There were only a few hours between my “I should go somewhere” thoughts and my “hop on a train” actions but I did do a little Google’ing to get a feel for the trails in the Zermatt area. The Schonbielhutte was on my radar but the hut’s website was very vague about when it closed for the season. I checked with the Zermatt Tourism Office but the woman simply read me the website…super helpful. Or not.
So, when I came upon the sign that said “Schonbielhutte 1h 25m” I decided to check out the hut for myself. Worst case scenario, the hut would be closed and I would be hiking along remote mountain trails next to the Matterhorn on an absolutely gorgeous day for another three hours. Best case scenario, the hut would be open and I’d get to spend another night in the mountains.
After about an hour of hiking I ran into the first few people of the day. They were headed down from the hut, I was headed up. A few minutes later, I was at the hut. There was no flag flying from the flag pole and the front door was securely shut. Shucks, the hut was closed. But…there was a sign on the front door in German with an arrow toward the back of the hut. Medium case scenario?
There was another securely closed door, but this one wasn’t locked. I had found the winter room of the Schonbielhutte! The main hut was closed and the guardian was gone for the season. However, some of the Swiss Alpine Club huts have “winter rooms” or a smaller, more rustic area of the hut where you can stay after the hut has closed for the season.
This winter room came stocked with a wood stove, propane burners, cots and lots of blankets. I had found my home for the night! It was about 3pm and I was the only person around. Maybe I’d get a cushy version of “solo camping” out of this little adventure after all! I off loaded some of my overnight gear and headed outside for some more exploring. There was a trail leading beyond the hut and along a ridge…I was off to see where it led!
What started out as a pretty obvious human trail quickly started to feel a lot like a game trail. I had nothing but time and sunshine so I continued following it. The trail stretched along a ridge then danced through a rocky meadow before shooting straight up a skree field. I had caught a glimpse of a few pointed ice peaks…a hint of what was to come when I reached the top of this loose, crumbling mountainside.
As usual, it was worth the climb! I had found the top of another glacier and this glacier had a bit of everything — wide open ice fields, melting waterfalls, ice caves near its base and a long tail covered in dirt. I know very little about glaciers and didn’t really understand how diverse they were until I started seeking them out here in Switzerland. They all have a bit of personality, not unlike mountains + mountain ranges. If you’ve seen one glacier…you have NOT seen them all!
About 90 minutes after I had left the hut I called it a day and headed back. The trail seemed to meander across a rocky field then head up to a legitimate summit but my legs were tired and I was getting hungry! By the time I made it back to the hut I had spent roughly 9 hours hiking. Sure, it was “just walking on dirt” but I had been toting around a 20lb pack and hiking in the mountains…my legs were tired!
— I deemed this the summit of the lump, so a summit selfie was required. —
With the sun starting to sink behind the mountains I piled on a few layers and settled in on the deck to made a dinner of mashed potatoes, tea and cheese. Not exactly gourmet but I wanted to use up the camping food I had been toting all around the country. It was hot food and it hit the spot! Before long the sun was only spitting a few rays over the mountain tops and the cold of night settled in quickly. Time to make myself at home in the hut.
— making dinner on the Schonbielhutte terrace —
I was still flying solo at this point which meant I got to avoid any awkward conversations while sharing the smaller winter room…but it also meant I had to start the wood fire all by myself. Seems easy enough, right? I was in a building with dry wood and a heaping pile of newspaper and egg cartons. Ha. I learned really quickly that I desperately need to practice my fire making skills! It took me forever to get the stupid fire going!
Once I trusted the fire to stay burning I popped outside to take in the night sky. Oh. My. Goodness. Not only had I been blessed with a stunningly clear day with cloudless views of the Matterhorn I was now standing under a blanket of bright stars. It was absolutely incredible. I could see the details of the Milky Way and if I had enough fingers and toes I could have counted every star in the sky — it was that clear and that bright! I didn’t even bother with photos as a phone camera will never do a night sky just is but this Instagram photo is basically what I saw [minus the spotlight from Italy]. Eventually the cold got the best of me and I scurried back into my crackling fire wishing I owned enough down layers to stay outside for the night to watch the moon rise.
I was alone in the wilderness, hours from civilization. I had protection from the elements with plenty of wood + blankets to keep me warm. The iconic Matterhorn was across the valley, back-lit by thousands of stars. The few mountain critters I had seen during the day were tucked in for the night. It was beautiful, calm and quiet.
