Coming up the mountain, we suddenly see about sixty Japanese sitting on the lawn in front of the Riffelberg Mountain Hut. Most of them wear thin cotton gloves and hats with big screens against the strong sun. Some have clipped their sunhats to the collar of their chequered shirts, in case a sudden strong breeze comes up. From their open knapsacks they take out Onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed, that smell oh so Japanese.
In the course of their “Swiss Alps in Seven Days” tour, every Japanese tour group visits Zermatt. They are shuttled up to the Gornergrat ridge in the historic cable car to get a good look at the famous Matterhorn and the other 28 snow-capped 4000m peaks in the area. From the ridge, the groups walk down a couple of cable car stations over the green meadows, admiring the Alpine flora. In front of the Riffelberg Hut, they then have their pre-packed Japanese-style lunch while they marvel at the characteristic, slightly bent peak of the Matterhorn. As on most days, a frothy white cloud adorns the eastern side of the peak like a fancy plume. The Matterhorn certainly looks unclimbable, and until 1865, nearly everybody thought it was.
Six times had the British mountaineer Edward Whymper failed to climb the Matterhorn from the Italian side when his attempt from Zermatt met with success on 14 July 1865, just ahead of an Italian party. On the descent, however, one member of his group slipped, carrying away three more climbers into death. Only the breaking of the rope saved Whymper and two guides from the same fate. Although a formal investigation as to whether the rope had actually broken or had been cut freed Whymper of any charges, this terrible incident haunted him his remaining life. Today the broken rope from the first ascent can be admired in the Matterhorn Museum of Zermatt. Since 1865, many climbers successfully reached the peak - among them the 23 year-old Theodor Roosevelt in 1881.
Numerous others died during their attempts. Their graves can be visited on the mountaineers’ graveyard behind the small village church. Tombstones with sculpted ice axes, or even with real ones attached to them are common. We even see a grave with a crucified Christ adorned as a climber, axe and rope hanging from his dead body.
The village of Zermatt is very much geared towards tourists. The main road is lined with souvenir shops and sports shops, selling everything Swiss, from chocolate to watches and pen-knives. Among the day trippers and tour groups mingle serious mountaineers with ropes slung around their shoulders, ice axes and crampons fixed to their backpacks.
No cars are allowed into the village. Yet there is a constant reverse gear background noise, created by legions of small electric vans buzzing through the streets. Even the local police whizzes around in a dark blue plastic box.
On our hikes around Zermatt we keep meeting Japanese. “Konnichiwa,” we smile at every one of them, eager to practice our Japanese. “Konnichiwa…” Most don’t even notice. “Eh, ‘Konnichiwa’?” Some do. “Nihongo daijōbu? You speak Japanese?” One middle-aged woman takes the opportunity to ask how far it is to walk to Zermatt. Is the path very steep? And we have walked up all the way? Excitedly, she keeps grabbing our elbows while talking. It is her second visit to Switzerland, but the first time in Zermatt. Tomorrow they will visit the Jungfraujoch and stay there at the hotel, at an altitude of over 3000 m. In the evening, walking back to the campground, we see the Japanese staff of the restaurant “Fuji of Zermatt” in traditional garb, having a quick cigarette in the backyard. But from the other side wafts the cheesy smell of Raclette.