Waking up in Martigny on Sunday morning with the sun shining we decided to take a walk into town, where we enjoyed the artisan market, before moving on, amazed that it had already been 2 ½ months since we'd initially stayed here. We also surprised ourselves at just how 'at home' we felt returning to one of the very first towns we'd visited on our tour and it left us with a very upbeat feeling as we set off down the Valais in mid-afternoon. The purpose of returning to Switzerland was to see the Swiss Alps again before summer came to an end, and our destination for today was the famous ski resort of Zermatt from where the first successful attempt of the Matterhorn at 4478m, which towers above the town, was made in 1865.
Zermatt itself is a no-go area for any non-local motor vehicles and so we spent the chilly night around 8km further down the road on a campsite in Randa at 1400m altitude (our first campsite in more than 6 weeks!). In order to actually get up to Zermatt at 1620m altitude the vast majority of tourists who travel there will take the train or a taxi from the nearest parking opportunity at Tasch, before hopping on to a cable car to float up the steep mountainsides to get a closer look at the imposing Matterhorn. However, we instead hatched a cunning plan to minimise cost by cycling the 8km climbing road early the following morning before starting a daunting hike that would climb another vertical mile to the Hornlihutte at 3260m right on the southern flank of the Matterhorn itself.
Rising early in the frosty morning air we were excited but a little nervous at the physical challenge ahead of us. Strapping our packs to the bikes and setting off uphill we did have a little panic when a road sign seemed to imply that even cycling up wasn't allowed, but then we reasoned it was probably a picture of a moped and pushed on anyway. Arriving in the morning mist, we locked up our bikes at the bottom of the trail and set off upwards alongside the grassy ski runs. Climbing steeply from the outset, we soon reached the cable car station at Furi at 1867m, where the paths steepness went up another notch (we did check out the prices and it would have cost around £30 each to take the cable car another 1000m up the mountainside).
As we weaved our way through a forested slope the mist that had kept us cold all morning began to lift and slowly revealed a spectacular view. With the Matterhorn hidden behind the slope we were climbing, we could still look left to see the tongue of the enormous Gorner Gletscher and a host of other smaller glaciers to our right, all ringed by 4000m peaks including the highest mountain with it's base in Switzerland, Dom, at 4634m. Creeping upwards in the now hot sunshine and rounding a bend in an otherwise nondescript switchback and we got our first glimpse of the enormous Matterhorn towering above us, sharp and snow capped with clouds streaming from the summit. It really took our breath away.
Finally cresting the stiff climb to arrive at the Schwarzsee cable car station at 2583m and the entire majesty of the famous Matterhorn was revealed, it's angular cliffs creating a daunting prospect for any would be climbers. As lunchtime was approaching we pushed on even further up, beginning to pass fresh snow on the bare rock path and making use of precipitous staircases and hand rails hammered into the cliff faces above the Matterhorn Glacier itself to reach a ridge line just beneath the final approach to the climb at around 2900m, passing the temporary Matterhorn base camp since the Hornlihutte was closed for refurbishment until 2015. By this point we were passing deep powder snow drifts and wrapped ourselves up against the now icy wind.
The final approach to the Hornlihutte was more scrambling than hiking, with black ice covering the paths and we decided to call it a day shortly after passing 3000m, with the hut above us. Looking around at the majesty of the glaciers and 4000m peaks shining in the bright blue sky, with weather better than any you could wish for, we were both lost for words to capture the beauty of the scene in front of us. The panoramic perspective, including the Weisshorn, Dent Blanche, Zinalrothorn, and Obergabelhorn which we had gazed upon before from Val d'Anniviers in June, was spectacular and impossible to capture.
After standing in awe for as long as our freezing cheeks could take it, we began the slippery descent to find a sheltered spot around 2800m to prepare our soup and gaze out towards the Gorner Gletscher (not a bad dining room really). Conscious of the 1400m of descending we still had ahead of us we couldn't linger too long and so began our descent proper by mid-afternoon, stopping often to look back at the Matterhorn until it finally disappeared once more behind the ridge we were descending.
Arriving back at our bikes in the late afternoon sunshine we only had the roll down the hill, as the shadows fell upon the valley once more, before arriving back at the motorhome feeling elated at having enjoyed such a awesome hike made perfect by incredible weather. Not a bad way to start September and underlining just why we had driven back to Switzerland.