It's early December. Snow is in the air. I have a 15-minute wait at Visp for the mountain train - the cremaillere (rack railway) - which will take me to Zermatt. I have a hot drink at the express buffet and watch a procession of small children so heavily bundled up they look like stiff dolls being pulled on wooden sleds.
Zermatt and St. Moritz are probably the most famous and picturesque of Switzerland's numerous ski resorts. Most attract an international clientele and offer skiing from mid-November through mid-April; and some, year-round.
Zermatt, located in the German-speaking part of Switzerland (Valais canton) close to the Italian border, is built around an old village. It became famous in the last century with the English attempts to climb the Matterhorn. St. Moritz is in the Grisons, the southeastern part of Switzerland between Italy and Austria.
Three-fifths of the land area of Switzerland is mountains. The country is essentially a plateau between two ranges: the Jura, along the northwest (whose highest point is the Crete de la Neige, 1,723 meters), and the Alps, running diagonally along the lower half of the country (whose highest point is Monte Rosa, 4,634 meters). Although there is some recreational skiing in the Vallee de la Joux (Jura), the main ski resorts are in the Alps. The stations are widely dispersed throughout this range; the best concentrated in the Grisons.
Included in the reading I do to prepare for the trip is Mark Twain's ''A Tramp Abroad,'' in which he describes his climb to Zermatt over a century ago. I follow Twain's advice on what to pack, even to the point of taking an umbrella, which he claims can be used as protection in the event of an avalanche.
The train to Zermatt has six red cars, each bearing a small white plaque indicating VISP-ZERMATT. The wood-slat seats are padded with red plastic cushions and, except for the burning-hot baseboard heaters (which melted a hole in my apres-ski boots), are very comfortable. Small tables beneath the windows show a route map and photos of the villages and sites along the way.
Out of Stalden-Saas, the town after Visp, the train slows to a crawl. It clanks. Shudders. Then pitches forward as it engages the double, tooth-like iron bar running between and parallel to the rails.
It's an invigorating two-hour ride through spectacular scenery along a track that seems suspended in the air. From dizzying altitudes there are limitless panoramas of the cloud-veiled tips of the Viertausender, those peaks over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet high).
Thick forests of spruce, their boughs heavy with snow, cover the precipices. The larch (a deciduous conifer whose rose-colored wood is much sought after for beams) are stark and barren. Cascades are frozen into stalactites, but far below the stream rushes in torrents. The train inches along the side of a mountain valley. Moraines -- rocks and boulders resembling landslides -- attest that this area was etched out by the passing of glaciers.
Zermatt (1,620 meters) is nestled at the base of the Matterhorn (4,478 meters), a remote crag that Twain accurately describes as a '' . . . colossal wedge, with the upper third of its blade bent a little to the left.'' However, during my sejour, the view of the Matterhorn would remain constantly obscured by snow flurries, clouds, or fog.
The train station, at the end of the main street, is the gathering point for the Lilliputian buses and horse-drawn sleighs used as taxis (no cars are allowed in the village). The newer part of the village -- with its boutiques, sports and ski rental shops, hotels and restaurants -- is between the station and the church.
Beyond the church lies the older section of Zermatt, its chalets ornate with carved eaves and beams and filigree railings. The date of construction and the name are painted on the facades of many. Here also are the raccards or mazots, grain storehouses, characteristic of this region. To prevent rodents from entering, the wooden cabin-like structures are set on round, stone disks atop pillars.
It is midmorning when I arrive. The streets are bustling with people, most of whom are clad in ski jackets as varied and brightly colored as jockey silks. Many walk stiffly on their heels in stiff ski boots, their goggles pushed back off their faces, their skis slung over their shoulders. Along the narrow side streets mothers survey from upper-story windows as children take turns pushing each other on sleds. Couples walk arm in arm; an old woman makes her way slowly down a slippery path with the aid of two ski poles.
Pairs of skis are propped up outside cafes and chalets. There are racks full of rental skis. People with knapsacks on their backs ''run'' errands on skis, and others glide by effortlessly toward the train which will carry them to a nearby slope.
My first night in Zermatt I dine with an American, who is also traveling alone. We select the Whymper-Stube restaurant in the center of town. It is named after Edward Whymper, an Englishman, who, after numerous attempts to scale the Matterhorn, eventually succeeded in 1865.
My companion and I chose raclette, a specialty of this region, which originated as a midmorning snack for vineyard workers. A half round of soft cheese is placed (the cut side up) under a grill. When the cheese becomes soft, the melted portion is scraped off. Baked potatoes, sour pickles, and small white onions in vinegar are served on the side (a portion of cheese and the side dishes cost four Swiss francs, about $2.20). Extras include salted ham and spicy sausages.
