A few days skiing at Zermatt in Switzerland

One of the best parts about living in Europe is that there’s a heck of a lot of options when it comes to where to go skiing.  The tricky part is choosing which place to go, and then sometimes, how to get there.  For our four day getaway, we wanted somewhere that was more ‘cute European vibrant ski village’, than just pure extreme skiing.  After consultation with some friends, and a bunch of interweb searching, we decided on Zermatt, in Switzerland.

Getting there rates in the ‘medium’ category, as it requires a four hour TGV (high speed) train from Paris to Geneva, and then two shorter trains totaling three hours up to Zermatt.  But, it’s all quick an easy with most train connections timed at only 10-15 minutes.  So basically, you sit and watch the world go by from a comfy chair – no cars needed.

When you arrive, you find yourself smack in the middle of the main street at Zermatt – a car-free area.  Only small enclosed golf-cart like vehicles take you to your hotel.

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Without a doubt, the town was exactly what we were looking for.  Plenty of great food options (albeit pricey, like just about everything in Switzerland), and places that stayed open later.  One of the challenges I’ve seen with many other European ski towns is that the smaller ones tend to close up pretty early (7-9PM), and tend to cater more towards people in condos/apartments than hotels (since most Europeans rent for one week at a time, starting on Saturday).

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In any event, we were here for skiing – and it did not disappoint!

First up is the awesomeness that we didn’t take a chairlift as our first ‘lift’ of the day.  Instead, we took this crazy secret lair tunnel.  First, you walked a hundred or so meters into the side of the mountain:

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Then, you arrive at a platform.  The platform is on an incline, and up ahead there’s a door like on a missile silo, waiting for something to magically shoot out:

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Every 2-3 minutes, the door opens and a tram shoots out.  What’s interesting is that unlike a traditional train where the ceiling and floor are parallel to each other, in this case, the tram maintains the exact same steep angle all the way to the top.  So the floors are titled so that they remain level.

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A couple minutes later, you poke out the top:

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Well, the top of the tram, which is still 2-3 lifts/gondolas/trams away from the ‘real’ top.  At this point you’re at 2,571m (9,435ft).  While the top you see in the photo above is at 3,103m (10,180ft).  But, that’s still quite a ways from the highest skiing point on the mountain, which is at 3,885m (12,746ft).

In addition to the secret-missile-silo-tram, you’ve also got a train-looking tram that takes you from the village to fairly-high up the mountain (the top of one peak, but not the highest point of the area):

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It’s fun skiing down next to the train:

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On the flip-side, I’m going to put this particular tram ride in the ‘not fun’ category.  I took it up to the very tippy top of the resort at 12,746 ft.  The worst part was this section where it dips down and then basically straight up.  Albeit, my picture is less than awesome.

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After you get to the top, you walk through another secret-lair style tunnel.  Really, this place is probably the set of every Dr. Evil movie ever.

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On the bright side, assuming you don’t die along the way, you’ve got a great view of the Matterhorn:

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And to the left, a great view of Italy:

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In fact, as you ski down, you cross back and forth between Italy and Switzerland:

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Which, brings up an interesting point: Switzerland’s border policies from other EU countries.  For example, if I fly into Switzerland via Zurich from Paris I go through customs with a customs officer.  If I take a train into Geneva (from Paris), I pass through a hallway where people look at me, but no passport is shown nor do I stop.  If I take a train into Zurich (from Paris), nobody cares at all or bothers to check anything.  If I drive across the border (from France), you get stopped and checked.  And finally, if you ski across the border – nobody even knows you went there.

At any rate… I skied down from the top, which is quite a long run, taking about 25-30 minutes.  Albeit, not exactly the most exciting run – much of it was cat tracks.  Sorta like this one, minus the tram:

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Of course, there’s so much mountain that you rarely have to repeat anything.  I only skied perhaps 1/3rd of the entire mountain, and by ‘skied’, I mean, went down a run in that chunk of the resort.  There’s endless ways to ski down.  And, often times, many little ski chalets you can ski around too:

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And in the unlikely event skiing isn’t your thing, you can simply jump off the top of the mountain (albeit still with skis) and paragliding down as well:

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From a sports technology standpoint I was getting lots of footage from about 8 different action cams in my bag, some new, some older.  I’d simply use one until the battery ran out, and then go to the next.  In the colder weather, they don’t last as long:

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Sometimes, I also did dual-cams, merely for comparing footage later on.