Then I heard foot steps.
In the other part of the hut, the closed portion, I heard foot steps. Someone was in the hut. But who?! I hadn’t seen another living soul in over an hour…and then it had been a couple who had hiked their mountain bikes up to the hut just for the gnarly ride down. They were probably in town by now. But the guy had made quite the “oh really” face when I admitted I was alone. Crap. Maybe I should have lied?
I went outside and looked around…no packs on the front terrace and the door was still clearly locked. Deep breaths. Maybe I was hearing things? Then I caught a sliver of light through one of the closed windows [the wooden shutters were all pulled shut, presumably for the winter season]. There was definitely a person in the hut. But why?!
Where did this person come from? Why hadn’t I heard them earlier? Why would someone silently hid in a hut only to start moving after dark? My imagination went a little crazy…I basically decided I was going to die a tragic, horrific death. This is what they wrote horror stories about, right?! Well, if I was going to die I was going to at least enjoy the stupid fire I’d put so much effort into, back to the winter room I went.
I sat there, alone, staring at the fire…attempting to reign in my imagination. I listened to the person in the other part of the hut. They were making normal noises — turning on a propane burner, chopping food, running water, clattering a few dishes. Okay, all was well. They were just making dinner. Or preparing the stew to go along with my charred body. Yup, my brain was not calming down, it was escalating to cannibalism. I was going to die and become someone’s dinner. My only hope was that friends back home would tell good stories about me for the media.
Then I remember an older man I had seen on the trail hours earlier. He was down in the valley, near the sign that read “Schonbielhutte 1h 25m”. He had been alone, curiously working at a pile of wood in an area with no trees, chopping it and piling it into massive burlap bags. Something clicks and my mind returned to normal. He was the hut guardian! And that wood was for this hut that a helicopter would transport up the mountain. He had not been at the hut earlier in the day…he was working in the valley and had just come as it got dark. It all made sense. Right?!
When I finally calmed my brain down my body started to relax and my fire became enjoyable, not just the last accomplishment of my life. After one last “omgeeee” wander outside to stare at the sky I called it a night. I made myself a blanket cocoon on one of the cots and crawled into bed with a candy bar. Through the little hut window I watched the moon rise above the mountains. It was a few days past full but it was spotlight bright, illuminating the valley. Clouds crept across the sky, turning off the moon’s nightlight for a while. Sleep came easy, after I had established my getaway plan if anyone did attempt to murder me in the mountains [yup, there was a plan…don’t judge, it put my mind at ease]. My night was restless, but mostly because moonlight kept popping out from behind the clouds and shining through the window.
Morning came quickly…for the first time in months I actually really needed to catch the right train so I could get back home to Gryon and be on time for my work shift. I had packed up, swept the floors and locked up the winter room by 6:30am…quietly, as not to wake the hut guardian sleeping right above me. The moon was still high in the sky and thick clouds hid the rays of sunshine trying to break over the horizon. It was a completely different kind of beauty — still calm and quiet but in a dark, suppressing way.
— The Matterhorn, waking up…on panorama at a time. —
Down the trail I went, headed back to civilization and adult responsibilities. The first stretch of trail was familiar, exactly what I had hiked on the day before. But when I got to the sign [and the piles of chopped wood!] I veered right onto a new trail. This trail took me along the valley’s edge then dropped past a waterfall and into a forest of larch trees just as the clouds were leaving the sky. I was in awe. It was stunning! The trees were bright yellow and orange, the sky was blue and the Matterhorn was showing off its jagged edges.
This is why I wander around the wilderness! I was still alone, no one else had ventured out onto the trails yet. My descent was a mix of staring, hiking and running. I would stop and stare at the world around me, taking photos that would never do the scenery justice. I would break into a run when the trail was flowing and smooth, then drop back to a hike when things got dicey. My legs definitely felt the previous day but it was great to just let them loose on the easy trails. [yes, running with a UD FastPack packed with 20lbs of gear is totally doable]
I popped off the trail and into the city of Zermatt just before 10am. This left me just enough time to stop by a bakery cafe for day old pastries before picking up my extra camping gear from the train station lockers and hopping on the 10:13am train. The next few hours were spent on a few different trains, dozing between stops and being thankful I hadn’t let the city chaos turn me away from the Zermatt valley.