Dominated by one of the most famous natural landmarks in the world, the Matterhorn, Zermatt is rated by many as the best ski resort in the world. The sublime beauty of its setting and skiing on a vast scale contributes to this view, along with the historic resort’s sense of tradition, lack of cars and rustic charm combined with a fair dash of stunning chic.
This special allure draws me back time and again – and on this trip there has been the added attraction of its end of season music festival, Zermatt Unplugged.
But it is its people who make a place and Zermatt is no exception – meeting people who have helped forge its great traditions is one of the joys of visiting this awe-inspiring mountain village. One such is Alex Perren, part of the fabric of Zermatt – and who is still going strong nearly 60 years after he thought his time had come on one of the mountain faces near the village.
Alex, now over 80, told me about the occasion when he was in a situation that looked more than hopeless, on a freezing, snowswept mountain ledge on the South Face of the Obergabelhorn. He was lying there with a shattered leg, waiting to die.
As well as being a ski instructor, Alex was a mountain guide and had fallen while guiding a client. He had instructed the client to make his way back to the village to seek help. But he also knew that the weather was too bad for a rescue operation to be mounted – and was convinced that his future amounted to a few hours at best.
So he drank the schnapps and ate the food he had with him – and waited for the end. He was just 26.
‘As I lay there I thought about the wonderful, though short, life I had had in the mountains up until then,’ he told me. ‘I was certain that there was no way I could survive. But then to my amazement, 16 hours after the accident, a group of my fellow mountain guides from the village appeared. They had defied the conditions and decided they could not leave me there. I couldn’t believe it.’
Even so it took many hours to get the badly injured Alex down the mountain. The exhausted party, in one of the most difficult and courageous rescue operations in the mountain community’s history, arrived back in Zermatt 38 hours after the accident. Alex’s left leg was so badly damaged that doctors decided they had to amputate it below the knee.
His career as a top mountain guide was over. But the accident heralded a new passion – and Alex was to become one of Zermatt’s leading hoteliers.
After his accident, Alex’s mother gave him a plot of meadowland near the railway station, in the heart of the village. And in 1961 he opened Hotel Alex. The following year Gisela Becwar, an Austrian girl born in Salzburg, came to work at the hotel as a secretary – and it wasn’t long before Alex fell in love with her.
‘I hit the jackpot with her,’ said Alex. They married in 1964 – and together they made the Hotel Alex one of the resort’s most fashionable places to be seen in. ‘We worked sometimes 16 hours a day, but it was not work, it was fun,’ said Alex. ‘The secret is to love people and to want to serve people, and be there for them. You have to give before you can take.’
Alex was until recently still enjoying the slopes, although he is taking it easier now. ‘After my accident I was in hospital for a long time. But after 18 months I was at last given my new artificial leg – and the next week I was skiing. People told me it would take me a long time to get used to it and to be able to ski well on it – but I found I could ski normally straight away, it wasn’t a problem to me.’
In 2005 Alex and Gisela retired and now the hotel is being run, with the same enthusiasm, by his daughters Christina and Sonja and Christina’s husband René Hurlimann.
At just 19, Alex had become the youngest person from Zermatt up to then to qualify as a ski instructor and mountain guide. To his great joy, he could now take guests up his beloved Matterhorn and the other nearby 4,000-metre peaks.
Climbing was in his blood – his great-grandfather on his mother’s side was Peter Taugwalder, the first mountain guide to climb the Matterhorn, together with Edward Whymper, in an expedition that ended in catastrophe when four fellow climbers fell to their deaths during the descent. It’s impossible to visit Zermatt without acquiring some knowledge of that 1865 mix of jubilation and despair – the tales of triumph and tragedy on the surrounding peaks are part of life here. And the Monte Rosa hotel from which Whymper and his party left at 5.30 on the morning of July 13 is still outwardly very much as it was then.
Edward Whymper and the two guides, Peter Taugwalder and his son, also Peter, were the only ones to return out of the party of seven. The story of that first ascent of the Matterhorn is the centre-piece of the fascinating museum in the centre of Zermatt, opposite the Monte Rosa. And this summer will see a number of commemorative events as the village poignantly marks the 150th anniversary of that momentous bitter-sweet summer. Maddogski will be looking back on the event too with some special coverage.