From the top of Klein Matterhorn, in the shadow of one of the world's great mountains, the run looks unnerving but manageable.
For the novice skier, a long, steep, narrow path is the only barrier between the summit and the wide, rolling snowfields below -- except, perhaps, for the psychological hurdle of the helicopter whirring overhead, preparing to rescue a hapless beginner.
For the expert, the real fun begins about halfway to the bottom -- after an hour of floating in foot-deep powder -- when the trails tighten up and the bumps multiply and become sharp-edged. Now, maneuvering through steep narrow chutes, the sensation is more like falling off a building than gliding down a hill.
With 36 lifts, more than 90 miles of marked trails and acres of snowfields (including year-round glacier skiing) the slopes of Zermatt, Switzerland, can accommodate the most inept or accomplished skier.
At the foot of the Matterhorn near the Italian border, the isolated village of Zermatt is an esthetic paradise for hikers, mountaineers and other outdoor vacationers. It is surrounded by 29 peaks that are more than 13,000 feet high and is accessible only by train or helicopter.
Cars are banned from the village (population 4,100). Instead, horse-drawn sleighs slide along snow-covered streets, hooves clattering and sleigh bells jingling. Hilly, curving roadways and narrow alleys are lined with a variety of shops and restaurants flying colorful flags from wooden balconies.
Hotels, chalets and huts spread from the center of town to the outskirts, where they cling to the sides of sheer slopes that rise to the base of the 14,691-foot Matterhorn, a majestic, craggy peak whose distinctive silhouette looms over all.
More than anything, it is the Matterhorn, one of the most photographed mountains in the world, that gives Zermatt its alpine flavor. The rocky peak can be seen from almost any point in the Mattervisp Valley and never looks the same twice, seeming to undergo a personality change with every passing cloud.
Though it boasts its share of ritzy (generally overpriced) stores, fast-paced night life, saunas, swimming pools and squash courts, Zermatt is for the serious outdoors enthusiast, as opposed to, say, St. Moritz, with its glittery shopping district and star-gazing tourists.
The day begins with a trip to the top of one of the three ski areas that make up Zermatt: Schwarzsee-Trockener Steg-Klein Matterhorn; Gornergrat-Stockhorn; and Sunnegga-Unterrothorn. Plan to spend the entire day at the area you choose because excursions to the summits -- by trains, gondolas and cable cars the size of living rooms -- can take more than an hour.
The most breathtaking views and some of the most enjoyable skiing are off the top of Klein Matterhorn, with a panoramic vista that extends from Mont Blanc, 60 miles west in France, to Austria. Like most of Zermatt's slopes, this is well above the tree line, so dress warmly and take plenty of sun screen; at 12,533 feet, the elements can be brutal.
Though the slopes at the top of Klein Matterhorn look imposing from town, the skiing is actually some of the easiest in Zermatt, with 14 square miles of gentle glaciers and snowfields served by eight T-bars. Novice skiers can spend the day here and ride lifts to the bottom at nightfall, while experienced skiers can go off-piste and lollop through acres of virgin powder. (If time permits, take a detour to the Cervinia slopes, on the Italian side of the Matterhorn, but remember your passport; apre`s-ski lore is full of woeful tales of Italian border guards who refused to let people board the lifts back to Switzerland without their passports.)
With Klein Matterhorn's 7,268-foot vertical drop -- one of the highest in Europe -- and the longest marked run in the world (8.75 miles), even aggressive skiers can go for hours without having to ride a lift, so consider packing a snack and stopping to sunbathe along the route. There's no skiing on the Matterhorn itself, and the slopes off Klein Matterhorn are the closest to the famed peak and offer the most spectacular views.
Farther down, advanced skiers will enjoy the Schwarzsee runs, with their tight, tree-lined trails, steep and slick as bobsled runs and chock full of monster moguls. For the stout of heart who can handle these slopes, the reward is at the top of the Schwarzsee lifts, where a small restaurant offers outrageously rich apple strudel with a thick vanilla cream sauce.
For lunch, lounge at any of the numerous restaurants that dot the ski areas and feast on the local Swiss-German cuisine and stout. Don't expect a light snack; your plate will be piled high with scrumptious sausages, schnitzel and fried potatoes. The lentil soup was a smashing success at every stop. If you still feel like skiing at meal's end, you've shown too much restraint. Get back in line and grab a homemade pastry and cup of espresso.
Intermediate and beginning skiers also will enjoy the Gornergrat area, reached by a 40-minute train from town that winds over ravines, through tunnels and up snowfields to 10,134 feet. This is a good area for less-experienced skiers, with relatively flat slopes and wide-open terrain.
From the top of Gornergrat, two cable cars lead to nearby Stockhorn, where some of Zermatt's most challenging slopes lure the resort's best skiers. Those who relish bumps converge here, especially early in the day when it gets the sun and light powder blankets mogul-filled slopes that stretch for hundreds of yards across an enormous ski bowl.
(Warning: The Red Nose Restaurant at the top of Stockhorn looks like a restaurant but is actually a gastronomic torture chamber. Last year, it was manned by two jovial Britons who slept onsite and were lucky to make it down to Zermatt once a week. If they tell you something is a "house special," grab a doughnut -- allegedly delivered fresh each day -- and ask where the good snow is; anyone crazy enough to live like a hermit on a steel platform at 11,177 feet is undoubtedly a better skier than cook.)
Stockhorn and Gornergrat skiers generally should plan to ride the train down at the end of the day, so check departure times. If you choose to ski to the bottom, stop along the way at the Riffelalp cafe' for a hot wine on the patio while watching the sun set behind the Matterhorn.
Be warned that skiing into town is not as romantic as it may sound. You're likely to encounter long stretches of flat, narrow paths interrupted by ditches, mud patches, rocks and other obstacles as you near town.
Zermatt's third area is reached by underground train that drops skiers at the top of Sunnegga, or "Sun Corner," which offers some of the finer views of the Matterhorn and the town of Zermatt. A series of other lifts go to Blauherd and Unterrothorn, at 10,170 feet, for a variety of slopes from expert to beginner, some of which are groomed with artificial snow. Conditions here are sometimes superior to elsewhere at the resort, and combined with the wide variety of trails, can lead to crowds and occasional lift lines.
By sundown, wobbly-legged skiers funnel into town and search out a cozy watering hole, where they swap horror stories about falling off T-bars and breaking ski poles, or concoct tales about jumping off cliffs and schussing down ravines. Rare is the skier who had an "average" day.
If you find yourself stumbling back to your lodging, you'll be in good company. Zermatt streets by night, covered with a thin layer of ice, witness more spectacular falls than its slopes by day. The best crash, though, is into a warm bed, leaving you ready to tackle the slopes at sunrise. Ways & Means, Page E9.