Just Back From

Just Back From...Switzerland

Colin Heinrich recently returned from Zermatt, Switzerland and shares his impressions on the dramatic mountain landscapes. Contact Indagare  for assistance planning your trip to Switzerland.

There was a funny feeling in my lungs as I took that first biting breath. It was a bit like drinking ice water and a bit like drowning; I could feel my chest contracting and retreating from the unknown. It was early September, still summer by many definitions. This icy feeling in my throat wasn’t new by any means, but it had been forgotten by months of humidity and heat.

I come from a long line of desert dwellers, dusty people who consider adobe stucco the peak of man’s architectural achievement. The last time I was on a mountain was a brief family skiing trip to Whistler, during which I promptly crashed face first into a boulder and was taken down the mountain strapped asylum-style to a cherry-red backboard.

I took a few more deep breaths. The sensation continued, less and less with each exhale, until my body began to acclimatize. It finally began to remember—this is what cold feels like.

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I had come to Zermatt on the Glacier Express from Davos. It was a meandering affair—an eight-hour trip aboard a bulky, grumbling train car with floor-to-ceiling windows. The sun burned into the giant panes. The temperature rose steadily, and I squinted to see the surrounding landscape until the giant Swiss peaks soaring thousands of feet overhead blocked out the sun.

These mountains jump up on top of themselves, throwing stone and precipice above until I had to crane my neck to see. There were trees on the mountains in places I’d never expect. An evergreen grew parallel to the ground, finding its grip on the cliff for a few feet before making a sharp corner towards the sky. Boulders lay on slopes that seemed impossibly steep, held fast into their positions by nothing but a quirk of quantum physics.

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These towering Alps didn’t seem possible. These were mountains courtesy of MC Escher. I pulled into town, stepped off the train and took my first biting breaths of mountain air.

I couldn’t see the Matterhorn yet. The distinct image of the rocky talon curling into the sky was instead covered by a thick cloud that flowed off its eastern face. It looked like a volcano primed to blow. The town lay below it, bustling through the cold. Its dark wood architecture and high roofs appeared stuck in the 1800s if not for the giant Swiss watch ads that dominated many of the shop windows. The townspeople and visitors milled about the streets chasing the puffs of vapor they exhaled.

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We were staying at the Cervo, a hotel perched on a hill overlooking the town. It was a chalet-style accommodation, with several cabins spread across a tree-lined lookout. There were modern touches in subtle ways, like heated bathroom floors and a minimalist décor, but it mostly evoked the pure Swiss aesthetic of wood and alpine charm. On the patio, uniformed staff patrolled with champagne and various local dishes. A fondue bubbled near the bonfire. From here, I could catch glimpses of the Matterhorn’s peak as it danced in and out of the clouds.

Related: The Top 10: Ski Lodges

In the early morning, we took a gondola to the top of Rothorn to watch the sun rise over the alps. At 5 AM, as we gathered on the platform leading up to the cable cars, I looked around into the inky darkness for any sort of hint of what I’d soon be seeing. There was nothing to be seen. Even in the village, not too far below, the few lamp posts barely illuminated the nearest street corner, and the whole scene looked a bit like the faintly glimmering surface of a pond under an absent moon.

As we ascended, the hints of sun still a longitude over became a bit more apparent. A certain shade of blue lightened over the horizon, revealing the sawtooth ridge of mountains in silhouette, though the details remained a mystery. They lingered in absentia until we were well on top of the viewpoint. There, the snow caps began to catch glints of light without reflecting onto the dark rocks and trees around them.

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I never did get to see the true peak of the Matterhorn. As the orange sun began to rise, a cloud front moved in to shield the view. Now, though, high on the opposite peak, I could feel the atmosphere of the Swiss Alps all around me. The cold was already beginning to bite at my toes, and I dug my fingers deep into the burrows of my coat. The wind whistled past my ears, and I could feel the blood flow through them in bump bump beats. I felt alive, invigorated by a place I never thought I’d understand.

I still can’t say I’m a person for the mountains. The desert will always be my primary habitat, with the wind carrying the wild howls of a coyote over the sandy expanse. But standing on top of that mountain, I felt something that I hadn’t felt since the last time I spent a night out west. A feeling I hadn’t felt in New York.

I felt like I could finally catch my breath.

Contact Indagare  for assistance planning your trip to Switzerland.

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