Opened in 1997, the Europaweg footpath is a high level footpath that traverses and contours the eastern flank of the Mattertal valley, part of the Wallis canton of German speaking Switzerland, passing south towards the famous resort town of Zermatt and the base of the Matterhorn. It is, at times, a tough and demanding footpath, but one that allows for a spectacular and awe-inspiring visual treat from the mountain landscapes of the surrounding areas as you head towards the base of a famous Alpine icon.
Our walk commenced on a rainy and misty afternoon, leaving the small main village settlement of the lower Mattertal valley, St Niklaus, shortly after we arrived by the picturesque and typically Swiss red tourist train that trundles and climbs the scenic route from Visp, below in the main Rhone Valley, and then on towards its final terminus, Zermatt. However, our aim for the afternoon was to head for the hills, and firstly climb the 500m or so to reach our overnight stop in the smaller, quiet village of Gasenried, perched on a natural terrace and looking down towards St Niklaus in the valley floor below.
Despite the damp and humid conditions of this summer Alpine day, it was a pleasant but steep ascent cutting firstly through the outskirts of St Niklaus, following the path as it continued up through the switchbacks once clear of the surburban tarmac. We rose steeply through a damp, lush pine forest before finally turning and following a dead straight line past pastures of sure-footed local goats, to arrive at the only hotel in Gasenried village, only slightly frustrated that the promised views of the Ried glacier and the rest of the valley were shrouded in mist and mystery, and must wait for the following morning to present themselves.
Awakening bright and early, boosted by the absence of no further overnight rain, and stomachs full after a typically Swiss breakfast of meats, cheese and bread, we set off from Gasenried, full of anticipation of reaching our next overnight stop, the Europahutte, some 7 hours walk away.
Rising steeply on the path through a thick sheet of pine forest, for two unrelenting hours, the landscape allows you quick glimpses of the treasures below, back towards the outset point of the day.
The relentless gradient, our heavy packs and the altitude of nearly 2,300m were combining to result in a monotonous slog; conversation replaced by only by the sounds of the forest, the sound of our trekking poles and the internal counting of steps, one to a hundred, occupying thoughts and providing the motivation of reaching one hundred, stopping for breath, and then starting over again, you versus the hill, repeating until – finally – you arrive at the tree line and the reward opens up in front of you.
We had stopped beneath a statue of St. Bernard, the patron saint of mountain travellers, his left arm raised pointing the way onwards, showing us the view that lay ahead.
Our path continued, traversing the west side of the main valley, and for the next four hours we were accompanied by a splendid panorama across to firstly the chain of Alps above the eastern flank of the valley, and then the views continued to open up as firstly the Wiesshorn, literally the ‘White Peak’, presented itself, standing tall at over 4,500m, a towering mass of a mountain standing more Himalayan than Alpine in appearance, and then finally we were allowed our first glimpse at the Matterhorn.
Standing solo and majestic like a guardian at the end of the Mattertal Valley, the Matterhorn has rightly been a beacon of attraction for tourists, walkers and mountaineers alike for many years; its famous profile instantly recognisable as one of the iconic peaks, both in the Alps and further afield.
From this viewpoint, the path continues for another five hours or so, precariously balanced with drops steeply down to the right, crossing varied terrain including scree slope, boulder fields, a small steel suspension bridge and areas of fixed rope offering assistance against the sometimes exposed nature of the path.
The guidebook for the route we used – the excellent Chamonix to Zermatt, the Walkers Haute Route by Kev Reynolds – advises that the unstable nature of the path should allow for each walker to consider the potential risks involved for themselves before setting out, but we found the route to be rewarding and challenging, with a touch of caution and a steady head for heights required.
Flanked by views of the Weisshorn, we continued along the well defined path, eagerly following the distinctive red and white markers painted onto the rocks, acting as a frequent waymarker. After five hours of demanding but rewarding walking, stopping frequently to admire the views, and to fill our bottles with crystal clear water from the high mountain streams, we slowly started to descend slightly to our stop for the night, the solitary timber Europahutte – a 40 capacity dormitory half board accommodation, booked ahead, reasonably priced and a welcome setting for a well earned meal and a scenic balcony beer.
Visible from the hut, underneath a now closed longer 230m steel bridge (not the one above!), a large slope of scree and boulders makes its path from the ridge down to the valley floor, acting as a timely reminder of the unstable nature of the path and the ever shifting geology of mountain environments. We watched in silence from distance as a large boulder, about the size of a small car, tripped, bounced and cascaded down the mountain, the noise of rock echoing around the area for several seconds after the rock escaped from view.
The following morning, forced by the permanent diversions of the path ahead due to the potential dangers of the rockfalls, we took the hairpin twisting path down from the hut through the tree-line, taking a lower level path that rose and fell gently through woodland and pastures, concluding our high level adventure by descending joining the main valley path, running parallel to the railway and towards journeys end – Zermatt.
The famous Matterhorn, viewed from the hostel in Zermatt.
Our walk was undertaken in August 2014, and a copy of this article appears on the Ramblers website.
Finally, my friend Greg put together this brilliant movie of our trip – please feel free to watch and share!