Despite a shrouded of thick grey cloud the giant toblerone-shaped shadow is unmistakeable. We’ve been in Zermatt for four days, and still the Matterhorn maintains its hypnotic trance. We’re captive to the glory of Europe’s most recognisable, beautiful and impossible mountain.
Today though, we’re anxious. Our adventure hangs in the balance, wholly dependent on the weather improving to make the difficult journey worthwhile. Our goal is to see the Matterhorn at sunset from Riffelsee, an alpine mirror-lake which (on a clear day) offers a perfect reflection. It’s not the journey up that’s difficult, but the return. See, the last train down the mountain leaves around 8pm, and sunset isn’t until almost 10pm. Your options are a $400-a-night mountain resort or a 10km downhill hike to Zermatt in pitch black. But our first decision is whether to even go. I like to think there’s a choice, but it’s our last day in town, and in reality there’s no choice at all.
We make our way to the Gornergratbahn mountain railway. The clunky cog wheel train winds it’s way up through the pine forest and over waterfalls before skirting the steep edges of the mountain plateau. Our stop is Rotenboden. A group of young Swiss men hop off with their mountain bikes and a dog, followed by a few other photographers. We settle into the long wait with our picnic dinner at the lake edge, hoping the clouds clear and the wind drops for the perfect reflection. Even now the view is staggering, but there’s more to come. The dog barks as it bounds down the hill. The lads have hit top speed but they’re no match for a 2 year old hound with energy to burn.
We’re joined by a group of three Swiss 20-somethings – who may or may not be high – filming a music video. They sing and dance and laugh around their breakdancing mat in a hypnotic ritual. As the sun lowers they turn down the music and the mood mellows, as though they know what kind of show mother nature is about to deliver. Sharp fingers of colourful light shoot across the horizon as the sun ducks behind the range. The wind eases, and the ripples on the lake flatten to reveal a Matterhorn diamond. For the grand finale, the clouds clear on the triangular summit for a fleeting moment, delivering the mountain all her glory. The photograph might fade but the memory never will. As quickly as it came, the moment is gone.
Instinctively we stuff our belongings into our bag and break into a run, knowing there’s less than 30 minutes of light remaining. The hotel looks like an amazing option. Better yet, they have rooms available. At a discount. The owner smiles like he’s spoken to a hundred of me before, knowing full well we’re against the clock. Luring us in with a warm bed and a view and a spa and a gourmet breakfast. They don’t make this easy.
Like most difficult situations, I find it easiest to run. So run we did. In daylight you’d probably be more precient to the danger of the steep switchback trail, but all I can see in the torch light is a narrow rocky path and black either side. Without the light we’d be brown bread; with it we’re still three rolled ankles. Down into the forest we go, and any sunlight that dwindled on the horizon is gone. The trees close in around us, and I imagine myself dying at the hands of some Swiss axe murderer who preys on stupid backpackers waltzing through the forest at night. Sure enough my hairs prick and my senses light up – there’s movement behind us. We’re surrounded. I chance a sideways glance, and 10 shimmering eyes stare back. Bloody cows!
Google maps is rather useless at this point, so we follow our noses down a road and through a field. Signs in every direction point to Zermatt, so Swiss efficiency is out the window too. We’re joined by a cat who enjoys belly rubs. It makes a habit of scaring us shitless as it runs between our legs in the dark, stopping ahead on its back waiting for a scratch. Sure enough the cat spots something. Another axe murderer, no doubt. Before I can blink a giant badger charges towards us, hissing in terrifying anger. Serial killers are one thing, but popular culture has cast badgers as undying bloody-thirsty savages. So we’re done for. Read the last rites. I throw Sharon behind me and kick aimlessly in the darkness as the cat shrieks. As quickly as the commotion started, suddenly there’s silence. No cat, no badger. Just two bewildered humans, ready for bed.
As far as recommendations go, if you can spare $250 you’d probably be better off skipping the 2.5 hour walk and just staying in the bloody hotel. All said though, the death valley, axe murdering cows, crazy cats and zombie badgers probably make for a better story. Choose your own adventure!