World News

13,000 Tourists Stranded in a Swiss Ski Resort for 2 Days

Posted January 10, 2018 1:26 p.m. EST

Imagine being trapped in paradise. Or winter wonderland. This was the situation 13,000 tourists found themselves in Wednesday at the foot of the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s most famously photogenic mountain.

A combination of heavy snowfall and rain made access routes inaccessible this week, stranding visitors in Zermatt, a picturesque resort village sitting among glaciers that promise white slopes all year round.

Both road and rail access remained cut off for much of Wednesday as officials raced to clear the way for tourists and locals alike to reach the lower valley. The Glacier Express, whose carriages offer stunning views of some of the most spectacular peaks in the Alps, could not reach Zermatt, either.

Roughly 10 to 13 feet of snow have fallen in the area around Zermatt so far this year, which a forecaster called an “extraordinary” amount for the region in such a short time, according to The Associated Press.

The railway line reopened late on Wednesday afternoon, authorities said. Work to reopen the road route continued, with controlled explosions being used to trigger small avalanches as a security measure.

Until the tracks were cleared, the only way to get out of Zermatt was via a helicopter air bridge. It operated through most of the day, taking a few people out at a time. But it was expected to shut down after dark.

On Wednesday, people lined up to be airlifted out of the village. Deb McDonnell, 59, and her family lined up early in the morning with other tourists to get out. “It was fantastic,” she said, describing the helicopter lifting off from the snow-covered valley, with luggage trailing below on a rope. The ride ended a few minutes later in the neighboring village of Täsch, less than a mile away.

“This was not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination,” McDonnell, a medical herbalist who lives in London with her family, said of being stranded. The airlift, she said, was a voluntary service for tourists, and cost 70 Swiss francs ($71.58), per person.

“It’s just Mother Nature doing her thing,” she said by phone Wednesday from a train heading to Geneva. Her weeklong stay in Zermatt, prolonged by one day, was beautiful, she said, despite the weather.

“Even if you can’t ski, there is always something to do, like eating fondue or chocolate in the village,” she said.

As the weather cleared Wednesday morning, social media users shared photos of the sharp peak of the Matterhorn. Towering 14,692 feet, it is often called “the mountain of mountains,” and was finally visible again against an almost blue sky.

Most of the lifts and slopes remained closed because of dangerous weather conditions at high altitude. But those that were open were still popular with tourists. Tatiana Kostina, 35, from Moscow, had headed for the mountain Wednesday morning.

“It is beautiful. It doesn’t matter if it snows or if you are blocked,” Kostina said in a phone interview from Sunnegga, an area of the ski resort that offers a great view of the Matterhorn.

When she arrived last week, she said, it was raining in the village, making footpaths slippery and unsafe to walk around.

Locals in Zermatt, which is at an altitude of 5,200 feet, are used to copious snow and brief closures of access routes because of winter weather. But the snow and rain made the situation trickier this time, heightening the risk of avalanches and shutting the village off since Monday night, when the train stopped.

“Winters were always like this when we were children,” said Stéphanie Petrig, 52, who says she has run a creperie on the main street for the best part of three decades. “This is an amount of snow we haven’t seen since 1999, probably.”

“When you’re not used to it, it can be scary,” said Petrig, who was born and raised in the village. She said there was no danger to those who respected the warnings from authorities and stayed away from danger zones.

“We do hope it opens up soon because I’ve started to run out of some products,” she said by phone from her creperie. Despite having been prepared for bad weather, she ran out of strawberries.

“We are in the mountains, after all, and we depend a lot on the weather and snow conditions,” Petrig said.