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Scaling the Heights with Ease

Depending on your degree of interest in the food, you may later recall the landscape between Reichenau and Disentis as nothing more than a blur, but that would be a shame. While finding your seat in the diner, browsing the menu, ordering, and balancing the contents of your wineglass over the bumpier stretches of track, you'll pass one of the most intriguing geological curiosities on the Glacier's route: the Rhine Gorge, sometimes called the Swiss Grand Canyon. In the aftermath of the last Ice Age, retreating glaciers gouged deeply into the mountains, causing massive landslides. The hillsides were stripped of their fertile veneer and left exposed in an almost vertical slant, like the white cliffs of Dover, upstaging even the lofty Alpine backdrop.

"I shouldn't linger in the dining car if I had been you," says the conductor in formal and weird English. "We disattach the restaurant at Disentis."

There, in the Rhine Valley, engines are replaced as the line switches from the bailiwick of the Rhaetian Railway to that of the Furka-Oberalp, which operates the tracks between Disentis and Brig. (While the train is changing engines and crew in Disentis, notice the twin onion-domed towers of the Benedictine monastery. The oldest in Switzerland, it was founded in 765-- the towers were an afterthought, added 900 years later.) The primary reason for the change in engines is that the steep climbs and descents ahead require cogwheels and additional braking. The FO gradient is as much as 179 feet per thousand, compared with the Rhaetian Railway's max of 70 feet per thousand.

The Glacier Express begins its climb toward the daunting Oberalp Pass almost as soon as it pulls away from Disentis. Here the baby Rhine River, whose source is nearby, would be hard-pressed to fill a Dixie cup. The mountains above become snowier, more rugged. At the summit lies Oberalp Lake, covered in ice and snow as late as June. The barren mountainsides are harsh and cold.

West of the pass, as the train parallels the newly formed RhÙne River, you begin to see the distinctive architecture of the Valais: dark-brown wooden barns and houses with overhanging eaves. The town of Münster and the villages of Reckingen and Gluringen are Swiss tourism brochures come to life, down to the clanging of cowbells and sheep clambering up the hillsides. All they lack to complete the picture is yodeling-- thank God.

During the FO portion of the journey, a recorded commentary plays in the passenger coaches in German, English, and French. "To the far end of the valley," it says as you approach Fiesch, "lies the Rimpfischhorn, part of the chain near Zermatt and one of Europe's highest icy giants." Hyperbole notwithstanding, the commentary is welcome and descriptive, but not unexpected once you know the Swiss.

In Brig the engine and crew are replaced yet again, this time as part of the BVZ (for Brig-Visp-Zermatt) railroad. After a brief stop at the industrial town of Visp, the Express makes a 90-degree turn to the south and begins its ascent up the valley leading to Zermatt. If you happen to be sipping a glass of Swiss Merlot at that moment, hold on tight. Here the train latches onto a section of the rack-and-pinion track, so steep you can feel the G-force against the insistent pull of the engine.

Just beyond the village of Herbriggen lies an immense, moraine-like pile of rocks, the result of a monumental landslide in 1991. The slide buried part of a hamlet as well as the BVZ tracks. In less than 10 weeks a new set of tracks was laid around the boulders, but the wreckage of the mountain remains, mind-boggling in size.

When the Swiss build nowadays, they often do so in the manner of a wealthy people with rustic roots. Even new buildings are decorated with mottoes or family crests in sgraffito (delicate incised plasterwork) and roofed using ancient methods; lavish modern houses sometimes have elk horns over the doorways. "At heart they still want to play peasant," says a Swiss friend. They may have a BMW in the garage, but they also have goats in the back yard.

By the time the Glacier Express reaches Täsch, 15 minutes from Zermatt, the sky has turned fierce. The clouds break into rain, a torrent, almost biblical. Any romantic would revel in such a storm, knowing with certainty that at any moment, after the train chugs around the last bend, the sky will open up, the angels will trumpet, and there, towering over that splendid horizon, will appear the stately Matterhorn in its perpetual raiment of snow. And that's exactly what happens . . . even if it's not until 10 o'clock the next morning.

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