A Hard Day’s Climb
Notes from the Matterhorn
This time I felt I was in with a chance – climbing the Matterhorn. The idea had been simmering in my thoughts for months, nay years now, like an itch waiting to be scratched. And it was all Hugon’s fault. He planted the notion during our first Scottish trip three years ago and every so often he would bring it up:
“Well Gerry, when are you going to climb the Matterhorn?”
Those words seem to echo like a broken record. Just because he had done it, the Matterhorn now seemed to be a yardstick for the rest of us. At least for those of us who like to call ourselves Alpinists. As a result I had to attempt it. And attempt it with conviction. Otherwise what was the point? The mountain was far too much of an undertaking to try half-heartedly. There could be no half-measures. But the obvious basic questions remained; Could I handle the altitude, 4478metres, particularly under the exertion of hard climbing? Did I have the technical skills? Did I have a competent and motivated climbing partner? And would I get the right weather and conditions?
The answers assembled themselves over the intervening months and years. Having climbed in France and Austria in previous seasons, I knew I could function at 4000 metres without difficulty. I reckoned another 500 metres would be within my range. As for climbing skills - I had done my homework, practising in Dalkey quarry all spring and summer, developing the various techniques to lead up to VS grade. Then while at the MCI meet in Arolla, I got good experience short-roping on testing AD routes – the kind of experience I knew would be needed on the Matterhorn. All this fuelled my confidence.
Things were looking favourable now, the jig-saw was being pieced together. However one important thing was outstanding, perhaps the most critical factor in any successful climb – a good climbing partner. Here I was fortunate. I had met Darach O’Murchu some months earlier at the quarry. Tall, thin and tanned, Darach worked as a cycle courier around town. The demands of his job meant covering up to 100 kilometres on his bike each day. Needless to say, he was fit. At thirty years of age, his big ambition was, and still is, to become a professional European Mountain Leader. Currently he’s halfway there.
Shortly after we met, we realised we both had the same basic climbing skills. Equally, we knew we both wanted to improve. It was just a matter of practising. So we set to task. One, often two nights a week at the quarry, wrestling with old standards – Hyperion, Levitation, Mahjongg, Hiatus, Streetfighter, Jameson Ten … and many more. Followed by retreats to the UCD climbing wall when it rained.
We climbed well together – with each of us displaying similar degrees of adventure and caution. As things emerged, there was little or no difference in our abilities or fitness. Our attitudes were similar and we got on well. Rock-climbing became a welcome conduit for us, not just to facilitate technical advancement but to exorcise personal problems also. Women troubles, money worries, work hassle, family obligations, life’s many choices and their associated fears and uncertainties got purged on the sun-dressed slabs of Dalkey. As the weeks wore on, the activity of climbing and its closeness to nature, became a necessary distraction for the mind, body and soul. All problems seemed to dissipate after a while, replaced by the concentrated effort of climbing and its small victories. So much so, that to me, that the art of climbing became more important than any problem. What’s more, it felt right that I found myself regularly thinking that way.
Then in July when we met up in Switzerland, I suggested to Darach that having the Matterhorn on the CV might look good with his long-term career plans. That struck a chord. No sooner was it mentioned before we were discussing gear, hut-booking, logistics and accomodation in Zermatt. Darach was motivated to do it, like I was. A green light shone.
But what of the last bit of the jigsaw, the weather? In the Valais for most of June and July it had been mixed, with rain in the valleys, snow on the high ground, followed by spells of sunshine and heat. It had rained all weekend of mid-July, but on the morning of Tuesday the 19th it stopped. Fortunately the forecast for the next few days was good; sunny, yet cloudy – but no precipitation. But what of the mountain, was it in condition? I phoned the Hornlihutte to find out. Snow was still on the peak, but was expected to melt. On Thursday and Friday the conditions would be right. This was our chance. With that, Darach and I agreed to make tracks for Zermatt, with the aim of an attempt early Thursday morning. Which route would we take? The choice was obvious – the most accessible one from Zermatt and the most popular one – The Hornli Ridge – round trip.
