I’ve never felt more on top of the world – literally and figuratively – than I did when I was in Zermatt, Switzerland, home to the iconic 14,690-foot Matterhorn. I had always loved mountains but never before had I been drawn to any specific one. It was an interest that seemed to begin with a Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment in an 8th grade art class about molding clay that crescendoed eight years later with a truly awesome, sensory-overloaded 24 hours.
One weekend while studying abroad in the Netherlands, I found myself and a small group of friends on an overnight train to Switzerland. We descended into the Alpine town of Zermatt just as the sun lit the sky, though not yet showing itself over the tops of the peaks that hugged the village.
Stepping out of the train the biting cold, and purity and thinness of air registered first. My lungs burned and with every exhale a cloud formed in front of my face. I was glad I wore extra layers, even on my legs. The town was just waking up. I looked around for the reason I was in this town and was surprised I couldn’t see it. It wasn’t until we were crossing a bridge far enough away from the western wall of mountains that a huge smile crossed my face.
There it was. Its beauty and power hit me quick. It loomed over this valley as king, protector, killer and savior. It was unbelievable to me that I was actually seeing the real mountain that I had only seen before in pictures. It didn’t disappoint. I was now in its protectorate as I could feel it watching over me.Only the promise of getting closer to the Matterhorn made me move. We stored our luggage at our hostel and made our way to the suspended cable car base lodge. From there we made our way up to the 12,740-foot Klein Matterhorn. I’d been in gondolas before at ski areas in the Adirondacks, but I chuckle now as I think back to how I thought they had prepared me for what I was about to experience.
The suspended cable car was packed with mostly skiers and a handful us non-skiers. As we rose higher and higher the rapid altitude change started to affect me. I felt light-headed. Recalling my former choir director’s advice – don’t lock your knees or you’ll faint – I bent my knees. It helped a little.
I tried not to look down at our potential fate below, nor did I look up at the thin wires whose snapping would be the cause. My stomach flipped and dipped at the thought. By the time we reached the top station I was feeling quite claustrophobic and couldn’t wait to get out of the car.
The station is built into the side of the peak of the Klein Matterhorn. From here you can climb steps to a platform on the very summit. I gripped the railing tightly as I ascended the metal steps for fear of slipping and falling off the side of the mountain. But the view from the top was worth it.
To our backs was Italy, to our right, in seemingly reach-out-and-touch distance, was the Breithorn, in front of us was Zermatt and Switzerland, and to our left was the Matterhorn. Only it no longer retained the familiar shape it was known for. From this angle, I could see its backside with a hump and a long spine of ridges all seeming to support the iconic north and east faces.
Something else I hadn’t expected was the growing sense of my own insignificance. I was but a measly human amongst these wise, aged peaks. This wasn’t a bad thing. It was freeing. It put a lot of the things I was going through into perspective. I was reminded not to take myself so seriously. I felt rejuvenated, fortified, blissful. It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life.
On the way back down the mountain in the thankfully less-full cable car, I felt a sense of relief – to no longer fear slipping off the side of a jagged-edged mountain, a sense of release – with my new perspective and attitude, and a sense of wonder – if that moment in art class all those years ago was more Close Encounters-esque than I thought.