I was also playing around with the Garmin Monterra.  This is more of a handheld device, and my purpose here isn’t to write a review of it from a handheld/hiking standpoint, but actually, because it’s the first unit they’ve released that has both ANT+ as well as Bluetooth and WiFi…running on Android.  I think it makes for an interesting possible next generation Edge device down the road (since it can run any Android app).

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In case you’re wondering, that’s peach ring sugar on the Monterra.  The bag fell apart in my backpack, and thus, everything was coated in peach ring sugar.  It was pretty much our nutrition while skiing:

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Back down in the village, it’s clear that the town revolves around skiing.  For example, even the bikes have ski racks on them:

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And, when they lack ski racks, they just fling them over their shoulder and bike home anyway:

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Speaking of home, we headed home last night, starting with the scenic train ride out of the mountains.  We can’t wait to get back up to Zermatt though.  I think from a holistic European skiing experience, it’s rating about the highest thus far.  It doesn’t have quite the number of lifts as Courchevel, nor the the variation of terrain as some other places, but from a complete package standpoint (town + food + easy direct train access + skiing), it’s really hard to beat.

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And then into the darkness we slipped on the next train, ultimately getting back home a few short hours before 2014.

With that, Happy New Year, and hope everyone had a great New Year’s Eve!

Thanks for reading!

22 Comments

  1. Mark

    Wow, that looks amazing…Happy New Year to you and all. Cheers

    Reply
  2. Some amazing photography weather. Long time since I went up the Brighthorn from the top of the high lift as a kid. Easiest 4000m peak in the Alps.

    Reply
  3. Nigel Pond

    Quick point: Switzerland isn't in the EU as you seem to imply, nor is it a member of the European Economic Area. It is, however, member of the European Free Trade Association.

    Reply
    • Aben replied

      It is a member of Schenghen so no borders (only customs...)

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Yeah, I was mostly speaking to the interesting differences when crossing into Switzerland from a different country depending on which method you use. As you note, EU vs EEC vs Schenghen is a complex web of details...

      Reply
  4. Dick Morris

    Glad you enjoyed Zermatt, I also think it is a great place to visit, though I am biased since the wife is Swiss..!! Our house is however the other side of the country in the flat part of Switzerland..

    Swiss borders are great fun and locally here we often just walk across the border into Germany and there are no customs facilities, just a simple sign that says you are now in Germany. However if you look around carefully you will see some cameras connected back to a base location where things are being watched. Family member works for Swiss customs and they are very efficient, he teaches the new recruits shooting skills, so don’t mess with them.! They are of course not looking at the ‘ average ‘ tourist but for the known drug smugglers etc… They also pick out one or two people at random just to let us all know that they are watching and are being careful.

    Next time base yourself at Interlaken or nearby Grindelwald. Take the train up right through the middle of the mountain and come out at the highest railway station in Europe at the top of the Eiger mountain. Great views across the glacier and you can walk / ski there also. Then nearby you have Schilthorn mountain top restaurant where the James bond film was made, it’s a great cable car ride up via the small village of Murren. Plus the views down the Lauterbrunnen valley are legendary.
    Yes Switzerland can be expensive, but they sure are very organised…..

    Look forwards to hearing your comments about the Garmin Monterra. Like yourself I was wondering if it could be mounted like the Edge on a bike. The Android OS changes EVERYTHING…

    Happy New Year..

    Reply
  5. Hands down one of my favorite places to go for anything. The terrian is a little more varied on the Italian side and is great to ski down into for a great lunch. The one complaint I would have, minus the price of course, is that everyone there is a little pushy. I enjoy the friendliness and politeness of the West Coast North American resorts. But Zermatt is just way too charming not to want to go back for another great ski vacation.

    Not sure it came acorss but their are 5 different, integrated, mountain resorts there; 3 resorts on the Swiss side and 2 resorts on the Italian side. Each one has its own unique character with the Matterhorn watching over all of them. The slopes are not the best marked but the powder is endless so it's not that big of a deal. The ski challets are awesome to pop in and warm up when the sun isn't quite getting the job down.

