A few weeks ago Zoë and I finally made the trip to see the Matterhorn, Switzerland's most iconic mountain.
Prior to this visit I had only seen the striking peak in pictures and on packets of Toblerone, and we had been meaning to visit since we first moved to Switzerland.
It was perfect then, that for Zoë’s 30th birthday back in June, she had been given a night's stay at a fancy hotel in Zermatt, the town at the foot of the Matterhorn, by our generous Hungarian friends Linda and Gábor.
This was all the prompt we needed to finally make the trip, and I got to tag a long for what is probably the best gift I never actually received.
From Zurich to Zermatt is about three hours on comfy Swiss trains, with amazing scenery to make the time fly by. Heading to the mountains in the final throes of Autumn is spectacular as the trees are ablaze with colour that stops fairly abruptly at the snow line, creating an impressive fire and ice effect.
On pulling into Zermatt, the weather was perfect, the Matterhorn immediately looming large against a bright blue backdrop.
As mountains go, it is the most impressive I've seen firsthand, mainly because it just appears to be a giant, steep peak. Few other summits build so dramatically or stand out so independently from the rest of their rocky foundations.
The thought that people have climbed this baffled me. It looks impossible. You'd have to be mad to have been among the first to try it. Which is why I was intrigued, but not surprised, to hear that among the first parties to try and reach the top in 1860 were three brothers from my home city of Liverpool – Arthur, Charles and Sandbach Parker.
Now, scousers are not known for their mountaineering prowess – the famous port of course lies at sea level, so the opportunities to practice high altitude expeditions are limited. A trip to the nearby Lake District would only have got them to 978m atop Scafell Pike, someway short of the Matterhorn's 4,478m peak. I can only assume that after a few "bevvies", one of the unlikely trio bet the others that he could climb the thing, and they set off on a sort of madcap lads holiday. It would've been great if they'd done it, but unfortunately they had to turn back after 3,500m. At least they probably made it back to Zermatt in time for last orders. And alive.
The first party that actually succeeded to reach the top weren't all so lucky. After seven failed attempts and developing an all-consuming obsession with being the first to conquer the summit, another Brit, Ed Whymper, finally made it to the top in 1865.
In a dramatic race for the summit, Whymper's expedition made it just ahead of a rival climbing party from Italy who were approaching from a different ridge.
Unfortunately, Whymper's expedition was to end in tragedy. On the descent, the most inexperienced member of the group, Douglas Hadow, slipped and fell onto Michel Croz, the guide leader, leaving the party all dangling by the rope. The rope then snapped below the third climber, sending four of the group plummeting to their deaths. Whymper did make it down, together with Swiss guide Peter Taugwalder and his son of the same name.
Zoë and I had left our crampons at home, so we decided to take the cable car up to the "Matterhorn Glacier Paradise" instead.
There, at the top of the Klein Matterhorn (the Matterhorn's smaller sibling), we were afforded incredible views of the main attraction, (though not from the usual postcard angle), the surrounding glaciers and even, with the weather so clear, across to Mont Blanc.
The beauty of the view was only tempered by being colder than I've ever been in my life. The thermometer said the temperature was -12, but with the wind it must've been more like minus 20. Removing my glove for the this selfie nearly cost me my fingers.
Such was the intensity of this ice blasting that one of the Indian tourists we were up there with didn't stop screeching the whole time he was on the viewing platform. Rather than admit defeat and retreat to the warm he stayed, making a kind of whooping noise, to pose for several pictures. Respect.
Before Zoë and I reached a scream-inducing level of cold, and because Zoë seemed to be experiencing some kind of mountaineer's high from the altitude, we retired to the cafe for a wurst and a rösti to warm up before heading back down.
On arrival back at the hotel it was now late enough to check in, and it turned out we had a really nice view of the mountain to enjoy from the warm cosy room. I was struck by how impressive it is all over again, and reminded that you don’t need to go climbing or brave sub-zero viewing platforms and the wailing of borderline hypothermic tourists to enjoy the Matterhorn – it’s breathtaking from any angle. I can't recommend a trip to Zermatt highly enough.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.