Featured Trades: (REPORT FROM EUROPE, PART V)
2) Report From Europe, Part V. My first morning in the Swiss mountain hamlet of Zermatt, home to the Matterhorn, I was awoken by an army platoon outside my door, fully armed with fixed bayonets.
No, I was not being arrested for past indiscretions in the idyllic Alpine paradise. My often inflammatory opinions had not even triggered an international incident worthy of military action. It was in fact, the traditional religious holiday of Corpus Christie, and the entire town was conducting a parade past my hotel, brass band and all, at 6:00 am.
Was It Something I Said?
I was here to launch my annual assault on the Matterhorn, at 14,692 feet, one of the highest in Europe, and taller than any in the continental US. At 11,000 feet I was driven back by howling 50 mile an hour winds and snow. Some 30 climbers a year die in accidents in the Zermatt area every year, and I was not about to make it 31. Many tumble down the mountain's 3,000 foot sheer face and disappear into crevasses, never to be found again.
Back in town I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce to pick up my 40 year visitor's loyalty pin. I have been trying to summit the peak since the sixties. The pin entitles me to free concerts at the 18th century church and other such frills.
Maybe Next Year
When I first arrived here, the town was overrun with American college students, backpacking around Europe on shoestring budgets, using their Eurail passes to sleep on overnight trains to save the cost of a Youth Hostel. Alas, the age has passed, and today they are gone.
The weak dollar means that the only young Americans you see are the children of hedge fund managers and Fortune 500 CEO's flaunting Rolex watches and daddy's American Express platinum card, acting as obnoxious as they can. The locals are relieved.
The Strong Swiss Franc Forced Some Economies
Since the Matterhorn has some mystical hold over the Japanese as the world's most perfect mountain, tour groups are here en masse. At one traditional Swiss restaurant I saw one very loud, drunken fellow stagger from table to table, annoying every guest.
I knew from hard earned experience that this red faced guy was going to throw up any minute. I asked the owner why he didn't throw him out. He said that the miscreant was the tour guide, if he left, his 20 big spending customers would depart with him, and he couldn't afford to lose the business.
Can I Make a Collect Call to the 16th Century?
Zermatt has been a transit point for those traveling between Northern and Southern Europe for thousands of years. During WWII refugees fleeing fascist Italy were guided to the edge of the glacier never seen again. Hundreds are thought to be still entombed in the many crevasses.
On a previous trip, search and rescue was sent out to retrieve a newly discovered body. After sifting through his pockets and dating the coins, authorities realized that the unfortunate victim had been there for at least 400 years.
I always avoid the cheesy souvenir shops, as most of their offerings are now made in China, and I already have enough Swiss Army knives to last a lifetime. Instead, I do my shopping at the local hardware store and supermarket, loading up on my favorite mustard, chocolate bars, and a few cow bells.
After five days of climbing lesser, easier peaks, I boarded the vintage cog railway for a return to modern civilization. I'll be back next year for another Matterhorn attempt, more plates of bratwurst and rÃ¶sti potatoes, and those great Swiss lagers.