The PYRAMID-SHAPED apex of the Matterhorn appeared suddenly, unexpectedly, during a brief lull in mid-December's unremitting snow showers.
It was a sight that would not be soon forgotten by two dozen or so fellow travelers huddled in a small mountainside cafe near Plateau Rosa, a wind-swept way station straddling the Swiss-Italian border 11,300 feet above sea level. Only minutes earlier, they had been nursing their second cups of cappuccino and exchanging idle banter about the weather in a babel of four languages. Then the sun broke through, clearing the cafe, and everyone was outside drinking in a view that would bankrupt the vocabulary of a polyglot.
The Matterhorn stood resolute, 14,692 feet tall, towering fortress-like over a pitched sea of glacial troughs and granite-edged crests. Over the years its famous facade has inspired the words of Lord Byron, the imagination of Disney designers and the wanderlust of countless armchair adventurers.
On this special day in December it would also serve as a breathtaking backdrop for exceptional Alpine skiing in two resorts: Cervinia, Italy, and Zermatt, Switzerland. Both resorts are longstanding favorites among Europeans, and each is the equal of the best winter resorts in the American West. Yet, for more than a decade, most American skiers have known them in name only.
It was a decade marked by the decline of the dollar abroad and the ascendancy of Western skiing at home. The Alps were simply too far, too foreign and, above all, too expensive. The bill for a family of four spending a week in St. Moritz would cover the down payment on a Colorado condo, complete with telephones that worked.
Then, about a year ago, word of an Alps alternative began to trickle down the cocktail circuit of the Eastern sporty set. Rocky Mountain regulars who always toasted the New Year in Colorado ski country had returned home with unsettling tidings: 1981 would not be a vintage year for the region's celebrated champagne powder.
The all-but-forgotten Alps, by comparison, offered an abundance of snow, authentic gemutlichkeit and haute cuisine, plus exchange rates for the dollar that were downright respectable. Moreover, if you played your tour packages properly, you could probably ski the Alps for the same price as Aspen or Vail -- give or take a few Swiss francs.
Most skiers who looked into the matter last season discovered that the claim of price parity was premature. This winter and spring, however, transatlantic comparison shopping for ski vacations has come of age for residents of the Northeast.
Throughout 1981, the dollar continued to make significant gains in value against most European currencies, especially the French franc and Italian lira. Transatlantic airlines such as TWA, Swissair, Lufthansa and Alitalia announced special discount fares from New York to Alpine gateway cities, hoping to entice skiers to kick their "Rocky Mountain high" habit.
The bad news is that a ski vacation in the Alps is still an expensive proposition. The good news is that, compared to ever-increasing prices at Western resorts, you don't necessarily have to pay a premium for the Alps.
Price comparisons, by nature, are plagued by numerous conditions and disclaimers labeled "subject to change." But this much can be said: If you are accustomed to shelling out a total of $900 to $1,000 per person for air fare and a week's lodging, meals and ski pass at a popular Western ski resort, there's a sizable list of first-rate Alpine ski packages that will fit your budget.
The list probably won't include such chic Swiss resorts as St. Moritz and Gstaad, or some of the au courant haunts in the French Alps --unless you cut corners on the quality of your hotel accommodations. But it will be long on well-known names that for years have been synonymous with the highest standards of Alpine skiing.
Some European standards, of course, will require adjustments by American skiers. Most hotel rooms are very small by American standards; the service provided by the hotel is more important (when was the last time you ordered room service in the Rockies?). Because hotel packages usually include breakfast and dinner, there is always the risk that you will be stuck with a chef who lacks both skill and imagination. In general, however, Alpine hotel food is a cut above the fare offered by expensive "continental" restaurants out West.
Yes, a scotch-and-soda will cost you $8 or more. Bring your own (duty-free) or switch to the local wines and brandies. And, no, Alpine weather is neither as sunny nor as mild as the semi-arid climate of Colorado and Utah. But the skiing is just as exhilarating, and the ambiance is hard to beat.
Take, for example, my recent visit to the two resorts located on either side of the Matterhorn. Cervinia, also known as Breuil in France, is the namesake of Monte Cervino, the Italian name for the Matterhorn. It is located at the northern reach of the narrow Valtournenche valley, a bilingual (French and Italian) enclave some three hours by bus from Milan. One of Europe's most popular, moderately priced winter resorts, Cervinia is noted for its high altitude (6,765 feet), its dramatic setting on the southern flank of the Matterhorn and its easygoing Italian conviviality.
Last year the German business magazine Capital published its survey of 80 Alpine resorts, grading each on a series of criteria that ranged from hotel prices to apre s-ski options. Cervinia received the highest rating in Italy and the third-highest marks in all of Europe (Switzerland's St. Moritz and France's Les Trois Vallees placed first and second).
The village itself is tiny, its size restricted by surrounding avalanche zones, and hotel-centered. Cervinia's clientele doesn't put much stock in shopping or the late-night disco scene; they come to ski all day and to while away the evening over dinner and drinks at the hotel. All of its 40-odd inns, which run the gamut from mom-and-pop pensions to the four-star elegance of the Grand Hotel Cristallo, are only minutes away from a lift station.
Cervinia's extensive lift network, which includes seven cable cars, provides access to an impressive 5,000 feet of vertical drop and a staggering 125 miles of ski terrain. Almost all of its skiing is above the tree line on wide-open, mogul-free snowfields that are rated intermediate in difficulty. Expert skiers often band together to hire a guide ($50 half day, $80 full) for an introduction to the thrills of ski sauvage --out-of-bounds and glacier skiing. There's plenty of pristine powder to be found in the vicinity of Plateau Rosa, the two-mile-high crossover point, via the Theodul Glacier, to Switzerland and Zermatt.
The tradition-minded village of Zermatt, located in the German-speaking canton of Valais, tries very hard to maintain the quaint, picture-post card image that many Americans have of a Swiss Alpine resort. Buildings are generally low-rise and chalet style, with weathered wood accents. Its main street, lined with chic shops and fashionable hotels such as the Zermatterhof and the Mont Cervin, rings with the bells of horsedrawn taxi sleighs and carriages -- cars are strictly verboten in the village. Access to Zermatt, in fact, is limited to a narrow-gauge shuttle train from Visp or the bus station of Tasch, three miles from town. (By either rail or road, be prepared for a five- or six-hour transfer from Geneva, Zurich or Milan airports.)
Zermatt seems to have a thing about trains. From the village's base at 5,300 feet, the venerable Gornergrat cog railway winds its way up to a 10,000-foot-high station, dropping off skiers en route. And the Sunnega-Blauherd area now sports what has to be a skiing novelty -- a mile-long, uphill subway that, to date, is still graffiti-free.
The best ride in town, however, takes skiers all the way to the top of Klein Matterhorn, altitude 12,530 feet, via Europe's highest aerial cable car. It's the entrance to magnificent vistas of the Big One nearby and the starting point for a type of long-distance downhill skiing that has made Zermatt famous. In the course of covering some 7,000 vertical feet, skiers continuously encounter new combinations of challenging plunges and carefree cruising, occasionally stopping for a cold beer or a warm gluhwein at mountainside bars. Or, for a change of pace and a plate of pasta, they can head south to Plateau Rosa and ski down to Cervinia for lunch.
The two-way ski traffic between the two resorts continues year-round, thanks to a high-altitude summer ski program on the glaciers of Gobba di Rollin above Plateau Roasa. So those who can't make it to the Matterhorn this season should take heart. Alpine skiing in August is still an option.