A warmer welcome on the slopes

CLAIRE Walker tries skiing on a glacier as the Zermatt resort heats up

When the itinerary arrived for my glacier skiing trip, they ran an office sweepstake on which one of my limbs would come home in plaster. But the prospect of seeing the Swiss Alps in the summer; flower-strewn meadows framed by snow-capped mountains was unmissable.

The train to Zermatt winds through picturesque mountain passes, sculpted hillsides and glacial waterfalls. The town is encircled by 38 peaks over 4,000m high, including the Matterhorn. It’s a growing knot of chalets, hotels, restaurants, bars and gift shops, all done out in a stereotypical Swiss style.

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I expected tradition, rustic wooden charm, cosy log fires, all that. What I got was a chalet that was part Manhattan loft, part art-installation. The dining table lowers from the ceiling, the chandelier is made from a jelly mould and old cutlery and there’s a revolving bed in the master bedroom. The visitors’ book revealed Robbie Williams was a previous guest.

I’d barely had time to put down my bags when we were ushered out to get fitted for skis. My suggestion that a glacier may not be the best place to start a ski career fell on deaf ears. Skiing off season, usually in mid-April and beyond, means getting up top before the sun has had a chance to melt the snow. That’s the snow that lies on the glacier, so it turned out I wouldn’t be skiing on sheet ice as I had feared.

Other members of my group, all seasoned skiers, greeted my inexperience with a mixture of bemusement and mischief. I was warned about the risks of falling down the crevasses: “The rescue team give you a cup of hot soup to drink,” I was told. “And they say it’s to keep you warm until the rescue helicopter arrives. But really it’s poisoned, to kill you, because there’s no way to ever get you out.”

Emerging from the thick cloud that had covered Zermatt since my arrival, I saw the peak of the Matterhorn defiant before a clear blue sky. Disembarking onto the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (aka Klein Matterhorn), I gingerly picked my way to the flattest looking spot we could see. Skis on, I shuffled around as two six-year-olds zoomed past.

I soon got the hang of the ski stance and the all-important snowplough, and within hours I’d even managed a couple of wonky turns. As I soared down the slopes, reaching top speeds of at least 13mph, I couldn’t help but feel a bit smug. I hadn’t fallen over once.

“Now it’s time for the best bit of skiing,” whispered a companion. Offloading our skis we hiked to the hamlet of Zum See, we enjoyed an innovative menu and fine wines in the restaurant of the same name. In the summer months it’s like a scene straight out of Heidi, all lush alpine meadows and bell-wearing cows.

Zermatt’s summer-season skiing is extensive: one cable car and six ski lifts cover 21km of pistes and 1,000 vertical metres of natural snow. The Matterhorn region is a hikers’ paradise too, with over 400km of marked trails. After lunch we made our way back to Zermatt on one of them, following a suspended wooden walkway through a narrow river gorge.

Luxury chalet specialists Mountain Exposure can provide Michelin-level chefs for your accommodation. However, if you prefer to eat out, Zermatt has more than 100 restaurants and cafes. Next day, as I sat enjoying breakfast, marvelling at the view of the Mischabel Mountains, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye.

It was a parachute, spiralling, hurtling towards the ground. My stomach lurched. In an hour or two, that would be me up there. I was so consumed by my fear of skiing, I’d forgotten about the paragliding. Two hours later, I was standing on the edge of a snow-covered mountain with an adrenaline-junkie expat strapped to my back. I closed my eyes as we ran off the edge to soar thousands of feet above Zermatt, a wall of mountaintops all around us.

At first it was all very pleasant and leisurely, far too leisurely for my pilot. “Let’s try a couple of loops he said,” tugging down on one of the two control lines. Suddenly we swung up to one side, and back down. My stomach was left far behind, somewhere along the way. A few more loops and a spiral or three later, and we landed. With my face a shade of green, I spent 10 minutes lying on the ground. The views, when I was the right way up again, were amazing.

Then it was off for for a drink and another gourmet lunch at Chez Vrony’s, a family run restaurant a short hike from the town, with more picture-postcard views and arguably the best rosti you’ll ever taste.

GETTING THERE...

* Claire Walker was a guest of Mountain Exposure, which offers luxury catered and self-catered chalets in Zermatt and Saas-Fee year-round, from £100 per person per night, catered, and £70, self-catered. Its concierge service arranges pick-ups at Geneva/Zurich airports and any other services required.

* Her mountain pass was provided by Destination Zermatt (www.zermatt.ch).

* Mountain Exposure reservations: 0845 425 2001 and www.MountainExposure.com. Email: [email protected]

* Information on Summit Ski and Snowboard School at www.summitskischool.com.

* Claire flew from London City-Geneva with Baboo (www.flybaboo.com) and used a Swiss Transfer Ticket provided by Switzerland Tourism (www.MySwitzerland.com).