What’s the matter, Matterhorn?

Written by Dario Julita & Oliver Keller, students of the University of Zurich 

What is a mountain? Is it just an element in a landscape, just a big elevation on a map? Well some mountains might be just that, but there are mountains which surely are much more than just that. The Matterhorn surely is such a mountain with many more connotations than probably most other mountains. Some praise the Matterhorn as the mountain of all mountains – it is said to be the most often photographed mountain in the world, but why is that?

Mountains have not always been the romantic and peaceful places of "wanderlust" and homesickness they mostly portray nowadays. As Fergus Fleming explains in his article The Alps and the Imagination up until the 18th Century mountains were mostly seen as a mystical but also very dangerous places. Legends were told about dragons and other beasts roaming the highest peaks and deepest valleys and only very few passages were considered secure enough to use. The German romantics were the first ones to see more in mountains than just danger, they began to see mountains as something beautiful and marvellous, mere temples of nature. This cultural turn was the beginning of alpine tourism. The English were the first people who dared to start climbing the still very dangerous and unknown peaks in the French and Swiss alps. In only a few decades nearly every mountain in the alps was climbed, the last one being the most iconic one: the Matterhorn. (Fleming 2004)


Matterhorn viewed from the Gornergratbahn, Riffelberg / Zermatt, Switzerland by Andrew Bossi
Disaster strikes just after the first ascent of the Matterhorn, drawn by Gustave Doré, 1865

The Matterhorn is not only the last peak of the alps to be climbed but also the deadliest mountain of them all. Already its first ascend by John Tyndall had a worldwide impact on media and society as disaster struck on the descend of the first successful climbers. As Pointdexter (1999) explains, over 500 climbers have died in the last 150 years, more than anywhere else. But probably just that is what makes this mountain still so mythical. 8 to 10 people of the 3000 people trying to conquer the Matterhorn every year die (Pointdexter 1999: 160).

Still the Matterhorn is a well known and very popular symbol for Switzerland and mountains in general. It is widely used in marketing, for example for Toblerone, the Swiss Tourism Office, various cheeses and chocolates of course, advertise with the silhouette of this iconic mountain. Even foreign brands use it for advertisement just to lure the costumers with the associations connected to it for what Knupfer (2017) showed some examples in the Handelszeitung.

This leads to a quite interesting duality: negative and positive aspects lure around the Matterhorn like an ancient dragon, or to quote Fergus Fleming: it is "the omnipresence of death amidst beauty mirrored" (2004: 55), which leads to the fascination around mountains in general but around the Matterhorn in particular.

The importance of the Matterhorn as a Swiss monument is shown by the fact that it was used by the famous light-artist Gerry Hofstetter (2020) as a canvas for a message of hope during dark times, the covid-19 pandemic. In that way the Matterhorn becomes once more a symbol of ambiguity between negative aspects of the pandemic and positive aspects like courage and hope.


Sources

Fleming, Fergus (2004): The Alps and the Imagination. In: Ambio Special Report 13, p. 51-55.
Hofstetter, Gerry (2020): Hope. Light Art. URL: https://www.zermatt.ch/hope (Access: 16.11.2022).
Knupfer, Gabriel (2017): Diese skurrilen Produkte werben mit dem Matterhorn. In: Handelszeitung, Ringier Axel Springer Schweiz AG, URL: https://www.handelszeitung.ch/unternehmen/diese-skurrilen-produkte-werben-mit-dem-matterhorn-1442159 (Access: 16.11.2022).
Pointdexter, Joseph (1999): Zwischen Himmel und Erde. Die 50 höchsten Gipfel. Könemann, Cologne.
Switzerland Tourism (2022): Matterhorn – Symbol for Switzerland. URL: https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-ch/destinations/matterhorn-symbol-for-switzerland/ (Access: 16.11.2022).

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