The problem with traveling far across the globe to witness some famous destination icon is that it will never (ever) be just like the pictures you’ve seen.

“It’s different than I thought.”

Man, if I had a Swiss franc for every time I’ve heard that line—in front of the Taj Mahal, up on Table Mountain, standing in front of Big Ben, out on the White House lawn—well, I’d finally have enough Swiss francs to legally open a bank account here.

Good travelers know what I’m talking about: if the Leaning Tower of Pisa isn’t covered in scaffolding, then it’s the Kremlin that’s getting remodeled the one week you’re in Moscow, or you arrive at the Louvre only to discover the Mona Lisa is on loan to the Cincinnati Museum of Art until next fall (hypothetically-speaking).

Travel is a regular lesson in personal disappointment (What? The Danube isn’t blue?), which is why I have no expectations when I travel. Expect nothing and you will always be surprised. In my book, it’s the best way to experience the world: as a constant surprise.

In the case of the Matterhorn, it simply wasn’t there.

Gone.

I flew all the way to Switzerland from America, I rode the train all the way to tiny Zermatt and then rushed out of the small station as giddy as a goatherd to look up at the sky—only to see sky.

There were a few mountains too, but no Matterhorn—only grey-white swirls of cloud that erased everything from view.

I felt robbed. After all my time in Switzerland, I was being robbed of the greatest Swiss cliché since milk chocolate.

Matterhorn snow globe souvenir sold on the Glacier Express (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler).

Walking down the streets of Zermatt, I felt the world mocking my misfortune. There were racks upon racks of Matterhorn postcards, a thousand reminders of what it was supposed to look like, Matterhorn aprons and cutting boards, Matterhorn snow globes, and a milk chocolate Matterhorn, molded to scale . . . but no actual Matterhorn.

Night came and the sky was dark and starless. The next morning I rushed to my window with high expectations but saw only an ocean of cold fog over Zermatt.

I was literally at the foot of the Matterhorn but instead of looking at the Matterhorn, I was sprawled across my hotel bed indoors, avoiding the rain, reading a book about the Matterhorn.

Like so many travel icons in the world, I discovered that the Matterhorn was different than I thought—very different.

To begin, Switzerland’s most famous mountain is not exactly Swiss-made. It’s African.

I’m not a geologist, so bear with me, but the story goes something like this:

Once upon a time (145 to 65 million years ago), the Valais (the lovely bilingual Swiss canton that is home to the Matterhorn) was actually an ocean of water. The Valais Ocean disappeared/dried up sometime in the Paleogene (65 to 23 million years ago) when the world looked a lot like the maps you drew in first grade: land shapes were wobbly and the continents shifty.

Around that same time—45 million years ago (give or take a millennium), the northern edge of the African continent smashed into the Laurasian (European) plate—BAM! (That’s exactly what it sounded like, too.)

The Alps in are in fact the aftermath of a major continental collision and the Matterhorn tells that story in its layered geology. The first 11,150 feet (3,400 m) of the iconic peak is a mix of some sedimentary rock with mostly ocean crust from the long-gone Tethys Sea.

The remainder of the Matterhorn—up to the peak at 14, 780 feet (4,478 m) is metamorphic rock that was basically flung on top of the base when the African plate ran into Europe. Most of the top of the Matterhorn is very hard gneiss—harder (and older) than the rocks that make up the base of the mountain.

So, to be very pedantic about it, the base of the Matterhorn is more than two-thirds ocean crust with a touch of Africa on top. Perhaps what is most interesting is that all these famous mountains in Valais only stopped moving some 6 million years ago, so in geological terms, the Matterhorn is a very young and recent African transplant.

In all the pictures I had seen, the Matterhorn looks so Swiss—so angular and pyramid-like, with four clean sides and a twinkling snowcap. But the reality is that Switzerland’s most admired mountain peak is the collateral damage of a two-continent head-on collision, then chiseled with precision by Swiss glaciers.

“That’s different than I thought,” I thought, closing the book and checking one more time to see if I could see the Matterhorn. It was still disappeared in a swirl of high clouds.

It took me three days of waiting and watching before I got to see the Matterhorn. It was my last morning in Zermatt and I was already packing my bags because I had a train to catch. I was on my way out the door—leaving Zermatt disappointed because I hadn’t seen the Matterhorn—and there it was: regal, real, and much bigger than I had ever imagined it to be.

The Matterhorn is massive and awesome to look at. For three days I saw nothing and then out of the blue sky there it was—the realest mountain I’ve ever seen, glorious and worthy of all the cheesy souvenirs and Disneyland knock-offs in the world.

It was nothing like the pictures I had seen. It was much, much better.

Comments

  1. Geotravel
    Canada
    July 15, 2012, 12:25 pm

    Hi, I disagree with your comment about your being “robbed”. I understand your disappointment; but, boy, use your imagination. Believe you saw the mountain. After all you have seen excellent pictures…. I’ve always wanted to visit Switzerland and breath mountain air. I would have seen the mountain rain, snow, cloud or night.

  2. [...] you’re heart is set on seeing the Matterhorn, plan at least three days in Zermatt. Cloud cover is completely unpredictable. Also, be sure to [...]

  3. George Byomuhumuza
    KAMPALA UGANDA
    August 5, 2012, 2:55 am

    Hi ,the best way just come to real Africa and climb Kilimanjaro,Mountains of the Moon;The Rwenzori mountains-very fascinating and life changing and crown your visit by tracking mountain gorillas.

  4. Kaushik
    India
    March 8, 2013, 7:01 am

    Totally agree with Andrew . Seeing is believing. Even now sitting here on the beach when i recollect the magnificent snow capped picture perfect Matterhorn i can feel shivers going down my spine. And after reading this short story i consider myself the luckiest in the world because i was in zermatt for less thn a day during my Swiss visit and that day boasted of probably the clearest skies in the month with