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The Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland

The Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland

Since the eighteenth century the Alps have attracted more and more people and fascinated generations of explorers and climbers. The Matterhorn remained relatively little known until 1865, but the successful ascent followed by the tragic accident of the expedition led by Edward Whymper caused a rush on the mountains surrounding Zermatt.

The Matterhorn is a mountain of the Alps, straddling the main watershed and border between Switzerland and Italy. It is a large, near-symmetric pyramidal peak in the extended Monte Rosa area of the Pennine Alps, whose summit is 4,478 metres high, making it one of the highest summits in the Alps and Europe. The four steep faces, rising above the surrounding glaciers, face the four compass points and are split by the Hörnli, Furggen, Leone/Lion, and Zmutt ridges. The mountain overlooks the Swiss town of Zermatt, in the canton of Valais, to the north-east and the Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia in the Aosta Valley to the south. Just east of the Matterhorn is Theodul Pass, the main passage between the two valleys on its north and south sides, and a trade route since the Roman Era.

The construction of the railway linking the village of Zermatt from the town of Visp started in 1888. The first train reached Zermatt on July 18, 1891 and the entire line was electrified in 1930. Since 1930 the village is directly connected to St. Moritz by the Glacier Express panoramic train. However there is no connection with the village of Breuil-Cervinia on the Italian side. Travellers have to hire mountain guides to cross the 3,300-metre-high glaciated Theodul Pass, separating the two resorts. The town of Zermatt remains almost completely free of internal combustion vehicles and can be reached by train only.
Rail and cable-car facilities have been built to make some of the summits in the area more accessible. The Gornergrat railway, reaching a record altitude of 3,100 metres, was inaugurated in 1898. Areas served by cable car are the Unterrothorn and the Klein. The Hörnli Hut, which is the start of the normal route via the Hörnli ridge, is easily accessible from Schwarzsee and is also frequented by hikers. The Zermatt and Breuil-Cervinia resorts function as separate ski resort all year round and are connected by skilifts over the Theodul Pass. In 2015 it was expected that there would be constructed a cable car link between Testa Grigia and Klein Matterhorn. It will finally provide a link between the Swiss and Italian side of the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn Museum (Zermatt) relates the general history of the region from alpinism to tourism. In the museum, which is in the form of a reconstituted mountain village, the visitors can relive the first and tragic ascent of the Matterhorn and see the objects having belonged to the protagonists.

The Tour of the Matterhorn can be effected by trekkers in about 10 days. Considered by some as one of the most beautiful treks in the Alps, it follows many ancient trails that have linked the Swiss and Italian valleys for centuries. The circuit includes alpine meadows, balcony trails, larch forests and glacial crossings. It connects six valleys embracing three different cultures: the German-speaking high Valais, the French-speaking central Valais and the bilingual French/Italian-speaking Aosta Valley. Good conditions are necessary to circumnavigate the peak. After reaching Zinal from Zermatt by the Augstbord and Meiden passes, the trekker crosses the Col de Sorebois and the Col de Torrent before arriving at Arolla. Then the Arolla Glacier and the Col Collon must be crossed on the way to Prarayer, followed by the Col de Valcournera to Breuil-Cervinia. In the last and highest section, the Theodul Pass must be crossed before returning to Zermatt. In total, seven passes between 2,800 and 3,300 metres must be crossed on a relatively difficult terrain.

As of 2015 almost two million visitors arrive at Zermatt annually. An average of around twelve people per year have died on Matterhorn in the ten years from 2005 to 2015.

The Matterhorn is mainly composed of gneisses from the Dent Blanche nappe, lying over ophiolites and sedimentary rocks of the Penninic nappes. The mountain’s current shape is the result of cirque erosion due to multiple glaciers diverging from the peak, such as the Matterhorn Glacier at the base of the north face. Sometimes referred to as the Mountain of Mountains, the Matterhorn has become an iconic emblem of the Alps in general. Since the end of the 19th century, when railways were built in the area, the mountain has attracted increasing numbers of visitors and climbers. Each year, numerous mountaineers try to climb the Matterhorn from the Hörnli Hut via the northeast Hörnli ridge, the most popular route to the summit. Many trekkers also undertake the 10-day-long circuit around the mountain.
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