The mountain towered above us the next morning as we rose in the funicular's glass box, and the chalets that compose Zermatt grouped tighter and tighter together, then became a little smear, and soon vanished. The walk down is magnificent. But it's not short. Eventually, fatigue set in, not so much from exertion as from the thin air, the sharp sun on our faces, the rocky and barren earth. And so we staggered into Zum See, a chalet serving lunch under white linen umbrellas. A gigantic slice of rhubarb-meringue pie went by on a waiter's tray. It was like a spirit-world manifestation.
Later, I looked at pictures from that lunch: dried beef and cheese, chèvre salad. But in the afternoon sun, exhausted, the dark wood of the chalet glowing like honey in the sun, we felt like we were having the greatest meal of all time.
In what was now a pattern, it was raining when we arrived at the Gletschergarten Hotel, in Grindelwald. And it stayed cloudy the next day; the breadth, the height, the scale of where we were remained a mystery. After a long, wet walk in the low hills around the town, we huddled in our room.
On our second night we ate at the Alte Poste, an old hotel-restaurant, and made friends with Anne-Laure and Stéphane, a French couple from Montpellier. They had come here five years earlier on their honeymoon and had returned to the same room in the Alte Poste every summer since.
The next day there was sun, and Anne-Laure and Stéphane offered to be our guides on the Eiger. For two days we had seen the foot of a huge glacier whose dimensions we could only guess, but now we walked from the funicular that had taken us straight up, and there it lay before us in all its overflowing majesty, pouring down between the two peaks like icing prepared by a pastry chef gone crazy. We moved closer and closer, until ice and sky abstracted to completely fill our vision with magnificent swaths of white and blue. But as exciting and beautiful as it was to look up, the main attraction was down below us: the many chalets of the town of Grindelwald spread out on the green slopes, the pattern of light and shade cast by the few "tidy" clouds. Such hope in the brightness of that sea of green! Humanity, so often a blemish on natural beauty, here enhanced it somehow. I could almost feel the maniacally cheerful window boxes adorning all those chalets beaming up at me.
We had lunch on the mountain, then said good-bye to Anne-Laure and Stéphane, who took the long way down. We took the short way. Or it was supposed to be short. For two hours we zigged and zagged down a ravine, past waterfalls, through thick forest, glimpsing now and then the vast green carpet of the valley below. Eventually we saw our hotel, the church spire in front of it, and our Passat parked next door.
We collapsed into the bucket seats as if they were massive easy chairs. After a few minutes we revived and began the drive back to Zurich for the flight home. We went up, we went down, and the road began to flatten. The normalness of the road, the way it guided us along gentle curves, offering nothing more than the slightest of inclines, was profoundly disorienting. Where was the wild up-and-down drama?The sun shone placidly, and it occurred to us both what tumultuous, unpredictable weather we had been in, the storms vanishing as suddenly as they had rolled in, leaving us under the most exhilarating skies imaginable. When we got to Zurich, we had the strange feeling, both melancholy and thrilling, that everything we had just seen had been a dream.
Thomas Beller is the author of How to Be a Man and The Sleepover Artist, among other books. He is a T+L contributing editor.