The Matterhorn: no casual hiker's goal, but worth a close look

The groaning little train came around a bend, and through the window I could see the lonely peaks, white against the blue morning sky, a travel poster come to life. I had waited half a lifetime for this meeting, or roughly since conquering the one-hundredth-scale Matterhorn at Disneyland.

I was not about to take on the real Matterhorn, no casual climber's goal, but I would be happy with a closer look - maybe a hike in the neighborhood and a long-overdue visit to Zermatt, the car-free Valais village at the foot of Ruskin's ''colossal rearing horse.''

Zermatt, equally sought after by winter skiers and summer trekkers, is a 1 -hour, 39-minute train ride up the valley from Brig, a trip Mark Twain made in the late 1870s by rougher and more comical means. Clemens had slogged by foot into a rainy St. Niklaus (the train to Zermatt was installed in 1892), which he described in the book ''A Tramp Abroad.''

He and his agent and traveling companion, Mr. Harris, stopped to dry out at a St. Niklaus hotel, sent their wet clothes down to be laundered, and got back sets of wrong-fitting duds belonging to two other ''tramps'' at the hotel.

We arrived in Zermatt at 9:17, on time to the minute, as is the Swiss wont. There was a clamor in front of the station - horse-drawn taxis clopping back and forth, two hotel stagecoaches, one blue, the other burgundy, picking up passengers, and a man riding by on a bicycle carrying a bag of groceries.

Mark Twain admired the Matterhorn when he finally arrived in Zermatt - he called it ''a colossal wedge,'' a monument a mile high on a pedestal two miles high - but he didn't try to climb it, and neither did I. In those days it had only just been conquered, in 1865, by the Englishman Edward Whymper. Four of Whymper's climbing partners were killed in a fall to the glacier below when a rope snapped. The severed rope, Whymper's eispickel (ice pick), and other historic mountaineering objects are on display at Zermatt's Alpine Museum.

Advances in equipment and technique have put the 14,690-foot Matterhorn within reach of ordinary climbers. On a clear weekend day you might meet 60 fellow climbers on the way up. Young Japanese consider the ascent a rite de passage. It is a four- or five-hour climb, beginning at dawn from a mountain hut at Hornli - a cable-car ride and two-hour hike above Zermatt.

My own modest goal was the Gornergrat, a heavenly balcony from which to view the Matterhorn and the astonishing 360-degree ring of white peaks around Zermatt. I rode up with a crowd on an orange, two-car cog-rail train, intending to hike partway back to town from one of the little mountain stations. The straining, winding ascent takes 43 minutes, dropping you at the Gornergrat terminus near a large stone restaurant, where I was surprised to find - on this sparkling day and in the presence of such grandeur - a number of people eschewing the outdoor cafe and eating indoors.

On a wide platz above the restaurant, crowds were photographing the circle of peaks, some of them loftier than the Matterhorn. To the southeast on the Swiss-Italian border loomed the 15,203-foot Monte Rosa, and in a parade to the west marched the Breithorn, the Klein Matterhorn, and then - alone, aloof, immense - the mountain that has inspired witnesses from D. H. Lawrence to Walt Disney.

By noon, up to my eyes in Alps (Zermatt is surrounded by 30 peaks over 12,000 feet), I started down by cog rail. I jumped off at the Riffelalp station and headed through the forest for Zermatt.

Back on the narrow, crowded streets of Zermatt, I saw a strange summer sight - people shouldering skis. The Klein Matterhorn has some of the best glacier skiing in Europe, including eight lifts and one continuous run of 6.7 kilometers. I bought the fixings for a picnic - a wedge of Gruyere, two link sausages, apple juice, rolls, and pastry - and spread it out on my train seat on the way out of Zermatt. The Matterhorn was behind me, and so was my tramp abroad. Practical information

For more information on Zermatt and the Matterhorn, contact the Swiss Center at 608 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10020; 250 Stockton Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94108; or Commerce Court West, Toronto, Ontario M5L1E8.

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