A Thursday morning in a backstreet of Zermatt can be very interesting. Especially if you find a Matterhorn museum. It was an awfully quiet place this day in August 1997. Not a soul could be seen except for the old man selling the tickets. One room was dedicated to the famous first ascent of the Matterhorn. Or rather the famous first descent illustrated by a piece of the rope that broke. Four men lost their lives during the first descent in 1865. But how many people have been killed since then on the Matterhorn? I asked the question to the old man who sold the tickets. From his reaction it was obvious that he did not like my question. I tried to look serious and asked again. Without saying anything he disappeared into another room and returned after a while with a booklet containing a dozen pages. "See for yourself" he said and handed me the papers.
I sat down close to the rope that broke in 1865 and started to read. On page after page the names of the victims were neatly lined up, together with the dates and the cause of their deaths if known. The long list ended with the year 1991 and I added the number of names on each page and found the total number to be 315 persons. There were people from many countries; Germans, Americans, Japanese, etc. and I even discovered a Swede. Furthermore, there was a note saying that 24 persons never have been found despite comprehensive search operations. Reading this was not fun, but still exciting somehow.
Before leaving I talked to the old man who said that it is not possible to determine the exact number of victims, but that the average during recent years is about 10 people per year. The number heard of today is that more than five hundred climbers have lost their lives on the Matterhorn. Furthermore, I learned that only a few mountain guides have been killed. Up to 1992 a total of eight Swiss and five Italian guides had paid with their lives on the Matterhorn. After this somewhat dull arithmetic exercise it was a relief to breathe fresh air out in the street again.
We did this and we did that. But who are we? The previous year I had a great experience climbing the Eiger together with the Swiss guide Ueli Bühler. His suggestion for this year had been the Schreckhorn in the Bernese Oberland but I wanted to do the Matterhorn before it was too late. Being fifty one and not getting any younger I felt it was time for the Matterhorn. Ueli also worked with an agency for climbing equipment and was not available for a training tour. Instead he suggested Freddy Grossniklaus whom I knew from 1993 when we climbed the Wetterhorn.
On my suggestion we choose to climb the Nadelhorn (4327 m) and to spend half a day rock climbing on the Riffelhorn above Zermatt to prepare for the Matterhorn. Ueli was to join us in the Hörnli hut the evening before the climb and Freddy was also to come along guiding a German client.
“My mind is made up. I will ascend the Riffelberg. As usual, at Zermatt, when a great ascent is about to be undertaken, everybody, native and foreign, laid aside his own projects and took up a good position to observe the start. The expedition consisted of 198 persons, including the mules; or 205, including the cows. As follows:
Chiefs of service subordinates
Myself, 1 Veterinary Surgeon Mr. Harris, 1 Butler, 17 Guides, 12 Waiters, 4 Surgeons, 1 Footman, 1 Geologist, 1 Barber, 1 Botanist, 1 Head Cook, 3 Chaplains, 9 Assistants, 15 Barkeepers, 1 Confectionery Artist, 1 Latinist
27 Porters, 3 Coarse Washers and Ironers, 44 Mules, 1 Fine ditto, 44 Muleteers, 7 Cows, 2 Milkers
Rations, etc. Apparatus
16 Cases Hams, 25 Spring Mattresses, 2 Barrels Flour, 2 Hair ditto, 22 Barrels Whiskey Bedding for same, 1 Barrel Sugar, 2 Mosquito-nets, 1 Keg Lemons, 29 Tents. 2,000 Cigars, Scientific Instruments, 1 Barrel Pies, 97 Ice-axes, 1 Ton of Pemmican, 5 Cases Dynamite, 143 Pair Crutches, 7 Cans Nitroglycerin, 2 Barrels Arnica, 22 40-foot Ladders, 1 Bale of Lint, 2 Miles of Rope, 27 Kegs Paregoric, 154 Umbrellas”
To learn more about this humorous and exciting expedition one has to read A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain.
No crowds gathered when we left for the Riffelberg - which is not a mountain, it is more of a train stop and a hotel. We got off the train that had its terminal station Gornergrat at Riffelberg. Completely alone, we walked towards the Riffelhorn which is mountain, popular for rock climbing. The only thing that bothered us was that we could not see the Matterhorn. Somehow the famous pyramid attracted dark and ugly clouds. And there we would find ourselves in two days time. We tried to hide our concern about the weather but did not succeed. We had previously asked about the weather down in Zermatt, and even spent twenty francs to call the weather service. It will become better during the weekend, but remain uncertain for the next two days we were told.
After climbing two routes on the Riffelhorn we spent an hour on the terrace of the Hotel Riffelberg. Again we were alone except for the Matterhorn which could only be seen between the clouds for short intervals. A buzzing sound attracted our attention, through the binoculars we could see a helicopter landing at the Hörnli hut, the starting point for ascending the Matterhorn. After a while it lifted and flew towards the east face. It stopped and stood still like a buzzing hornet. Someone was winched down to pick up a human being. Had someone got into difficulties and need to be rescued? In the end, the helicopter took off in the direction Zermatt.
