What’s Zermatter With You? Singletrack magazine issue 129

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Emma and Carly head off to a different part of the mountains in their home-made camper. This time, it’s Zermatt and the Matterhorn that are getting all the attention. Only now, Carly does the storytelling…

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This feature was first published in issue 129 of Singletrack magazine. It has been selected as a finalist in the Singletrack Reader Awards 2020 in the Best Author category. The full list of finalists can be found here.

Words Carly Frame Photography Emma Whitaker

It’s been one whole year of riding my big girl bike. A year that has seen me transcend from seriously considering stabilisers to ‘holy shit! My tyre left the ground! ON PURPOSE!’. 

mtb zermatt matterhorn riding

Initially, bikes were just another way for me to spend more time with my partner, Emma, because living and working together was simply just not adequate. I viewed the handful of Gs I dropped to get a steed able to do 99% of the riding for me as an investment in the future of our sterling relationship. 

Anyway, time passed and I found myself being bundled into a self-built campervan with the bikes in tow, heading towards France. At this point, you may be wondering about whether a year of half-heartedly riding around a few of the UK’s trail centres would be sufficient to provide the necessary experience for one to take on Alpine bike parks. I can confidently tell you now, that no. No, it’s not. You know when you’ve got some sort of test coming up and you’re adamant that you’ll breeze straight through it because ‘How hard can this really be?’. And you completely bomb it, over and over again? Yeah, it was that. But with mouthfuls of dirt and a few handlebars to the cooch.

After realising that the UK’s mountain bike grading system doesn’t continue across the Channel, I had to majorly regroup and actually put some effort into doing an activity that most people abandon once they outgrow their hot pink Barbie tricycle. So, after three tumultuous meltdowns, too many over-the-bars incidents to mention and being verbally dragged around the Pass’Portes du Soleil event (see issue 127 for the gories), I finally felt like I was improving. Not by much, but I was now able to go a few hours without filling my goggles with the salty tears of failure.

Liked that? Then you’ll LOVE this…

Having noticed the vague improvement in my riding, Emma decided that it was time to move on to pastures new. This particular pasture turned out to be Zermatt, Switzerland. My knowledge of Zermatt consisted of triangular chocolate and ‘Oh look, that big hill looks like Mount Crumpit from The Grinch!’. Look it up, I’m right. Turns out that as well as those two vital factors, Zermatt is also known to attract a wealth of famous folks such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and one of the girls from ABBA. Most importantly, Zermatt is also home to the most efficient McDonalds I’ve ever had the pleasure to mooch Wi-Fi from. It truly was the most picture-perfect Big Mac I ever did see. Oh, they also held a round of the Enduro World Series here, but that’s not really important.

Zermatt is in a pretty deep valley and thus a bit of a smog magnet so they’ve made the town car-free. As we’re travelling in a campervan, you would have thought that we would have researched ahead, learned of this issue and planned accordingly. We did not. Furthermore, we also found out that Tasch – the closest town to Zermatt – wasn’t really keen for campervans to stay outside of designated campsites and were a little trigger happy with the issuing of 200 franc fines. So we booked ourselves into a campsite by the train station and settled in for a Toblerone-fuelled week.

Turns out that Switzerland is super friggin’ expensive. Yet another smidge of information that we would have known had we done any research at all. Anyways, after flogging a kidney and a lock of Emma’s golden hair for lift passes we grabbed a map from Tourist Information and set off. As Zermatt is car-free, it’d be fair to assume that the town would be rather peaceful. Wrong. As soon as you step off the train you are greeted by the amazingly annoying hum of e-bikes. Seriously, I thought I’d developed tinnitus. The sheer volume of e-bikes here is staggering – everyone and their granny owns one. I’d pay a hefty packet to see one of those e-bike hating (‘It’s not real cycling, is it?’) monkeys to come round here and tell that to the ton of Swiss folk tearing around town.

Start as you mean to flounder

Map in hand and a late morning pint downed (don’t judge, we’re on holiday and I really don’t want to talk about the price of sub-par beer here), we jumped on the Gornergrat train and wound our way 3,135m up the hill and onto a trail called Panorama Bike. 

After fighting to get off the platform through over-excited tourists and one emergency pee later, we were on the bikes and heading down a fire road. It’s worth noting this kind of fire road isn’t the same compact, trimmed stuff you find in the UK. Picture a landslide of razor-sharp shale, combined with a harsh sprinkling of boulders the size of The Hulk’s left foot. It’s desert-level dry, feels like it hasn’t rained since the Matterhorn first sprouted, and we’re slipping and sliding down a trail shared with a double-decker coach-load of folk, who grind to a halt with a moment’s notice to claim their obligatory picture with the Matterhorn. We’re quickly led off the fire road and onto a much more familiar berm-filled, loamy section. It was at this point that Emma wet her pants. A marmot poked its head out of its hole, gave its little marmot scream and disappeared back into its muddy home. Emma has this thing about marmots – if she were given the choice between meeting Trump to ruffle his ‘hair’ and meeting a marmot, Trump would prevail over the scary marmot. It’s weird; we’re working on it.

mtb zermatt matterhorn riding

A couple of eye-wateringly sweaty climbs later and we’ve seen more fire road than anything else, which was a little disappointing, but we were hoping that the best was yet to come. Taking a sharp turn onto a trail entitled Oberer Höhenweg, we passed through a village with such tiny buildings that I swear I saw Snow White and her seven pals through one of the pokey windows. Fast forward onto my absolute highlight of a track, Sunnegga Trail. 

