Switzerland's Matterhorn attracts skiers of all levels

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ZERMATT, Switzerland -- You don't have to be an expert to ski by the Matterhorn, at 12,530 feet, and take in its glory.

On a relatively easy, wide, smooth trail that fell 3,000 feet, I was captivated by the famous peak in close view to my left.

The terrace at Zermatt Gazing over the edge and down at the clouds, my mind filled with thoughts of Edward Whymper, who led the first summit of the Matterhorn with six other climbers in 1865. The group reached the pinnacle in 32 hours, but on the way down, one man slipped and sent himself and three climbers falling 1,200 feet to their deaths. Whymper and two others survived.

Climbers and skiers continue to seek challenges here, a compulsion that seemed tangible as I whizzed by the famous peak. This feeling was helped along, I suppose, by the fact that there was not another skier in sight.

In early October I shared Europe's largest year-round ski area with the professional ski teams of the U.S. and a few other countries and just a handful of "amateurs."

In the valley it was typical autumn weather -- crisp and sunny at about 50 degrees.

I took two gondolas and a cable car -- which travels higher than any other in Europe -- and trudged in my ski boots through the station's long, dreary, concrete tunnel, unprepared for what was about to hit me. The brilliance reflecting off the expanse of white stunned me momentarily, and I reached for my ski goggles.

But you don't have to be a skier to ride the gondolas and cable cars and get these views. Another way is to ride the 100-year-old, cog-wheel railway to Gornergrat, at 10,000 feet.

By midafternoon I skied to the bottom of a four-mile trail and basked on the terrace with other skiers sipping wine and wheat beer. The cable station cafeteria, the only option in the summer and fall, had a vast selection of food and drinks, and I could only imagine what awaited visitors here in winter, when 32 restaurants are open.

Back in the valley, I steeped further in the mountaineering ambience at the Whymperstube restaurant. As I drew open the plush drape inside the doorway, the aroma of fondue pervaded the room.

Diners sat close, beneath the antique climbing equipment that hung from the wooden beams. A waitress brought schnapps to a local ski club at a table in the back room, and then the yodeling broke out.

I stepped out onto the narrow streets that were silent.

Cars are banned in the town, which is well served by the Swiss rail system, hotels' electric carts and horse-drawn sleighs and carriages. And because of the strength of the U.S. dollar in Switzerland, the cost of skiing here is competitive with skiing the Rocky Mountains.

Central Holidays offers a seven-night trip that includes accommodations at the five-star Zermatterhof. Available Jan. 8 to 30, the price starts at $1,669, per person, double, and covers breakfasts daily and roundtrip air from New York (Kennedy). From Feb. 5 to April 2, the same package is $2,006 per person. A six-day winter ski pass is $204.
Central Holidays
Phone: (800) 935-5000
Fax: (201) 963-0966

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