Most people go to Zermatt, Switzerland for the skiing, or the hiking if it’s summer. But if you’re anything like me, you go for the sheep. Nestled in the Alps, accessible only by cog train, and composed of the stuff fairy tales are made of, Zermatt easily stole my heart. The experience I chose to participate in was no mistake. I love sheep, obviously, and somehow happened upon a guided hike way up above Zermatt, to try my hand at herding some classic Valais black nosed sheep. It could not have been a more quintessential Swiss experience.
“Don’t you want to put on some real clothes?” was the first thing the tall Sheep Herder said upon meeting me. To be fair, I did somewhat resemble a homeless bag lady hiker. This was large in part due to my mismatched smorgasbord of clothing items comprised of a borrowed oversized sweatshirt from the hotel, my flimsy raincoat, sporty high top rental hiking boots circa 1980, running capris and my poor exposed calves sandwiched between them. I was going to freeze, but I was beyond excited at the prospect of seeing many, many sheep.
Besides being inappropriately dressed, I was also the only English-speaking hiker on this excursion, making me the odd one out, naturally. Luckily, the guide and his adorable four-year-old sidekick (his son) spoke English. We took the lift up to Schwarzsee, where we would begin our trek to the sheep. It’s a good thing I wasn’t afraid of heights given the lift was going far, far above Zermatt. Except that I was.
When we reached the top, a ginormous gust of wind whipped at us. The rain pelted through my raincoat. I pulled both my hoods up and silently thanked my hotel for the sweatshirt fit for a giant. Sheep man and his son led the way. Despite the weather, and limited visibility at times from the clouds that we were literally walking though, it was breathtakingly beautiful. The wind was relentless. I was frigid. Sheep man looked back at me, asking, “are you too cold?” I looked at his young son, Rajan, who was shielding himself with an umbrella, but still plugging along and thought, if he could do it, so could I! I was going to herd those sheep if it was the last thing I did!
I stumbled along the trail, my legs like jello from the previous day’s hike, in search of the sheep and their likely very warm wool. My nose ran from the cold. All around, I was very attractive at that moment. Then the clouds started to rise and move around us. It was surreal. The rain was slowing to a drizzle and the wind had eased. The sheep gods were on our side!
After about an hour or so, I could hear bells. Sheep man pointed up yonder and I knew that we were about to be amongst the sheep. And then we were.
Sheep man inhaled deeply with a satisfied grin. “Do you smell that?” he asked me. If he meant the sheep poop that filled my nostrils, then yes, yes I did. I nodded, and he replied, “It’s the best smell!”
We both loved sheep but I had to draw the line there. Sheep poo would most likely never be my scent of choice.
Sheep man then wrangled one of the little devils to show us their cool characteristics, and then we were ready to bring them to pasture!
I felt like one of the herd; following along in the middle of the pack, hopping over streams with the sheep, and navigating the terrain. The sheep were surprisingly quite nimble. I, with my jello legs, was not. Then I realized I was supposed to be helping direct these guys. Sheep man and one of the German hikers were calling out something to them that sounded like a cross between an auctioneer and yodel call.
So I tried my own version:
“Come on buddy, this way!” I directed, and they listened! I was rounding these guys up!
We arrived at the pasture location, the clouds engulfing us. I peered through the mist at all the sheep. It was unbelievable! Just as I wondered if they’d accept me as one of their own, Sheep man said to me, “From New York City to herding sheep in the mountains of Switzerland!” That just about summed it up! It was amazing and unbelievable and undoubtedly one of the coolest things I have ever done.
As if the hike wasn’t enough, Sheep man set up a mini picnic with wine, cheese, and meat. I was on a picnic in the Swiss Alps socializing with loads of sheep. No big deal.
I know that my venture high in the Alps with the tall sheepherder, Paul-Marc Julen and his son was the experience of a lifetime. Despite the family owning a very successful string of hotels and restaurants in Zermatt, they were some of the most down to earth people I have ever met. I was looking for an authentic Swiss experience, and I found it, with the sheep. You can find information about joining them on their sheep herding adventure when in Zermatt, by visiting Julen’s website.