Wednesday afternoon saw us trekking up to the Hornlihutte (3260 metres), marching slowly and stopping often for gentle acclimatisation. As I progressed I reflected on the reconnaissance trip I made to the rock the previous year. Then I was alone, half-hoping to make a solo stab at it, half-hoping to hook up with another climber staying at the hut. The conditions were bad – cold, grey, wet weather, with an abundance of snow on the ridge. No guides were venturing out with any clients, which was a sure sign the peak was out of condition. Needless to say a first attempt was out of the question. And besides, no other adventurer at the hut shared my ambition. However my trip wasn’t all in vain. I got a good feel for the mountain. I climbed for an hour and worked out its notoriously tricky starting route by ascending and skirting its left lower flank until I reached the first of its fixed ropes on the ridge. It was just as well I did, I thought afterwards, as trying to figure it out in the darkness of an early morning start would be next to impossible. Back in the hut I mulled over Hugon’s words and blended them with my findings. Given 1200metres of straightforward but sustained climbing, a person needed to be mentally ready, fit and prepared to travel light. The tools needed would be: an axe, crampons, 50metre rope, harness, slings, screwgates, runners and a few nuts. Light, warm clothing, rain gear, torch, some food and lots of water. No poles, compass or map – unnecessary items for this task.
But this year conditions were just right; dry rock most of the way up, ice above The Shoulder, and an army of guides with their clients, planning assaults at the same time as us. The hut was almost full. Counting the tables at dinner I estimated 70 people would be venturing onto the ridge at 4am. All nationalities were present: Swiss, German, French, Italian, British, Spanish, Australian, New Zealand, Japanese and American. Darach and I hooked up with a Kiwi fella, a professional glacier guide from the South Island who was planning a solo attempt. We made a rule that this fella could tag along with us provided he stayed off our rope. We’d help him if he got into trouble, but wouldn’t allow him to hamper our own attempt.
By 9pm all climbers were in bed and surprisingly, with the mild apprehension and tension about, we managed to sleep. Unlike any other mountain either of us had climbed, waiting to do this was like waiting to sit the first exam of the Leaving Cert again – no one knew what was in store for us. The feeling was, the sooner we got going, the better.
At 3.30am all were up, dressed, grappling with gear and hastily devouring breakfast. Earlier I learned through the Kiwi that an unwritten caste system existed among the guides. The Swiss ranked highest, followed by the Germans, Austrians, French, Italians and other continental Europeans. The British were middle ranked, with the Americans bottom of the pile. The rule was the Swiss got first priority on the ridge. However a common trick of the middle and lower castes was to get up at 3.20am and get ahead of the Swiss, out the door ten minutes before them. Not that this rule mattered to us. The three of us set out five minutes after four and joined the back of the bunch. And with good reason. You see the biggest problem with the Matterhorn is route finding. A climber, unfamiliar with its terrain, can lose much valuable time and energy trying to discern the quickest and safest route up and down. The numerous gullies, humps, walls, chimneys, boulders and gendarmes of which we were soon to face, are a confusing and demanding obstacle course. It must be said, climbing the mountain alone is a tough, physical challenge requiring a strong will, strength and enough stamina – leaving little room for the burden of navigational error. Hence our strategy was to follow the guides as much as possible. The reason being, each of them knew the route like the back of their hands, which would save us novices a lot of effort.
It was a cool, crisp night. The darkness was punctuated by a full moon to the south, with the shadows of sister peaks in the distance, and the flickering lights of a slumbering Zermatt kilometres below. A torchlight procession strung out from the hut and snaked its way up into the blackness of the ridge; like a pilgrim crusade, seventy souls marching skyward seeking physical and spiritual fulfilment. This was a scene the mountain had borne witness to many thousands of times and no doubt will continue to for thousands more.
