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Hiking Switzerland: Around the Alps in 80 Days

Well, maybe 105. But who's counting? Contributing editor John Harlin defies conventional wisdom with a 1,400-mile circumnavigation of this mountainous kingdom.

Perhaps no part of Switzerland is more heavily hiked than the Zermatt region at the foot of the Matterhorn. So imagine my surprise at finding a route here that feels remote beyond measure. I’d bet the walk gets done maybe once a year. Or maybe once a decade.

With partner John Bird, I was heading for the Hörnli Hut—the standard basecamp for the classic route up the iconic mountain—and had decided, naturally, to make a nonstandard approach, following the Italian border from Theodul Pass. (It took me months of hiking to get here, but you could start in Zermatt and take a ski lift to the Klein Matterhorn.) From there, you cross a patch of glacier and scramble up an ugly heap of junky rock. Then it gets good. Wildly good.

Walking north along the crest of a ridge called the Furggen, you look down to Zermatt on the right and Cervino, Italy, on the left. The Matterhorn towers above, growing closer with every step until you are literally walking on it. But it’s not just the view that made this day great, it’s also the actual walking. The rock here is mostly decomposed shale that’s been weathered into a smooth surface that seems crafted for hiking. On the Matterhorn itself, you traverse its east face on a perfect platform of glacier, like a sidewalk carved into the mountain to take you from one edge to the other.

Why no trekker crowds in such otherworldly terrain? A few steep sections require a rope and a little rock-climbing gear for safety. You’ll also need a good ice axe and sharp crampons. And that exquisite traverse across the Matterhorn passes under a patch of crumbling ice—meaning you’ll want to move quickly so nothing falls on you. In short, you’ll need a few mountaineering skills and a touch of boldness. This is a ridge I can’t wait to share with friends. But the weather needs to be good, and the friends strong.

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