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Lemons to Lemonade

We would have bypassed Zermatt as we circled the peaks at the head of the valley if it weren't for the good fortune of John getting sick.

John wasn’t just uncomfortable, but in severe distress from some sort of gastro-intestinal illness. This makes it unlikely that he views our situation quite as positively as I do, but he’s benefitted equally from our retreat to the comforts of village life. Besides, his health is improving daily. The weather yesterday and today has been glorious, but it’s predicted that we’ll hike back to the Schönbielhütte (where we left our gear) in heavy rain tomorrow afternoon. We should cross the high glaciers on Monday in clearing weather if things go according to the forecast. In the meantime, we’ve learned more about the region than we ever could have by looking down from a glacier.

My first trip to Zermatt came when I was ten years old, shortly after Dad’s death on the Eiger. Back then the Matterhorn captivated me as the most beautiful mountain in the world, and for years I’d been bugging Dad to take me up it. He said I’d have to wait until I was 14. In fact I waited until I was 34, in 1990, when I came over for the celebration of the 125th anniversary of its first ascent. During that trip I climbed the Hoernli Ridge. I came back to traverse the peak in 1999, and was here again in 2007 for the 150th anniversary of the (British) Alpine Club, which was famously associated with the Matterhorn. But most of what I learned about Zermatt on those trips was the recent history that’s known to all: the climbing and skiing that have made it so famous.

Yesterday John and I were taken on a tour of the town by native Nils Eggen, whose family owns one of the historic houses here, and Edith Zweifel, who has learned much from her work with the tourist bureau. We visited various monuments and buildings, and even poked our heads into one of the ancient buildings that’s being renovated in modern ways. In the evening we attended the opening of the Zermatt Festival with a magnificent performance of Brahms’ German Requiem. But the most interesting part to us was the complicated history and political structure of Zermatt, which is in many ways a mirror of Switzerland itself.

Anyone who knows anything about Swiss history knows that 1291 is when the alliance between the original three cantons was signed in a meadow near Lucerne. That alliance was created so that mountain peoples could protect some measure of freedoms from outside domination by constantly feuding dukedoms and fiefdoms and kingdoms that tyrannized what is now called Europe, including what is now called Switzerland. What almost no one outside Zermatt knows is that a similar document was signed in the same year in which the various mountain villages in the region where I am now, including what’s now called Zermatt, promised not to attack each other. They had squabbled (and to an extent continued to squabble) over land for grazing and building, but above all they wanted peace between each other in order to better fend against marauding outsiders.

The “outsider” theme is huge here. The mountain people in their remote valleys were simple and primitive, living only by very hard work in difficult conditions and nearly complete isolation. When outsiders came through the villagers would hide their women, children, and animals, because outsiders meant trouble. No one was trusted who didn’t have family ties. The more prominent families were organised into a system of burghers, or citizens, with land and political rights that developed in similar ways to the old city-state of Bern long before either joined the Swiss Confederation. Even today the canton of Valais (where I am now) is officially named the Republic of Valais, even though Napoleon forced it to fully join Switzerland in 1798. Some think they still have the right to secede from Switzerland, much as many in Texas believe their statehood is optional.

When the first British mountain tourists and scientists started arriving in the early 19th century, these isolated superstitious mountain peoples were particularly afraid. The new outsiders dressed strangely, spoke an undecipherable tongue, and carried peculiar devilish-looking instruments. The local priests were generally the first to open their homes, in large part because Latin made for a common language between the Catholic clergy and visiting scientists. Once the people saw that the strangers slept in the homes of their priests, they lost some of their fear. Later, when the people learned that their priests were earning money from lodging these guests, the locals became envious and boarding houses started opening, mostly with the more prominent burghers. Over in Saas Almagell, where we spent the night nearly a week ago at the Almageleralp hut, the community (a.k.a. the burghers of that town) built that mountain hotel for the new visitors. Then they started fining the neighbouring poor mountain farmer for every guest that he lodged. This ensured the success of the burghers’ hotel and the demise of the farmer’s side income. His dwelling can still be seen, in ruins.

In Zermatt the early hotel history is more complicated, as is the role of the burghers – the original family clans – who still run the town, both overtly in open community politics and more subtly through land ownership and family ties. But from what I gather, not just from yesterday’s tour but also from a friendship with someone in one of those clans, the distrust of outsiders is still strong. It may not be the kind of fear that makes them hide their women and children, but it’s still a clan system build on insiders and outsiders. The insiders are those who are born into the clans. The outsiders are those they make money from.

Thanks, John Bird, for your illness. We may have to hike fast in the rain to make up for the delay, but it was worth it. Especially since my stomach doesn’t hurt a bit. The food down here in Zermatt is even better than what’s in my pack.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR