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It’s easy to live the sky-high life in Zermatt: The Swiss ski resort lives in the eternal shadow of the Matterhorn, one of Europe’s tallest peaks, and its slopes are among the Continent’s steepest. Now you can also see it all from the world’s highest tri-cable gondola lift, which rolls in and out of—you guessed it—Europe’s highest mountain station.
Already dizzied by the thought of it? Try adding a $60 million price tag, a glass floor, and more than 1 million sparkling crystals.
Since it opened in late November, the Matterhorn Glacier Ride — a collaboration between Italian ski lift manufacturer Leitner Ropeways; legendary car design house Pininfarina, and crystal giant Swarovski—has been transporting up to 2,000 passengers an hour across 2.5-mile-long cables. It climbs 2,950 vertical feet in nine minutes from Trockener Steg station to the Klein Matterhorn, the baby sister to Zermatt’s famous jagged-tooth peak, where it deposits skiers and snowboarders at a breathless 12,740 feet.
Four “Crystal Cabins,” marked by blingy Swarovski exteriors, come with an extra perk: matte glass floors that turn transparent once the lift hits 560 feet, offering a spectacular view of the glacier that wraps around Matterhorn’s base.
For Zermatt regulars, it’s a very welcome upgrade. The previous system wasn’t just 40 years old; in high season it could see wait times of 1.5 hours. Now there’s triple the capacity.
It’s also pretty plush, considering that passengers slide in with their snow- and mud-covered boots. In all 25 cabins you’ll find heated leather and faux suede seats designed by Pininfarina and emblazoned with the mountain’s logo (in Swarovski crystals). “The design of the cabin is pure, harmonic, and dynamic—a perfect display of the best Pininfarina design,” company chairman Paolo Pininfarina tells Bloomberg.
All this comes at a steep cost to Zermatt Bergbahnen AG: At $60 million, the gondola is an investment eclipsed in Europe only by Austria’s $72 million Stubai Glacier Ride, which also has Pininfarina seats. Here the cost isn’t just increased by luxury materials; besides all the crystals, the cost was due to ambitious engineering feats that included distance (the longest cable spans 1.6 miles between two towers, a record in Europe), wind- and fog-related weather constraints, and the challenges of working at such high altitude (for two and a half years, this was the highest construction site on the Continent).
Those same challenges make the investment more likely to pay off. With an altitude of nearly 13,120 feet, Zermatt’s Glacier Paradise is exempt from the so-called climate-change danger zone, designated to resorts with top stations below 2,000 meters (6,560 feet). And whereas ski conglomerates such as Vail Resorts Inc. are trying to compensate for unpredictable winter business by building summer programming from scratch, Zermatt has always benefited from running year-round—in 2017, there were 9 summer visitors for every 11 winter skiers at the destination, driven by a growing Asian market. Specific “Crystal Ride” tickets come in just under $10 per person.
“We expect [the new gondola to drive] an increase in the number of guests, especially in the field of excursion tourism,” says Mathias Imoberdorf, communications manager at Zermatt Bergbahnen, about the investment. Already, the Klein Matterhorn has snow tubing, a cinema lounge, a subterranean glacier palace, and the top station’s tri-country viewing platform to keep nonskiers entertained.
So far the gondola is drawing in a demographic that the ski industry has been working hard (and often fruitlessly) to lure: millennials. When we toured on a blue-sky day in December, everyone from Valais locals to groups of (ski-less) Japanese twentysomething girls were giddily piling into the crystal-emblazoned cabins with their phone cameras open and ready for selfies.
And that should only continue to grow: By 2021, the ski region is expected to introduce two more similar lifts to increase connectivity between Switzerland and Italy. Together the three cableways will serve a full 335 miles of pistes.
“European travelers would be able to cross the Alps in a spectacular way, always accompanied by the Matterhorn,” says Zermatt Bergbahnen Chief Executive Markus Hasler in an email. For now, eyeballing its jagged profile from the world’s highest top station will have to do.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.