Sunnegga definitely let me claw back some confidence and dignity from the day’s riding. It sounds incredibly silly, but as my limited time on a bike has been spent either on fairly well-groomed trail centres or extremely well-groomed bike parks, I was really unprepared for just how natural the riding would be in Zermatt. A lot of the skill I’d picked up over the last couple of months in bike parks flew out the window faster than I can chug a pint of flat Fosters (you should see it, it’s glorious). Sunnegga is basically a beautiful 7km(!) pump track. The berm trains last for literal years and the number of small kickers and tabletops were insane! But sweet Mary, mother of God, the arm pump. The pump was so real that you could have chopped off my numb limbs and I wouldn’t have noticed until my chin hit the stem. But it was so worth it. 

Almost locals now

Our second day of riding began with a breakfast of fresh pretzels and a few chunks of Toblerone on the train into Zermatt. Keen to relive some of yesterday’s highlights early on we caught the funicular railway to the top of the Sunnegga Trail, overtook a group of folk who appeared to be halfway through their mid-life crisis holiday and pumped our way back into town. 

After sharing a lunch of Clif Bars and the remainder of the Toblerone in a graveyard which was kinda creepy, yet super peaceful, Emma wasn’t keen to test our relationship by subjecting me to another vom-inducing climb, so we got back on the funicular and onto a gondola which took us to the top of the Blauherd area and straight down a human bowling alley. Maybe it was just the time we’d chosen to come to Zermatt, but, my God, the hill was crammed with folk. However, after scaring the life out of many of them, we were past the worst of the herd and sliding our way to the bottom of – what I like to call – the relationship obliterating climb.

This thing was just utter horse poop. It was at this point that I realised the extent to which Emma took advantage of my aversion to properly reading the trail map. This thing was a slow burner. Despite being clicked into my lowest gear and my feet spinning to the beat of a dreary funeral march, I was dying over and over and aiming silent death threats in Emma’s direction. In an attempt to have a rest without letting Emma know that my left lung had fallen out 20m into the climb, I proposed a pee/resuscitation break. Over the past 26 years, I’ve developed a bit a reputation for peeing in somewhat ‘interesting/inappropriate’ spots. I can safely say that this pee was solidly within the Top Three. I selected myself some convenient boulders and wedged my butt into place with the Matterhorn staring fondly down at me. 

A memorable view

After a decent rest, I choked down a gel and reached the top fuelled by the wild hope that there would be beer. Lo and behold, there bloody was! Fortunately, Emma had used her God Level planning skills to ensure that we had an epic descent back into town. After a few jars at the hilltop bar, we floated on down to the start of Moos Trail. With a little careful timing, the pedals don’t need to be nudged. Just pump, jump and hang on till the bottom. This is an entry level trail but can definitely push even the most experienced rider. It’s the shortest trail in the area, but it definitely doesn’t lack fun. As one of Zermatt’s designated ‘flow’ trails, it’s packed with well-groomed, smooth berms that flawlessly guide you through tabletops and rollers. Thank you Jesus, I’m back in my comfort zone.

Our last day on the hill was reserved for an unmarked descent called the Hobbit Trail. I assumed that once we were there the name of the trail would make sense. We arrived and it did not. There was a guy who had a rather unfortunate resemblance to Golum, but, apart from that, the name is a bit of a reach. Anyway, I really needed to psych myself up for this one. So far I hadn’t had any major spills (which is far from usual), but I felt like this was where it could all go tits up. 

mtb zermatt matterhorn riding

The terrain was steep, rocky and technical by my standards. With my arse grazing the rear tyre and several fearful whimpers later I made it down in once ungraceful piece. Emma was keen to ride back up and do it again, but I felt that my luck had been stretched enough over the past few days and so I distracted her with triangular chocolate and we rode on. Keen to end on a high, we headed straight to the Moos Trail and lapped Sunnegga Trail a few times before wrapping it up. 

Zermatt was my first bit of exposure to natural riding and while it scares the poop straight out of me at the minute, I was fairly happy with myself for keeping my fear-filled, toddler-like tantrums to a bare minimum. It’s a beautiful place with a brilliant atmosphere and it’s definitely on the list to revisit in the near future. Despite only spending three days riding there, I honestly feel like I improved. There are significantly fewer tears anyway, so I call that a win. The area has so much to offer every level and type rider, so stick it on your to-do list.

Moral of the story? Go to Zermatt. You might even bump into a quarter of ABBA.

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