Skiing underneath the Matterhorn. That was something I wanted to do after spending one fine summer day visiting the mountain village and standing in awe at this iconic Swiss landmark. And that was why I re-visit this village in winter with the sole purpose of skiing. Located in the car-free village of Zermatt, the ski resort shares a peak with the Italian ski resort of Breuil-Cervinia, and that also meant the first time for me to ski across an international border. The closest I have been to doing this was when I skied in Portillo with a view of the border crossing between Argentina and Chile. As far as unique ski experiences go, I guess this should count as one of them!
I had written a bit about getting to Zermatt by car when I visited this car-free town last summer with my family. This time around, I took the train from Visp to Zermatt which has pretty regular services at nearly every hour or so. Nearly everyone arrives in the ski resort by train and skiers could either walk to the gondolas or take the train to the top of the ski area.
CHAIRLIFTS & GONDOLAS
Now skiing in Switzerland has another specialty, and that is going up the slopes not by cable car, chairlift or gondola, but rather in a train, and that was why this post has a starting of a railway. The Gornergratbahn runs in summer and winter bringing visitors and skiers up to the Gornergrat station where there in an observatory, a hotel, shops and restaurants along with a view of the Matterhorn when it is clear.
While the train might be a slow way of ascending, it was the most comfortable way, period. And the most convenient for skiers staying in the village as the station is just across the main railway station and most hotels and lodges would be happy to drive their guests to this station. Alternatively, skiers can take the Sunnegga Express funicular as a means to access the Rothorn side, or the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise cable car or gondola to Furi which will eventually connect to a series of cable car to reach Theodulgletscher or the main glacier skiing site. the top of this area connects to Plateau Rosa Testa Grigia which will allow skiers to ski into Italy.
Needless to say, Swiss quality runs in all the chairlifts and gondolas. Add to that the train and funicular network, the amount skiers pay for a ski pass is really worth it considering a day ski pass in Zermatt only is cheaper than the day ticket I paid during the summer season to see the Matterhorn.
COST & VALUE
That being said, the cost of a day ticket in Zermatt was CHF79 (~$82) and if skiers were to visit Breuil-Cervinia, this pushes up the cost to CHF92 (~$96). This prices are more or less equal to what Whistler Blackcomb charges and while they offer half-day passes from CHF61, prices were slightly on the high side especially compared to Val Thorens. However with the ski pass allowing access to the trains and funicular, I think it makes it somewhat worth it!
From what I remember, there was limited beginner runs and there is a lack of a wide learners’ piste for those who just picked up the sport. And none of the beginner runs are anywhere near the village, neither do any easy runs lead back to the village. So parents looking to ski in to their resort with their kids in tow better take note.
The easy-marked runs in Zermatt are labelled blue. No green runs here. But the blue runs are gentle enough and goes from the top of Gornergrat to the Riffelberg station. Another major easy run is the slow slopes from mid-mountain from Sunnegga to Findeln where there is a restaurant.
Intermediate level trails are marked red here in Zermatt and comprise the majority of runs. That means skiers and snowboarders who are relatively good should have no problem here, and they can even ski down the whole mountain from the peak to the village base. Note however that skiing back to the village does not mean you end up in the train station.
Ski runs from the Gornergrat to Furi is one enjoyable trail that allows skiers to ski beside the Gornergratbahn as it chugs along. And that marks one of the highlights of skiing here. Then there is the ski trail from Matterhorn Glacier Paradise that goes towards Trockener Steg with wide open pistes and magnificent vistas.
Finally there are some nice ski trails from Trockener Steg to Schwarzsee that provides the chance to ski below the Matterhorn. This allows skiers to see the iconic mountain from a different angle. Add to that the smoothness of the piste and you notice how well groomed the trails here are.
There was some black-marked ski trails but I did not take them as I was having too much fun in the intermediate trails already. However with the steep gradients of the mountain, I figured there are also opportunities for off-piste adventure trails. Again I strongly advise a guide for this sort of activity as they seem to be dangerous here with the glaciers and steep terrain.
Advanced skiers and riders would certainly enjoy Zermatt with its scenic pistes and wide range of terrain that is served by all these modern lifts.
Park riding is obviously not one of Zermatt’s major attraction, and I have to say the European ski resorts are not that huge for this sort of thing compared to North American resorts. Zermatt is especially traditional in this sense. They do create some parks for learners at the major gondola stations in Sunnegga, Riffelberg and Trockener Steg but do not expect half-pipes and rails or a real terrain park. The focus here is on-piste skiing.