On with the climb. We knew the first bit - over the snow patch, veer to the right, then a haul up the two ropes to the nose, followed by a traverse left up the Eastern flank. I led. However all remnants of sleep were promptly knocked out of me when I banged my right thumb off the slab as I climbed the very first fixed rope. The pain darted through me and within seconds I could feel the stickiness of blood trickling onto the tip of my glove.
'Bollocks', I thought. 'Don't tell me my climb's over just as it had begun?'
Quickly I removed the glove and inspected. Blood on the tip alright, but the nail was intact and I could flex the knuckle - it would do.
'Forget the pain. Concentrate on the job', I ordered myself. 'Just press on.'
Thankfully the rock was dry. Hand and foot holds were sure and there was little wind present to rattle any delicate balancing acts. Progress was quick and within half an hour we reached the first of the heavy, two-inch fixed ropes of the ridge. From here on everything was unchartered territory. Each man pulled himself up the hemp and stepped back onto the left side of the ridge. Nothing too steep, just plenty of scrambling using all fours. The pain of my thumb had eased somewhat by now, however this was soon replaced by the weight of the gear on my back. In particular the 3.5 litres of water and 50 metre full rope I was carrying. What with the food, clothes and other equipment, the combined weight made me feel sluggish and tired. I lost the lead, drifted to the back and found myself panting like a dog.
'Just keep moving,' a voice in my head urged, 'and keep up with the other two.'
Dawn, 5am. An orange glow appeared over the jagged horizon. Visibility was clear and one by one the torchlights went out. It was surprisingly mild. The procession continued, having stretched out, with each body clambering over the red gneiss and green quartz boulders. The same quartz that tiles the roofs of most houses in the many hamlets of the Valais. Darach took the rope. The deal was each man would carry it for one hour when not in use. Being rid of the weight was a great relief. I was able to shift to the front and take the lead behind the guides. We still maintained a line left of the ridge. There was a lot of loose rock about, but still plenty of solid hand and foot holds to lever the body upwards. So far the East face had been one giant, uneven staircase. Our progress was good, slightly better than expected, such that by 6 am we were in sight of the Solvay hut (4003 metres). We had already climbed 700 metres, pure scrambling and nothing technical, nevertheless we were aware harder stuff lay ahead. Also the higher altitude was beginning to be felt. Often over stretches of 10 - 20 metres we found ourselves pausing briefly for air. The Kiwi drifted to the rear.
On either side of the Solvay hut are two pitches known as the Moseley slab (upper and lower). When we reached the lower, a short queue had formed. Out came the rope, runners and slings as we waited our turn. We were glad of the rest. One thing that struck me about this route was the abundance of rings and stainless steel bolts for abseiling and protection. But then again this was hardly surprising given this peak is the most climbed in Switzerland. However it must be said that such aid, along with the sections of fixed rope detract from the natural challenges of the climb. That said, none of us felt cheated – our only objective was to get up and down this rock quickly and safely.
We hoisted up the slab, retrieved the gear, coiled the rope and ventured round the back of the hut to negotiate the steeper, upper section. My lead again. In front was an English gentleman whom I took to be in his late-fifties or early sixties. He was being led by an English guide, at least twenty years his junior. The guide ascended the slab and the elder client gingerly followed. I waited a few moments for them to move on, before following with a similar pitch. Gaining the initial footholds to launch off was tricky, but once slab-borne, the rest was easy. Three extenders later I was safe and belaying the others. Darach came up next.
"Good lead, Gerry. That was a tough bit of climbing," he commented.
It wasn’t. "Are you joking? If that old goat could do it then any of us could," I replied, referring to the elder English gentleman.
We moved on. Ten minutes later the Kiwi stopped. He had enough.
"I'm calling a halt here, fellas. You two go on."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. Oh yeah."
