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July 10, 1988|RUTH O. RUNZO | Runzo is a free-lance writer living in Walnut Creek, Calif

ZERMATT, Switzerland — "How far?" the ticket agent asked.

"All the way to the top," I said in response to my husband's questioning glance. "You know how I love mountains."

Thus began a memorable afternoon among the lofty peaks of Zermatt. Here the Matterhorn raises its famous triangular form in singular splendor, the grand vista from its pinnacle reserved for a few courageous mountaineers. In contrast, the cable cars of its neighbor, the Klein Matterhorn, allow ordinary mortals a superb viewing experience.

Earlier we approached Zermatt, in southwest Switzerland, by car from Visp along a mountain road south to Tasch. From there all travel into traffic-free Zermatt goes by rail. We drove through quaint villages close beneath the soaring walls of an Alpine river valley. Every turn brought a new vista as jagged peaks with snow mantles appeared ahead.

Looking back as the meandering road climbed through tiny hamlets and the rugged scenery unfolded below, the early morning sun emphasized the texture of heavy slate roofs. Up on the mountain shoulders, the bright green meadows presented idyllic scenes befitting Heidi. Arriving at Tasch, we parked our car at the railway parking area to board the train that twists and turns a few more kilometers to Zermatt.

On arrival at the station, a father-and-son team played an impromptu serenade on their 12-foot alpenhorns, the Swiss herdsman's wooden instrument that is so unwieldy the curved base of its flared horn must rest on the ground. We felt properly welcomed to this Alpine mountaineering and skiing paradise, which attracts climbers from around the globe for its dozen peaks more than 13,000 feet high, and skiers for its year-round snow.

Walking into town we were greeted by quiet pedestrian streets, colorful flowers cascading out of balcony boxes at each chalet, and the ever-present mountains. Only an occasional electric delivery car interrupted the calm. We passed a church where a newly married couple joyfully ran away from rice-throwing friends to escape in a waiting horse and buggy. As the horse clip-clopped down the lane, we caught our first glimpse of the Matterhorn's monumental frame.

The Matterhorn glistened in the morning sun, somewhat aloof from the massive ranges behind it. We walked some distance on the trail to capture the silvery monolith on film. Hiking enthusiast that I am, I sighed, knowing that the Swiss landscape is crisscrossed with many such scenic trails that we would not have time to investigate.

Not far from the pathway we found the aerial tramway that carries both skier and sightseer in three stages to the top of the Alps. At each station, ski runs spin out for novice and expert alike. We were alone in a small gondola car on the first lift. The only sound was the cadence of the gears. Below us, Zermatt shrank away as mountains behind mountains loomed into view. Old Zermatt appeared, with its house paths and tiny mazots, or storage barns. The Matterhorn seemed to grow as we neared.

At the first station, Furgg, we headed for the larger cable car of the next stage. It was nearly filled with standing skiers and their gear. At Trockener Steg landing we boarded the third car. Traveling 9,520 feet between support towers, it is the longest span of free cable in the world.

As the car ascended a vertical rise of 3,000 feet, we dangled nearly 600 feet above a glacier-filled ravine. I marveled at the huge crevasses directly below and was amazed at the ease with which we had climbed from Zermatt's 5,300-foot altitude to the Klein Matterhorn terminal at 12,600 feet, the highest aerial cableway in Europe.

The cable car ground to a halt. Passengers exited and shouldered their skis as they headed for the tunnel through the mountain. We caught a blast of cold air as we followed.

The other side of the tunnel opened on a vast panorama. We were on a narrow ledge. A broad white basin lay before us where ski lifts and skiers, like tiny insects, wended their way down into the valley. Beyond this ski bowl was a great arch of mountain crags rising interminably into the blue sky.

After the first round of "oohs" and "ahs," we took an elevator to the top. Out the door in the opposite direction we again had a view back to Zermatt. A metal stairway with landings led still higher to a railed platform straddling the tip of the ridge at 12,746 feet. From that perch the vista was awe-inspiring: 360 degrees of unobstructed vision.

Cotton clouds drifted through the transparent sky. It seemed we might be gliding on one of them, so unwordly was the scene. We stood alone, mindful of the sweet fresh air that brushed our faces as we took in the silence.

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