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Cows, Comfort and Five Star Luxury

A man of the mountains through and through, Hans-Jörg Walther is not known for mincing his words. True to form, the General Manager of the Riffelalp Resort says that his hotel is one of a kind. You could say the same about him.

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He has been running the show here for 20 years now, meaning he has been in charge since the extension and revamp that gave this hotel its current five-star status.

Holidaymakers heading to Zermatt have a journey and a half ahead of them. The village is nestled between the Dufour Peak, the Weisshorn and 30 other massive mountains towering over 4,000 metres high in the south of the Matter Valley. If you’re looking for a shortcut, you’ll have to charter a helicopter. Otherwise, you’ll need to branch off from the Rhône Valley and clatter through the barren Visp Valley on the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn railway line, marvelling at the stunning scenery until you reach Zermatt – 1608 metres above sea level at the foot of the Matterhorn. But if you’re checking into the Riffelalp Resort, your journey still isn’t over. The next leg has to be on the Gornergrat mountain rack railway – even if you did manage to charter a helicopter. Prepare to be amazed as the train winds higher and higher up into the mountains, passing through tunnels along the way. When the train pulls into the station, you’re just a few steps in the sunshine away from the hotel set in the snow. At 2222 metres above sea level, the Riffelalp Resort is about as secluded as it gets.

What makes the Riffelalp Resort so unique? “Most of our guests come to us from towns and cities,” says Hans-Jörg Walther. They’re used to all kinds of entertainment – culture, shopping and more. The hotelier explains that it just wouldn’t be possible to offer anything like that to their guests all the way up here.

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And then shrugs his shoulder as if to say that they wouldn’t want to, even if they could. After all, this hotel has so much to offer people that they just can’t get at home. “Our hotel guests can open their window in the morning and hear nothing. Complete silence. What could be more luxurious than that?” Maybe an evening barbecue with the Matterhorn in the background? That is the type of experience guests here are after.

The quiet setting surrounded by nature. The spectacular, unobstructed view of the Matterhorn. And all the perks of a five-star hotel are what makes this such a special place to stay. “During the summer, the reception staff often find deer staring at them through the window,” says the hotel manager with a smile. The local wildlife certainly comes out to play around the hotel in the evening. “If we’re not careful, a cow could well come waltzing into the hotel or guests could be joined by a squirrel looking for a room.”

The host with the most in the mountains Hans-Jörg Walther didn’t grow up in the canton of Valais. But he was born and raised a few mountains away in Grisons. With his family in the hotel trade, he learnt how to converse with guests at the Hotel Walther in Pontresina at an early age.

“I’m the sort of person that needs things to be quiet,” he says. Yet this busy hotel manager knows that he has to stay calm on the inside whilst enjoying the quiet on the outside up in the mountains. “In my job, I’ve had to learn to observe, listen and think before taking action.” Rushing around and acting rashly doesn’t tend to end well here. The Riffelalp Resort is kind of like a little village.

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“If you make a change somewhere, it can have consequences somewhere else entirely.” A little village? Hans-Jörg Walther mentions it more than once and compares the Riffelalp Resort to other similar hotels: “I have a completely different experience to other hotel managers.” Counting 140 guests, 130 members of staff and numerous day visitors, there are usually 300 or 400 people at the Riffelalp Resort every day. There are countless full villages with that many people in Switzerland. “We do everything here ourselves,” says the hotelier. Snow clearance, waste disposal, security and laundry. “That means things are more complicated, but it also makes life more interesting and exciting.”

A man for all seasons Even a man like Hans-Jörg Walther is bound to need a little help with running a whole village. Luckily, he has his wife Claudia by his side. She has a good eye, and is responsible for making the resort look good, taking care of everything from the interior design to the uniforms and flower arrangements. She also runs the laundrette with the assistance of five employees. And we can safely assume that she balances out her husband’s strong personality in the background too.

Hans-Jörg Walther is not the only born mountain dweller all the way up here in the Alps either. Beni Biner has been his trusty partner for 20 years. As the hotel’s Technical Director, work never stops for him and his team of three. They take care of the logistics. Food has to be brought up to the resort, whilst waste has to be sorted and taken down to the valley. Every day, they have to shift 2.5 tons up or down.

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And there’s no access road. They clear snow from the pathways, complete all repair work and keep the whole hotel and its vehicles in check. “I’m a gardener too in the summer,” laughs Biner. You need people like Biner in a secluded spot like this. Hard workers that can do all the repairs and maintenance and stay calm in an emergency when there’s no help from the outside world. “A boiler once broke when guests were staying here.”

Instead of letting the guests freeze, he cracked on with some welding. And the boiler lasted another good year after his repair job. If a fire breaks out, he’ll be the first on the scene to fight it. Even when there’s an emergency in the middle of the night in the depth of winter, he’ll walk all the way up to Riffelalp from his home in Zermatt. “I know the way in the dark without a torch,” he says. He used to play around here when he was a young boy. “The mountains and forests up here used to be our playground. I know this area like the back of my hand.”

A slower pace If you ask Hans-Jörg Walther, less is more when it comes to tourism in Switzerland. “Here in Switzerland, we don’t have to jump on every bandwagon and follow every new trend.” Quite the opposite. It’s all about being bold enough to say no and keep things authentic. “We will never be able to keep up with Singapore or Shanghai. Attempting to compete at that level will result in failure sooner or later.” Things are different in Switzerland. That’s just the way it is. Tourism here needs to be simpler, warmer and more down to earth. The Riffelalp Resort is there already.

Words Martin Hoch
Photos Nico Schaerer

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