    I just came back from a worktrip in Austria back in October and took a day trip to Kitzsteinhorn outside of Kaprun. I reccommend going there if for nothing else than the view. The skiing wasn't great but it was October, which was amazing they had skiing at all at that time of the year.

    Reply
  6. Peach rings=love.

    Happy New Year!

    Reply
  7. Richard McDowell

    Having been to Zermatt a couple of times, it's quality, glad you enjoyed it.

    Quick point on the aerial activity noted - parasailing is being towed behind a vehicle such as a boat, like a big kite, paragliding is what's going on above.

    My last visit to Zermatt: link to vimeo.com

    Cheers, Rich

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Awesome, great video! Looks like you had some nice fluffy powder. We had some powder, but it was a bit warmer, so not quite as fluffy.

      And good catch on the para-piece. I was pondering it on the train, but interwebs weren't working. Fixed!

      Reply
  8. ran the marathon there a couple of years ago, love the town, so beautiful... One day when I have money I will pop over in the winter!!!

    Reply
  9. Sean in DC

    Ray, do you know anything more about those little chalets on the ski-slopes in your photo? How does it work - are they there simply to hop in if you're feeling cold, or are those little cabins of sorts that people can actually rent and stay in? Very neat and something I'd love to look into doing.

    I've been to Zermatt once, but it was in June so I didn't bother to try the skiing. The Glacier Express train was a magnificent experience, though! Did you have any issues with the elevation? I got remarkably winded walking my backup up to our hostile!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Those little one are all either owned or rented. You can go to various sites to rent places, though, most of the ones I tend to see in rental places are bigger and/or part of larger buildings (including on the slopes).

      In general, almost all ski areas in Europe work on a weekly system for vacation rentals, with 'changeover day' being Saturday, where people leave and others come in. This means that many activities tend to be during the week (Tues-Thurs) rather than weekend. For example, they had 'behind the scenes' on Zermatt's snowmaking tour that you could do, on Wednesday.

      Thus, if you go less than a week, you actually have fairly little choice in options at most resorts. Zermatt is better than most because of the size of the village and catering to both types of stays. But some of the places I've looked at elsewhere may only have 1-2 hotels that do normal day to day stays.

      No issues with elevation, though, you certainly feel it if you run - you'll likely be slower.

      Reply
  10. Francis Augusto Medeiros

    Btw, I always found border-crossing in Switzerland interesting, though my experience driving into that country from France is slightly different than yours - I once drove from the airport in Geneva 3 times in/out France (I got lost and couldn't find my destination in Geneva), and never got stopped. Once, I saw some officers at the customs, but they didn't stop us. so one's mileage may vary.

    Reply
  11. Great Article; I love skiing Zermatt! If we're getting really picky with the para-piece taxonomy this style is termed 'speed riding'. I'm traveling to Châtel tomorrow, maybe I'll try my hand at flying... or maybe not!

    Reply
  12. Jacob

    Looks like an amazing place! What cameras did you use for the pictures in this post? I noticed several different naming conventions and was curious what camera corresponds with the different pictures. The VIRB photos are easy enough, and I assume iOS ones are from an iPhone, but am hoping you can 'shed some light' on the equipment used for "DSC_####" and "image" pictures. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Thanks!

      DSC#- These are from the Nikon 1 AW1 Waterproof/Shockproof mirrorless DSLR
      VIRB#- As you guessed, from VIRB.
      iOS# - Yup, iPhone 4s
      Image# - These are screenshots, typically from videos, and thus almost all from the VIRB.

      Enjoy!

      Reply
  13. about where to go skiing I suggest you to go there

    link to vimeo.com

    la grave... a dream come true

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Yeah, that place has been on my bucket list. I've gotta go with my brother though there, since it's more of an advanced area that he'd enjoy more.

      Reply
  14. ps on the same kind of places, there is link to freerideparadise.it (my hometown valley) nice... but not so easy reaching as la grave. nevertheless if you go there write a few lines ;)

    Reply
  15. Ben

    Great blog post, I am just about to move to Switzerland so great information for me before I plan my first ski trip.

    Reply
  16. Benjamin

    Grew up in Lausanne and went skiing in Zermatt for many winters. You bring back great memories, including the time I broke my leg showing off to a pretty girl how easily it was to take a small jump. I thank you.

    Reply

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