Main street Zermatt
Thursday at lunch time in the main street of Zermatt can be very interesting. Especially if you visit the bookshop where they have a large collection of books on the Matterhorn. Most of them fell in the category pretty pictures, a few dealt with climbing and climbing routes, some were about the history of the mountain. And the one that caught my eye; "Matterhorn Gipfel der Werbung”. It was not about the Matterhorn history, it did not describe the different routes to the summit but it dealt solely with the use of Matterhorn as a promotional items and logos. “Matterhorn – the summit of advertising” is a one hundred page book with numerous examples showing how the characteristic silhouette of the Matterhorn has been used for business purposes.
The chocolate Toblerone is probably the most famous trademark having the Matterhorn as model. There are sausages, wine, beer, cheese, yogurt and many other things to eat and drink with Matterhorn logos. Uneatable things like watches, knives, cigarettes, pens, sunglasses, stamps and skies use the Matterhorn as a trademark. And of course, both Donald Duck and Tintin have relations to the Matterhorn. And I cannot be the only one who has struggled with a thousand pieces Matterhorn jigsaw puzzle?
Dangerous so why?
What is it that makes the Matterhorn so dangerous? It is not so much the technical difficulty, but rather the total length and the exposure of the climb, and the risk of sudden weather changes. It is not a perfect ridge climb on splendid rock. Instead the ground is often loose with high risk of people kicking down stones of various sizes. And of course, some people are not adequately prepared for this adventure. During the high season and ideal condition that usually occur in early August as many as two hundred climbers, from all over the world line up on the Hörnli Ridge. It goes without saying that under such circumstances dangerous situations arise when people are acting at the utmost of their ability.
Being August 8 it would normally be the peak season. But this summer in the Alps had been very poor which meant that winter snow was still lying on the Matterhorn. The fact was that the Zermatt guides this season only had guided clients to the summit on three occasions.
So why do people from all over the world come to climb the famous pyramid? There may be as many reasons as there are climbers. I met a young German from Koblentz. “Why the Matterhorn?” I asked. “Well, I want to get it over with before I get married and have children”, he answered. I met an American who expressed his motives as “I want to do something that my fucking neighbour back home in Oklahoma hasn’t done.” And there was my category being tired of answering “No” when people hear that you climb mountains and ask: Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?
To the Hut
We got off the cable car at Schwarzsee just in front of one the most photographed motives in the western Alps; the chapel with its mirror image in the little lake. The tourists visited the chapel while we walked up to the Hörnli hut.
Suddenly there was the sound of a helicopter landing on a small plate next to the hut. It took off again and flew out towards the mighty east face, very close to it as it seemed. A man was winched down to the rocks and it looked like he picked something up. We were about ten people watching and the word was that someone had fallen from the Hörnli ridge. The helicopter that we had seen the day before had actually salvaged the dead climber. What we witnessed was the retrieving of the dead man’s backpack.
While waiting for dinner to be served I withdrew to the bunk bed. A loud noise woke me up an hour later. Rain was pouring down accompanied by lightning and thunder. "So much for that", I thought, seeing my Matterhorn climb disappear into the void. The mood was subdued among the approximately thirty people who had dinner in the hut that evening. We finally got in to the inevitable - the next day. It was decided that the wake-up would take place at five instead of at three o'clock as was usual. In this way, we would be able to start almost in daylight. On the other hand, the snow would become more soft and difficult on the way down. I was awake all night waiting for the alarm to go off at five o'clock. And finally it did, even if it took time.
Too good to be true
It was too good to be true; starlight and no wind. The only thing that disturbed the picture was a layer of frozen hail on the ground. There was a certain tension around the breakfast tables. There was one Japanese table, one American table and one mixed table including ourselves. Twenty people would try to climb the Matterhorn this August day in 1997. The first phase was to chew down a few slices of bread with marmalade.
And then we were off, Ueli first and I at the other end of the rope. The difficulties began almost immediately but we worked our way up slowly without anyone saying a word. The terrain was bumpy, with a lot of loose material. For every step you had to make sure you did not send any stones down on the people coming after. We walked on a ledge and there were also people above us. Suddenly I heard a grinding noise and when I looked up I saw to my horror a boulder the size of an ordinary washing machine start moving. During a long second, we managed to throw ourselves out of its way. The big block continued down, bounced a few times and then disappeared into the depths. Before I had time to really understand what had happened Ueli was like a mad man and we quickly caught up with the guilty ones. Ueli literally asked the perpetrators to go to hell in every language he could. I am convinced that the message got through. They were so shocked themselves by the incident that they backed down again.
The Belgian Ernest Solvay was a generous man who in 1915 funded the construction of the hut just halfway to the summit. The Solvay hut, exceeding four thousand meters by three meters, is a bivouac hut to be used only in emergency situations. Looking at the hut from far below, it appears to be right above your head. I knew from experience that looking up just made the time to get there feel longer. A better tactic was to keep your eyes on the next step and fight in the small scale. The steep section up to hut is known as the lower Moseley slab. The icy condition did not contribute to make the going easier. At last we sat there on the little bench outside the hut. The ledge was a meter wide, including the bench. The pause lasted for ten minutes at most and for the first time I was given the opportunity to properly admire the surroundings. The Monte Rosa peaks were all at my feet.
