Switzerland: Conquering an alpine legend

By Ulrike von Leszczynski

The Matterhorn is an iconic symbol of the Alps. Photo / Thinkstock
The Matterhorn is an iconic symbol of the Alps. Photo / Thinkstock

Scaling the Matterhorn is something best done while you're young.

"Most people tend to wait too long," says Alpine guide Rudi Steindl.

They dream of ascending the famous peak and suddenly find they have turned 66 - too old to conquer a 4000-metre-high mountain.

Steindl is 51 and has been a qualified mountain guide since 1987.

Steeled by a fitness regime maintained over decades, he is also a man of few words.

He has scaled the Matterhorn more than 100 times and has taken part in expeditions to Europe's 4000m peaks on around 1000 occasions.

He accompanies climbers to the Andes and also to Nepal. He also fell five metres from the Breithorn in Switzerland two years ago, suffering a torn ligament and damaging his hip.

He could have gone straight back to working as a chef but the call of the wild prevailed.

A year later he was back in the mountains.

Steindl claims they have an alluring effect on some people like magnetism on objects, drawing them in.

The solitude aloft is wonderful, says Steindl, especially in autumn when rockfalls are rare and the cataracts of melted snow ease off.

Provided the weather is fine, the view of the mountains from Zermatt is nothing short of magnificent.

The local peak, the Matterhorn, towers majestically above the street. It is an iconic symbol of the Alps and many regard it - possibly because of its striking symmetrical shape - as being the most beautiful mountain in the Alps if not in the world.

For admirers of fine alpine scenery the nearby Monte Rosa Massif with Switzerland's second-highest mountain Monte Rosa is also not without its attractions. It is often referred to as the "Queen of the Alps".

Steindl waits for his clients at the valley station of the Gornergrat railway.

Today's trip will take them via Rotenboden Station to the new Monte Rosa Hut, a pioneering, high-tech structure inaugurated in September 2009.

It takes eight hours to reach and the route, a strenuous hike across glacier fields, is not recommended for beginners.

Stendl regards the march as a summer "warm-up".

It has snowed overnight and he dismisses anxious queries from participants about fitness levels and equipment with a laconic: "No problem. You'll get through it."

The route to the Monte Rosa Hut is no ordinary hike. Even in high summer the descent to the glacier and the climb to the resting place demand some climbing experience.

Steindl's group marches off uphill from Rotenboden. With no snow on the ground the going on the narrow path is easy. The snowfields by comparison are a pain. It is hard to maintain balance while following the deep tracks of those who have trodden here before.

When visibility is good, the panoramic views of the Monte Rosa Massif more than compensate for the exertion. With the Gorner glacier to the left and the Monta Rosa glacier straight ahead, walkers find themselves amid a glittering cosmos of snow and ice ringed by mighty peaks.

A ladder leads the few, steep metres down to the glacier surface past slippery snow with deep holes and crevices in the hard-packed ice.

The new Monte Rosa hut, perched at an altitude of 2883 metres, is a futuristic Swiss construction clad with solar panels. It has large windows and plenty of warm, light-coloured wood, its own-label wine and hot meals flown in by helicopter.

Even seasoned hikers should call it a day here and not venture beyond since the hut marks the start of serious mountain-climbing territory.

What makes people want to scale these mountains?

"I think it's a crucial experience in people's lives," says the mountain guide.

It could also be the feeling of elation when the clouds part to reveal a breathtaking panorama or simply the love of unspoilt nature. Sporting ambitions alone seldom explain the fascination.

On the Italian side of the Monte Rosa Massif lies another world.

The East Face of Monte Rosa stands nearly 2500 metres tall and is regarded by many as Europe's most impressive rock face.

The eastern and southern flanks of the Massif appear gentler than the northern part in Switzerland. Deep valleys lead from the palm tree-lined shores of Lake Maggiore to the foot of the East Face.

Good places to set off for a walk on the Italian side are Macugnaga or Alagna, where Swiss perfection gives way instantly to Italian laissez-faire. The hill villages have managed to retain their rural charm. From Pecetto hikers can take their time to negotiate the snaking paths up to the Belvedere at 1800 metres.

To speak of a "beautiful view" from up here is something of an understatement.

The majestic panorama takes in the Strahlhorn (4190m), Cima di Jazzi (3804m) and the entire east face of Monte Rosa along with the Nordend (4609m), the Dufourspitze (4634m), the Zumsteinspitze (4563m) and the Signalkuppe (4554m).

With a blue sky overhead and ringed by mountains, visitors feel as if they are at the centre of a magnificent natural amphitheatre.


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