otherwise, some romantic remnants of old Zermatt, before it became such a tourism hub, can still be found, with quaint leaning and angled wooden mountain huts, especially along Hinterdorfstrasse.
Outside Zermatt proper there are naturally all the Alpine activities beckoning the relevant clientele, from hiking to mountaineering. Note, though, that the demanding routes up and around the Matterhorn are for fit and experienced climbers only and even then pose serious risks (see above).
And of course there’s skiing
. Even in summer, skiers can find permanently snow-covered pistes, especially from the Klein Matterhorn (see above
). In winter, the choices multiply.
The train ride to Zermatt is already very scenic in itself. From the other end of the line at Visp or Brig you can get trains further afield. A highlight not far from here is the Eggishorn, reached by cable car from Fiesch, a stop on the railway line north-east of Brig. From the Eggishorn you get the best view of the Alps’ largest glacier, the mighty Aletschgletscher.
See also under Switzerland
in general (also for more photos).
- Zermatt 01 - glacial water and the Matterhorn in the background
- Zermatt 02 - Matterhorn zoomed in in the evening
- Zermatt 03 - Matterhorn in the morning through a gap in the clouds
- Zermatt 04 - moon, hang-glider and the Matterhorn
- Zermatt 05 - partially cloud-obscured Matterhorn seen from Riffelsee
- Zermatt 06 - the Matterhorn from a less recognizable angle
- Zermatt 07 - Klein Matterhorn upper cable-car station
- Zermatt 08 - going up above the clouds
- Zermatt 09 - goin back down to the valley
- Zermatt 10 - observatory at Gornergrat
- Zermatt 11 - old town and a glimpse of the Matterhorn
- Zermatt 12 - electric taxis in otherwise car-free Zermatt
- Zermatt 13 - church and museum
- Zermatt 14 - tomb of the unkown mountaineer
- Zermatt 15 - named dead mountaineers
- Zermatt 16 - climber mementos in the mountaineers cemetery
- Zermatt 17 - Edward Whymper plaque
- Zermatt 18 - plaque for the whole team who first reached the Matterhorn summit
- Zermatt 19 - in the Matterhorn Museum - the evolution of mountaineering boots
- Zermatt 20 - that fateful rope
- Zermatt 21 - other relics from that tragic ascent of 1865
- Zermatt 22 - yet more tragic artefacts
- Zermatt 23 - 400-years-old tragic relics
- Zermatt 24 - even the police use the Matterhorn image
- Zermatt 25 - Swiss mode of WWII-commemoration