Lodges situated on the mountains is where Zermatt excels at. From the comfortable restaurants in Gornergrat to Riffelberg’s hotel and restaurants to the observatory in Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, the facilities on the mountain top is amazing. Many of them are modern facilities with top quality furnishings and amenities.
Finding a space to have lunch while skiing is easy and the lodges are kept clean. Maybe because there are just so many places to get a bite from, it is rare to see a crowded spot.
In fact all the major summits, that is to say in Rothorn, Matterhorn Glacier Paradise and Gornergrat, there is a ski lodge with restaurants and places to sit down and enjoy the food. Not only that, there are even ski lodges in the top of the Italian side at Plateau Rosa. Here in Zermatt, skiers would not get hungry at the top of the mountain. With the slow train and multiple lift and gondola change to reach the top, the variety of places to eat and rest while at the top makes it easy to maximize one’s time skiing and that certainly adds some points for this resort!
FOOD & BEVERAGES
The food here can revolve around lots of potatoes and features Rosti and German specialties like Schweinshaxe (pork knuckles) to Bratwurst. Hearty and filling food that would certainly fill up the empty stomachs after skiing. I had lunch at Riffelberg and Gornergrat, and even had pasta at a lodge in the mid mountain along Breuil-Cervinia.
Prices were slightly cheaper in the Italian side of the mountain but the food served in Zermatt is slightly better in terms of quality compared to many ski resorts I have been to. Expect to pay a minimum of CHF19 to CHF25 (~$20-26) for a main course and while it is somewhat more expensive compared to some resorts I have been to, I enjoyed the food a lot and I do recommend eating at one of the slopeside lodges for that Swiss skiing experience.
As an authentic Alpine village that has been built over the years, there are plenty of options for staying overnight. Naturally most of the hotels are in the village of Zermatt itself but there is the 3100 Kulmhotel Gornergrat for the high-altitude experience and ultimate ski-out accommodation.
In the village itself there are plenty of luxury resorts like the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, the Park Hotel Beau Site, the Mont Cervin Palace and the Monte Rosa, which was the place from where the first expedition team to ascend the Matterhorn departed from. There are also boutique resorts scattered across the village along with chalets and apartments for rent.
With that much option, most skiers should have no problem finding a place to stay to fit their needs and budget. And if all else fails, there are lodging places in the town of Tasch which is a short train ride away from Zermatt.
While the mountain might be the best place to spend the day, any celebration that comes after occurs by the base in the village. Look for any hotels near or around the Bahnhofstrasse or at the base of the ski lifts with a pub or patio and that is most probably where the aprés-ski crowds go to.
Some venue includes the Cervo Mountain Boutique Resort at the base of Sunnegga or the pub at Unique Hotel Post. For those with more energy to spare, the village does come alive at the end of a ski day and there are various shops to keep the shopaholic entertained. There is a skating rink in town too for the complete winter fun.
Views from the summit is really one of the reason for coming to ski in Zermatt. From the top of Gornergrat, it is one of the most popular spots in all season to get a view of the Matterhorn. And from the top of Plateau Rosa, there is a great view of the surrounding majestic peaks of the Alps.
As we go down a bit from Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, skiers can marvel in awe at the Matterhorn by its base or have a nice panoramic view of the village. Wherever one go, the view is always a perfect reason to stop by the side of the piste for a break.
Skiing in Switzerland is expensive for sure, especially when you compare it to the 3 Vallées in France. However the quality is up there like all things Swiss. With fully heated train cabins that runs on time to the great cuisine served up on the slopes to a very well groomed piste with nice powder on the slopes, there is little to dislike about Zermatt.
There are also some unforgettable experiences I had while skiing in Zermatt. One was the experience of chasing the Gornergratbahn train alongside the piste while skiing. Then there was the awesome view I enjoyed with other skiers stopping along the tracks as well underneath the Matterhorn. Quality of the amenities all around was excellent as well. I remember the tissue provided for skiers beside the chairlift was some of the softest I have ever gotten. Even the tissue in 5-star hotels are not that soft! And who can miss all the watch advertisements around the gondola station.
Given all the positives, it can make me forget somewhat of the high prices. Zermatt is definitely one of the great ski resorts in Europe to visit especially if you are a somewhat strong skier or snowboarder. Even for those who do not do any of these activities, there are still plenty of views and things to do that should make them leave with a smile.