My view of Switzerland is derived primarily from watching the film Heidi starring Shirley Temple. Although it was produced in the 1937, it was still popular some 20 years later when I was growing up, the curly-topped singer and dancer herding belled cattle, goats, and sheep in the Swiss mountainside home of her Grandfather. The tale of the precious little girl, which is in the tradition of “and a little child should lead them,” continues to be popular; the children’s book by Johanna Spyri, originally published in 1880, has been translated into multiple languages, apparent in bookstores and tourist shops—alongside another children’s book, Wolli, featuring one of Zermatt’s equally precious black-faced sheep.
That celluloid depiction was not far off the mark as our visit to Zermatt and surrounding villages included a celebration of bringing the cattle down from the summer alpine pastures with the cows festooned with flowers and crowns one day as well as a “Most Beautiful Sheep” contest the following day. Centuries old houses, barns, and granaries still exist in Old Zermatt as well on the hills and paths above the town. A trip to Zmutt, 1000’ above the tourist-crowded town, reveals an iconic mountain village with a restaurant for trekkers and discrete satellite dishes on a house or two. Still, the bells on the necks of cattle and sheet clang appealingly.
The Zermatt area has been a tourist mecca for well over a century. And no wonder. The Matterhorn is a dramatic icon on the skyline, unconquered until 1865 when Edward Whymper and a group of six others ascended the summit. Their story is embraced at the Matterhorn Museum, which includes a fragment of the rope that broke, resulting in four of the party falling to their death.
That story is the basis for the Newbery Award winning book, Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman (1954), which inspired Walt Disney to make the film, Third Man on the Mountain (1959), starring a young James MacArthur, one of the child actors in the Disney stable (perhaps better known for his role as “Book ‘em Dano” in the original Hawaii 5-0). As with many Disney productions, the film tied into a famous Disneyland attraction: the Matterhorn ride.
Tense mountain climbing scenes figure prominently in two other novels, although neither is set on the Matterhorn specifically. Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017) is the thrilling true story of Pino Lella, an Italian teen from Milan, who helps Jewish refugees and downed Allied pilots escape into Switzerland via a mountain monastery. Until 1943, Italy’s Jews were fairly safe, but with Mussolini’s fall, the Nazis took control. Pino not only climbs and skis mountain passes; he also becomes a spy when selected as a driver by a Nazi officer. (A film version of this popular novel is forthcoming.)
The Eiger Sanction (1972) by Trevanian (the pseudonym of Rodney William Whitaker, who chaired the media studies department at the University of Texas-Austin), concludes with a tense mountain climbing adventure on the treacherous Eiger, familiar to anyone who has seen the Clint Eastwood film of 1975. The novel, however, is quite funny, a send-up of popular spy novels such as the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. The characters’ names offer clues that the author doesn’t take this story seriously: Wormwood, an incompetent CIA agent; Clement Pope, another agent in the story; the albino Urrassis Dragon; Randie Nickers, one of the several women that anti-hero Jonathan Hemlock beds. Banner in the Sky, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and The Eiger Sanction offer thrilling details and technical background about the intricacies of mountain climbing.
Another satire deserves mention: Mark Twain’s story of his trekking from Zermatt to Riffelberg. This short story is contained in the longer A Tramp Abroad, downloadable for free from Gutenberg.org. Twain organizes a party to make the hike, a route that is more easily done today via the cog railway, the Gornergrat Express. His group is roped together from the starting point of Zermatt as “one can never be too careful about falls,” and the train extends half a mile with donkeys, guides, and supplies. He notes that the Baedeker Travel Guide says it’s an easy day hike to Riffelberg, but Twain insists it’s at least seven as they got lost. Today’s hikers can follow the Mark Twain Weg (way) from Riffelberg Hotel—built in 1855 and surely an overnight stop for the author–to Riffelalp described as a “gentle descending trail.” What is not noted is that the path features drop offs that may scare off even a literate acrophobe.
One last book suggestion: Before A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle authored several novels, including And Both Were Young (1949; reissued 1983), which features a teen girl being dropped off at a Swiss boarding school by her widowed father, a fairly common practice at the time to send girls to “finishing school.”* As with much of young adult literature, the protagonist, “Flip,” for Phillippa, has difficulty fitting in but finds a friend in Paul, a young man traumatized by the recently concluded war. A sympathetic art teacher helps Flip deal with the death of her mother, and, in turn, Flip is key to Paul’s recovery. Skiing figures prominently in the happy outcome, and readers also learn that the art teacher and her husband helped refugees flee from Germany into the safety of Switzerland over mountain passes.It’s the same theme readers find in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.
Switzerland offers glorious scenery and the potential for lots of healthy exercise with well-marked trails and paths for hikers and bikers. Cable cars, gondolas, and railways take sightseers to stunning vantage points looking at mountain peaks and disappearing glaciers. The Matterhorn itself is extraordinarily impressive but dangerous. Some 500 climbers have died trying to ascend. On the other hand, mountain guides have reported successful climbers who have teed off on top to launch golf balls into Switzerland and Italy or who have opened their paraglide chutes and jumped. For my own taste, I think I’ll stick with the vicarious thrills of a good book.
*For a YAL novel featuring a boys’ boarding school set in The Alps, check out the Alex Rider novel that I reviewed in fall of 2011: https://wp.me/p1PLCA-Q.