Other culinary delights of Switzerland include fondue savoyarde (cubes of bread dipped in hot melted cheese) and fondue bourguigonne (red meat dipped and cooked in boiling oil, served with mayonnaise and sauces). Among the less traditional variations is the fondue chinoise (meat cut in fine strips and cooked in bouillon). After cooking, the bouillon is drunk.
When we leave the warmth of Whymper-Stube, the sky has a special luminosity. Snowflakes begin to fall. The church steeple dominates the chalet rooftops, which are already mantled in a thick icing of snow. Lights sparkle and give off a golden glow. There are few people on the streets. The only sounds are sleigh bells and the muffled padding of hoofs on firmly packed snow.
Zermatt is unique. Horse-drawn sleighs, a mountain train, an old village dominated by the imposing Matterhorn, all contribute to its charm and to the sensation of being in an older, less hectic world. Its appeal, however, goes beyond the visual. There is a sense of exclusivity associated with the resort because high prices make it beyond the reach of many. In the last century it was popular with the British; today it is frequented primarily by Germans and wealthy Italians.
Zermatt offers a wide variety of skiing in one of Europe's most beautiful locations. Slopes, however, are not readily accessible, and lift facilities (although improved in the last few years) are not yet up to par with those of other stations. Therefore, it is generally not the serious skiers who will return. Basically, the area attracts two types of people: the wealthy who rent a chalet during winter and those who are not familiar with the region. There is also a small group of young people (Europeans or Americans) who stay in youth hostels and seem to enjoy brushing shoulders with the elite.
There are three separate ski areas in Zermatt and 40 different runs ranging between 1.5 and 4.5 kilometers for a total of approximately 120 km. It takes at least 40 minutes to an hour and a combination of trains, lifts, or cablecars to reach any of them. Schwarzsee (2,582 meters) and Theodul (2,939 meters).
Cablecars located in Winklematten at the far south end of town permit access to these slopes. Schwarzsee, at the base of the Matterhorn, has advanced runs. Schwolkensteel has intermediate runs, and Theodul, which includes the Plateau Rosa (3,499 meters) has winter and summer skiing. There are many steep runs toward the valley for advanced skiers only. Intermediate skiers can make the descent from Schwarzsee along the white pearl detour to Furri and from there ski down to Zermatt. Riffelberg (2,582 meters), Gornergrat (3,100 meters), Stockhorn (3,405 meters).
Leaving from the station, skiers take the mountain train from Zermatt to Gornergrat (3,100 meters, approximately 40 minutes), then a drag lift or cablecar, depending on the destination. The Riffelberg and Gornergrat areas have slopes for beginners and intermediate skiers. Just below Gornergrat at Rotenboden first-time skiers find gently sloping runs. From Riffelberg skiers can head down to Furri and then to Zermatt on skis. There are cablecars leaving for Gornergrat which provide access to Hohtalligrat (3,286 meters), where the steep runs are for advanced skiers, and to Stockhorn, open from February through May. Sunnegga (2,290 meters), Blauherd (2,580 meters) and Unterrothorn (3,100 meters).
From Weisei (across the Visp River from the train station), a high-speed train or cable car takes skiers to these areas. The difficulty of runs varies from the Sunnegga Findeln, deemed one of the easiest in Zermatt, to the Blauherd , which consists of twisting paths and ditches along the top of a ridge. From Patrullarve there are intermediate runs through wooded areas ending in Zermatt. Cable cars from Blauherd serve the Unterrothorn area where there are challenging intermediate slopes. From Sunnegga and Blauherd there are lifts to the Gornergrat area. Practical information
Getting there: By mountain train from Visp or Brig (31 Swiss francs round trip), takes approximately two hours. There are direct trains to Visp (two hours) from Geneva. Upon arrival in Switzerland, by dialing 120 you can get snow conditions and ski information. Eurail passes are not accepted on the mountain train. No cars are allowed in Zermatt. If you decide to drive, leave your car at Tasch (5 km from Zermatt), in the main parking lot. From there, take the mountain train.
Hotels: It is best to make a reservation. A complete listing of hotels is available through Zermatt (Tourist Office, 3920 Zermatt) Verkehrsburo. The town has a population of about 3,000, but it has facilities to accommodate 16,000.
Five-star hotels are about $40 to $75 (depending on the season), and a one-star hotel is about $13 to $20 (no bath). These prices include breakfast. Some hotels have covered pools and saunas.
High season is from Dec. 19 through Jan. 9, and prices may also be higher during the first half of April.
Skis: Ski rental is about $10 a day, including boots. Ski-lift prices vary with the destination. Count on $10 for one round trip. Season tickets are available.