Matterhorn, Switzerland: Grisly tales from one of the world's most recognisable - and dangerous - mountains

The view from the cemetery behind Zermatt's Church of St Mauritius should be sobering. Each headstone honours a climber killed in the surrounding Alps – two long rows of dead alpinists – with the very mountain that killed so many of them edging into view through a break in the trees at the graveyard's edge.

But it's a scene that deters few. The most recognisable mountain in the Alps, if not the world, is like a siren call to mountaineers. Each year about 3000 people reach its summit, but in the 154 years since it was first climbed it's also claimed more than 500 lives.

They are numbers that would likely have Queen Victoria turning in her own distant grave. In 1865, during the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn, four of the seven climbers were killed on the descent, including 18-year-old Lord Francis Douglas. Wanting no more royal blood spilled on the mountain, Queen Victoria proposed a ban on Englishmen climbing it.

Instead, perversely, she aroused such curiosity in the Matterhorn that British travellers suddenly started heading in droves to Switzerland to climb it or see it. It was the origin of a tourism industry for Zermatt, the Swiss town at the mountain's foot that now sees about 2 million visitors each year. Most are still drawn here by the magnetism of the Matterhorn.

Stand almost anywhere in the car-free town and the crooked neck of the peak known locally as 'the Horn' dominates the scene. It's in every view and every mind in town. Local tourism authorities even claim it as the world's most photographed mountain.

Zermatt's long main street is studded with the "Walk of Climb", bronze plaques in the style of Hollywood's Walk of Fame, honouring the seven climbers on the Matterhorn's first ascent, as well as the two climbers who reached its summit just three days later from the Italian side.

The plaque for Edward Whymper, the first ascent's expedition leader, sits in the middle of Zermatt's main square. Rising above it is the enduring, red-shuttered Hotel Monte Rosa, the town's original hotel, where the early climbers stayed.

Opposite the hotel is the Matterhorn Museum Zermatlantis, inside a former underground casino. Exhibits include a timeline of mountaineering boots, cameras and skis, but this may be the world's only museum with a rope as its centrepiece.

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In a corner of the museum, set on a ruby-red cushion like a royal crown, is a piece of the rope that snapped on the 1865 ascent, killing the four climbers. Around it are one of the boots worn by Lord Francis Douglas, whose body has never been found, and the prayer book of fellow climber Reverend Charles Hudson, who was also killed.

For all the Matterhorn's grisly tales, it's a mountain so easily viewed without the risks of climbing it. To see it best, however, you do need to leave town.

If the Matterhorn is indeed the world's most photographed mountain, the most photographed spot may well be the shores of Stellisee. This small mountain lake almost 1000 metres above Zermatt is reached by one of the 50-plus cable cars and chairlifts around Zermatt.

From the Blauherd cable-car station, it's a 20-minute walk to the lake, where the scene can be motionless, with the reflection of the Matterhorn etched onto the lake as the mountain rises above its shores. The time to be here is in the early morning, with the first funicular heading up the slopes from Zermatt at 7.30am.

The stroll to Stellisee is the first leg of the Five Lakes Walk, a nine-kilometre hike that strings together five tarns high in the mountains, including more potential reflections at Grindjisee and a surreal scene as the trail rises to the final lake, Leisee.

Though Leisee is an isolated mountain tarn 600 metres above Zermatt, it's considered the town's local beach. Wooden sun loungers line its gravelly shores, there's a playground for children, and a fountain shoots water skyward from near its centre. And rising above it all is the Matterhorn, the archetypal mountain known with a certain historical aptness as the Queen of the Alps.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/switzerland

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FLY

Swiss flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Zurich via either Singapore or Hong Kong. Zermatt is about three hours from Zurich by train. See swiss.com

STAY

At the Matterhorn end of town, Backstage Hotel is designed and owned by celebrated Swiss architect and designer Heinz Julen, bringing together a distinctive style of old and new with bathtub Matterhorn views in the Deluxe Matterhorn room. Prices start from about $280. backstagehotel.ch

Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.

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