The next day I walked about 45 minutes to the hamlet of Blatten, really just a cluster of rustic houses and stables. There I had a picnic lunch of soft cheese on a rye croissant from the grocery in Zermatt, while I waited for clouds to disperse around the Matterhorn so I could photograph it.
There's something about Swiss men you don't want to contradict, so I did as I was bidden. On the way, I joined a group of Japanese tourists, who spoke English and commiserated with me about the loss of my camera. "Yes, yes, an Olympus," one of them said, shaking his head dramatically.
At the Schwarzsee stop, near the bottom of the Matterhorn's easiest ridge to climb, there's a hotel with, as usual, pristine public bathrooms and a cafe where I had a cup of tea. While contemplating the stupendous scenery, I thought how civilized it was of the Swiss to provide mountaineers with places like this. No need to get grubby and camp out. Indeed, there's a hotel even higher on the Big M, the Belvedere, at 10,700 feet.
After an hour's respite at Schwarzsee, I went back down to the Furi station. There the attendant returned my camera, which had ridden up the Klein Matterhorn in the other car without me. When my new Japanese friends saw it hanging from my shoulder, they applauded.
This little expedition was hardly enough conditioning for the Matterhorn, but trying a little Swiss snow and ice climbing appealed to me nonetheless. The clerk at the Alpin Center in Zermatt said the hike up the Breithorn, a 13,685-foot peak, was easy, starting at the Klein Matterhorn cable car stop and ascending 1,456 feet to the summit. So I booked a trip (for $93) with a guide and two other people, then went to an outfitter in town to rent crampons, a climbing harness, gloves, a ski pole and an ice ax.
The weather was perfect. I made it to the top of the Breithorn in shirt sleeves. From there I saw the valleys that push into the Alps from Italy; Zermatt to the north; the Matterhorn completely unveiled, as if on a coin; and, far to the west, Mont Blanc.
That, however, is the only positive thing I can say about an otherwise miserable experience. Urs, my happy, helpful Swiss mountain guide, who said he had climbed the Matterhorn 200 times, could have put Spanish Inquisition torturers to shame. Maybe I overestimated my fitness and underestimated the need to get used to the altitude and the challenges of the climb. But after we made it over the shoulder between Klein Matterhorn and the Breithorn in hiking boots and put on crampons, I faltered. With every step, my feet sank into the snow, which is to be expected but makes the walking hard, especially on an incline.
"Urs," I cried, "can't we go a little slower?"
"If we go any slower," he said, "we stop."
Then he tugged the rope that connected us, not gently. I kept trying to joke with him, but apparently he didn't share my sense of humor.
At the top I plopped down on the Breithorn's snowcap and ate a protein bar, and for awhile I felt exhilarated. But by the time I was back down in Zermatt, my body felt like a junkyard, I'd caught a cold and my face was burned because I hadn't used sunscreen.
Walking adventures that were more pleasant followed. I moved for two nights to the Hotel Riffelberg, at the third-to-last stop of the Gornergrat railway. You can see it from Zermatt below, sitting in splendid isolation above the tree line at 8,471 feet, on an Alpine meadow dappled by wildflowers and marmot holes.
There I paid $92 a night, including breakfast and a four-course, set-menu dinner, for a single room with a carved pine bedstead and armoire, TV, telephone, full bath and casement window.
The morning after I arrived, I took the train to its terminus beside the Gornergrat glacier, where there's another hotel, restaurant and snack shop. Outside the station, several enterprising Swiss had set up a photographic concession, taking pictures of Japanese tour groups with sleepy Saint Bernards wearing whiskey kegs around their necks.
Back down one stop, I got out to walk, making my way carefully along a muddy path to Riffelsee, a lake that reflects the Matterhorn like a mirror. Just as I got there, I slipped and landed in the mud, which coated my backside from collar to heels. So I lay down on a rock by the lake to dry off. Soon an elderly Englishwoman ambled down the path, followed by her husband, who came over to me.
"I must tell you a story," he said, then described how he and his wife had gone walking shortly after they married.
At one point she sat in a pile of deer scat, but he didn't want to trouble her so he didn't mention it. "All the way up the mountain, I followed the green blotch," he said, laughing merrily at the memory.
This encounter put me in a perfect frame of mind for my last two days in Zermatt at the venerable Hotel Monte Rosa, where the service is faultless and a sense of decorum prevails. It opened in 1839 and has long been favored by vacationers from Great Britain.
There's a pocket bar on the first floor with red tartan wallpaper, lined with vintage prints of mountains and climbers. The second floor has a billiards room and library. My single room on the third floor, about $148 including breakfast and dinner, had a balcony and elegant, traditional European furnishings.
The afternoon I checked in, the management held a cocktail party for guests, complete with beautiful canapés served on a silver platter. There I met a cast of characters out of an Agatha Christie novel: sedate English couples; a large, ruddy Scot; a Frenchman and his wife who stayed at the fringes of the group; a family from New Hampshire with three strapping teenage daughters; and a man from South Carolina who had been coming to the hotel for 40 years.
The South Carolinian sat at a single table next to mine in the dignified dining room, where the place settings had more forks than I knew what to do with, the butter came in little rosettes, and there was a cheese cart. The meal was a lavishly served and presented five-course affair, featuring potato cream soup, English roast beef and rhubarb tart. To accompany it, I ordered a split of Valais Dôle des Monts, a Swiss red that seemed tasty enough until my American friend offered me a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an exquisite French red prized by oenophiles. I sat musing.
I had climbed the Breithorn and sat by the Riffelsee. Still, the Swiss had remained mostly unknowable to me, though their country really does run like a Rolex. Meanwhile, there was such good humor and conviviality in the dining room at the Monte Rosa, full of happy tourists doing what they love in a magnificent setting, that these people and this meal remain my fondest memory of Zermatt.