Ueli looked for something in his backpack, having my video camera on top he took it out and put on the side. It began to slide towards the edge. I yelled as I saw what was going to happen and in the last millisecond Ueli got hold of the strap before it disappeared into the depths. We looked at each other but said nothing. Instead, I tried to count; 4003-3260 became 743 with some carrying over. 4478-4003 became 475 without carrying. "More than half finished", 743 meters done but there still remained 475 difficult meters to the summit.
To the summit
The American Edward Oxnard Moseley has also lent his name to the steep section above the hut, the upper Moseley slab. What did he do that to deserve such an attention? Tragically he died at an ascent in 1879. As I remember the pitch directly after the hut was steep and difficult which may contribute to the understanding of what happened to poor Moseley.
We climbed along the ridge, we found ourselves on famous places such as the Red Tower, the Shoulder and the Ceiling. When you are in the middle of it all it is easy to lose the sense of the outer world, only what you have at hand is important.
After the Shoulder there was a small traffic jam at the start of the thick fixed ropes. Ueli climbed quickly upwards without using the ropes between the belay points and I was performing at my best succeeding to pass people who had problems. One guide was pulling hard on his rope yelling to his client; “Es muss gehen! Es muss gehen!”
In the heavy wind Ueli finally exclaimed, "Well done!", and when I looked up, only fifty meters remained to the summit ridge. Up there, I saw the familiar narrow ridge. A few minutes later we stood on the highest point. Once there, I sensed for the first time how tired I was. Frankly, my first thought when I stood on the very summit on the Swiss side of the Matterhorn was "Get the hell out of here!" However, I tried to pull myself together and feel that it was the journey that made the goal worthwhile.
The Italian summit with its cross was just a few meters away. So close but still far away. "What time is it?" I asked but nobody answered. Two figures with hoods folded came stumbling in our direction along the ridge. "Don’t I know you from somewhere?" It was Freddy, humorous as always. He and the German had apparently been on our heels the last bit towards the summit. After one look straight down to the south side into Italy and one to the north side right down into Switzerland, we turned around and began the descent.
Even if I could not picture exactly where the rope broke in 1865 we must have passed the steep place. The tragic first descent of the Matterhorn and its aftermath creates interest even in our days. Allan Lyall has written almost seven hundred pages of the decent only.
After many tiresome rappels, we stopped for the first time at Solvay hut. There I had the most delicious apple I ever have eaten. Tossing the apple core down the east face does not make me proud to tell. Again followed a number of rappels. I heard Ueli’s voice saying "Lean in the Rope!" when I sometimes hesitated. It is one thing to rappel down steep terrain and quite another when the ground is a mixture of small snow fields and large blocks. The terrain was very tiring and awkward to negotiate wearing crampons.
The tempo dropped since it would be stupid to risk anything now, half an hour more or less made no difference whatsoever. The Hörnli hut came closer slowly, too slowly.
Coming down having less than an hour to go we took a little break. As I was looking down on the last awkward sections a guide and his client passed by. Without hesitation the guide made a move that I thought impossible when he went around a smooth outward leaning rock. How did he do that? Trying to repeat it later I discovered after a while a tiny little knob where he had put his finger to balance the overturning gravity component. On the other hand, having done that probably fifty times it was no big deal – for him. This little finger hold is lost for ever since 1500 cubic meters of rock dislodged from the ridge taking it down the east face on July 15, 2003. Dramatically 84 climbers were trapped and had to be air-lifted off the mountain from above the rock fall.
The rock fall of 2003
Down at last
When we finally made the last rappel down to solid ground and we were only a hundred meters from the hut I looked for the first time at my watch. It read half past three making our climb nine and a half hour long. Not so bad when the standard time is said to be ten hours.
I just stopped and had a beer at the hut terrace trying to feel the victory. What I felt was nothing but fatigue. With a couple of minutes margin we made it to the last gondola from Schwarzsee.
Over a cup of coffee among all the tourists down in Zermatt Ueli gave me a diploma as evidence of the achievement. "Ascension of the Matterhorn", signed, sealed and everything. Normally I am not much of a diploma man, but for once I felt it appropriate to be a little vain.
I noted that the view from hotel window that evening did not include the Matterhorn. I was saturated with impressions, and I had had more than enough for the day.
At breakfast next morning I read the local newspaper. My eyes fell on a line saying, "Opfer identfiziert". The man who had been killed on the Matterhorn three days ago had been identified. He was a young Czech climber who fallen from 3900 meters on Hörnli ridge, one hundred meters below the Solvay hut. I raised my head and looked out of the window. In the upper right corner I saw a dangerous acquaintance, a 4478 meter high dangerous acquaintance.
Nobody asked: “Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?” But I answered “Yes !” anyway.
Thanks to Ueli Bühler and Freddy Grossniklaus for excellent guiding.
Thanks to desainme and isostatic for comments on the original text.