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Setting The Standard

Setting The Standard

Travel
By Jay Cowan
posted: 12/15/2001

More than a thousand years ago, the Bishop of Sion gave the Zermatt region to the Church of Chanson and three powerful families in his patronage. Beginning in 1538, the fiercely proud Zermatters started working to buy their independence at a wage of a penny an hour for 100,000 hours. While other Europeans fought for their independence from serfdom, the original Zermatters toiled to purchase theirs¿and it took them five generations. This speaks volumes about the tenacity and business-like Swissness of the people who established and, in many ways, still run Zermatt today.

Tucked into southwestern Switzerland's tradition-steeped Valais canton (a canton is the Swiss version of a state), Zermatt is one of the world's most beautiful ski towns. Scattered throughout its small downtown core are enclaves of picturesque 500-year-old chalets. These are tucked along Zermatt's narrow, car-free streets, in between elegant sport shops, multistory lodges, five-star hotels and numerous cuckoo-clock-and-army-knife purveyors and scattered up the mountains alongside ski runs in the shadow of the 14,691-foot Matterhorn. These 16th century cabins are unusual in that the second story is perched on stilts above the first floor, and each stilt sits on a large, flat rock. This building technique was designed to repel rats, and apparently worked very well until a better mousetrap came along.

Zermatters would doubtless like a similarly clever way to rid themselves of the lift-management problems that have troubled the resort in recent years. Last winter, the four private companies that own the ski resort's 74 lifts announced they were losing money and couldn't afford to invest any more capital into their infrastructure. While Zermatt's numerous high-speed lifts make it one of the most modern systems in Switzerland, the lack of funding for maintenance and upgrades is viewed as a threat to the ski resort's future¿and is somewhat puzzling in the context of Zermatt's popularity.

"The lift companies are owned by the burghers, the old-time families who owned most of the land here," explains Daniel Luggen, the marketing director for the Zermatt Tourist Office. "And the companies have been overpaying those families for years. They have also been borrowing money and paying too much interest. But now the burghers are loaning the companies money back at better rates, so that will help."

Zermatt is a stunning resort that is among a handful of the best known names in the Alps. And it's surmounted by what is arguably the most famous mountain on the planet. The soaring, shark's-tooth shape of the Matterhorn has lured climbers since the 1700s and almost single-handedly established Zermatt's first tourist trade in 1820. Today, the remote, dream-like environment of its pedestrian-only village, the opportunity to ski and hike on a truly gargantuan trail network into Italy and the magnetic appeal of the region's mountains have combined to attract 1.7 million overnight visitors a year. These robust numbers, for a town of only 5,600 (roughly the size of Aspen), have been growing since 1996.

With good reason. This alpine oasis is so physically removed from the mainstream that it still has its own incomprehensible dialect, but it's only a few hours from a number of major airports. To get to Zermatt, you must park your car in Sion and then take a train. From the small rail station in the center of town, you are shuttled to your hotel by tiny, toy-like electric buses or horse-drawn sleighs. The absence of traffic and exhaust in the car-free village is extravagantly relaxing, and is what inspired countless other pedestrian-oriented resort villages around the world.

The steady streams of agog tourists who pour through the Heidi-goes-chic warrens of Zermatt come from all over the globe: Germans, Japanese and Americans make up the majority of international visitors. The busy, prosperous and stolid locals are leavened by numerous enthusiastic and friendlyy Eastern European seasonal employees.

Kirk Davis, a 51-year-old Californian, came to Zermatt in 1971, married a local girl in 1975, and became a full-time resident two years later. Being married to a Swiss national enables him to remain in Zermatt and own a business there. It would have been hard for him to put down roots had he not met Sibylle Perren. "Within the last couple of years, it has gotten harder for Americans to work here," Davis says. "You have to be specialized, like a ski instructor or tour operator rep, in order to get a nine-month permit."

Davis hadn't planned on settling here, but has come to love Zermatt for numerous reasons. "The lack of autos is obviously something I enjoy immensely. And the skiing is unbelievable. A lot of people don't know that," he smiles. "You've also got extremely wealthy people and ski bums and everything in between, all exchanging with each other, which I like a lot. It's more who you are than what you've got."

What helps keep it that way are reasonable prices. Grocery stores and other general retailers are forbidden by Swiss law to charge more for their merchandise inZermatt, or any other resort, than they do in Zurich. You can get a good sandwich, pizza or fondue for five bucks and a room for as little as $29 a night.

And then there's the skiing. Set Snowmass and Aspen's other three mountains on top of Colorado's Summit County areas and surround them with all of Colorado's 14,000 foot peaks, and you begin to approximate the scope of Zermatt's terrain. The behemoth's slopes ramble across two countries (Switzerland and Italy), with more than 7,000 vertical feet and untold volumes of gorgeous off-piste. Thirty-six mountains higher than 13,000 feet loom over Zermatt like a mighty tribe of wild gods, daubed by glaciers, pearly blue ice seracs and the brilliant sheen of snow so deep it was old when Zermatt was young.

The three interconnected areas on the Swiss side rise theatrically to 12,532 feet, with excellent skiing sweeping across a series of big panoramic ridges, basins and glacial valleys, mostly above timberline. Every piste has a unique sense of place. One minute you're gliding through centuries-old summer farming villages on the long, alpine-idyll cruisers of the Rothorn and Gornergrat; the next you're pounding down the steep bump faces of the Stockhorn past idly grazing chamois, always alongside the distracting eminence of the Matterhorn. On the Klein (or little) Matterhorn, several lifts on the upper glaciers are open most of the year.

Max Julen, the 1984 Olympic gold medal slalom winner, is from an old Zermatt family. "For me the mountains of Zermatt are very important. I loved growing up here, where I could ski even in summer," he says. "And it's a good place to raise my own children. Clean air, no traffic. It's perfect." When you go to Zermatt, you'll be urged by everyone to ski into Italy.

Trust them. You'll be dazzled by the far-flung slopes and the adventure, as well as the fun-loving Italians and their decadent cuisine. And when you return to Switzerland, give yourself plenty of time to enjoy a 7,000-vertical-foot run down great billowing glaciers, through lee-side powder fields of the Matterhorn and all the way to the valley floor.

It's a dizzying, epic journey well worth more than 100,000 pennies on its own.

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