In a previous post about photographing the Matterhorn, I noted that the town of Zermatt was “nothing to scream about.” That might have been a bit harsh. True, Zermatt is choked with tourists and their souvenir-trinket fallout. True, many of the adjacent mountainsides are marred by cables, fat roads and disenchanting signs of the overzealous Swiss compulsion to engineer everything.
However, the location is sublime, and that would be the case even if you shaved the Matterhorn down to a nub. Situated at the top of the Mattertal — an impossibly long and deep valley and one of the headwaters of the Rhone River — Zermatt is surrounded by no less than five mountains exceeding 14,500 feet. These are the Pennine Alps, and they include Switzerland’s highest peak, Mount Rosa (pictured above with a completely real and not staged ibex). These mountains are utterly captivating.
It takes a little time to find the right compositions in Zermatt, and even in the adjacent mountains. Despite the assortment of heaven-scraping peaks, foregrounds and middle grounds in the area usually have some sign of man that is lacking in charm. In the Berner Oberland, quaint chalets and storybook trains cover the landscape, but they’re actually photogenic. Ski lifts, quarry scars and modern condos … not so much.
“Riiiiii-co-laaaaa!” And the crowd goes wild…
But after a while, I found little details unique to Zermatt that were intriguing to work with. The heart of the town still has many preserved mazots, which are ancient weathered buildings unique to the area. Most of them are suspended on stone discs, a technique that kept the mice out. They’re incongruous. Zermatt is 95% decadent, and yet, these old shacks — which have thankfully been preserved — illustrate the depths of poverty that once defined the Valais region.
If the mazots temper Zermatt’s pleasure-seeking vibe — fondue anyone? — than the headstones in the cemetery along Kirchstrasse stomp on it. Several mark the final resting place of mountain climbers, and they plainly state the culprit — “Died on the Matterhorn on insert date“.
In a fairly tale town where most people are concerned with what they’re drinking for apres ski, here was a permanent reminder of how brutal the land could be. Maybe that’s why the Swiss have always been so engineering happy. The only way to make their land hospitable was to conquer it.