Later on Darach and I reflected on why he gave up. The reasons were clear. Not alone could the altitude have affected him, but the magnitude of the task was most probably too much. He most likely looked at what he had climbed, assessed the effort needed to get where he was, looked up, saw the huge lump of rock left and thought the better of it. Neither of us could blame him - it was a big demand. Though physically he looked alright, you could tell his heart wasn't in it any more … keenness was missing from his countenance.
We remained roped-up and pressed on, keeping close but still mainly left of the ridge. Occasionally we moved onto it, and each time we did the exposure increased and a blast of cold, North-face wind rifled through us.
The French call the mountain Mont Cervin. The Italians call it Monte Cervino. Literally translated these names have the same meaning - animal horn. Viewing it from a distance, particularly from the NorthEast, its shape clearly resembles the cranial projection of a large beast, i.e. a rhinoceros. However all other comparisons end there. You see from a distance, its perceived characteristics are at odds with its actual characteristics close up. Again viewing from Zermatt or the cable-car stations, its East face looks smooth and flat, while the Hornli and Furggen ridges appear razor-sharp and treacherously steep. Things are much different when viewed on the mountain; the East face is anything but smooth and flat, with huge fields containing thousands of weathered and worn boulders and rocks - many loose, many fixed, of all sizes - dispersed among innumerable gullies and steps. An imposing mish-mash of geology, guarded by the occasional gendarme. Of the Hornli ridge, the closer you get to it, the more its gradient reduces. And that distant sharpness gets blunted by the revelation of its adequate width along most sections for the average climber. By the same token its apparent steepness is accounted for by the sum of many unsymmetric boulders and slabs, both joined and separated. Yet upon close inspection, all are of one family assembled in a common, gradual and manageable direction. Still, no one should under-estimate the mountain. Granted the Hornli Ridge is a mostly a scramble of low technical grade, it has some steep, exposed sections and many long run outs. Thus the consequence of a fall or mere stumble can be disasterous, with an unstoppable freefall down steep rock of up to one kilometre or more.
And like all mountains, the Matterhorn is lively and unsettled. Changes and movements continually occur by way of man, physics and nature. While climbing Darach and I were often distracted by the rumble of rockfall or the hiss of minor avalanches caused by the movement of foot or rope, or the rise in temperature. An initial, dull report would be followed by the clatter of multiple collision, then acceleration. Typically a steam of rock would gain momentum, gathering further rock and scree as it bowled its way down a couloir or ramp, to expire eventually on the glaciers at the foot of the North or East face. All told an aural and visual warning of what might happen to us should we be careless or unfortunate.
Our pace slackened as we fought our way up, panting hard in the thinning air. It was 9am and the day was in its prime - full sunshine and high cirrus clouds, daubing a rich blue canvas. We spent more time on the ridge now, with the cold Northface wind buffeting us from the right-hand side. Looking back at one stage I thought I had found a good moment to take a promising photograph - the first of the day. The view was of Darach appearing over a ledge, with the ridge beneath him and a superb angle on the Weisshorn and Ober Gabelhorn in the background. But when I went through the motions of preparing the digital camera, I discovered to my disgust the automatic lens cover refused to open. No amount of fiddling would make it obey. The camera, our only one, was deemed a useless weight. An opportunity was lost. Sadly therefore, we had to resign ourselves to the fact that any pictures of this adventure would remain exclusively in our heads.
Nevertheless, some things were functioning better - like our short-rope technique, which was consistent. Typically Darach wrapped one or two loops around a boulder or rock-spike, leaving me enough slack to lead 10 - 15 metres. Then as I advanced or when the rope was fully extended, I would perform the same operation in order to secure his ascent. Leads were alternated between us. And protection using nuts, runners and slings between moving pitches was seldom needed. Over easy, unexposed sections, we both picked up coils and advanced simultaneously. Generally these repeated motions were comforting and steady.
By now all of the guides had moved well ahead of us, as had many non-guided climbers. But to us this was no setback as route-finding wasn't so critical now that we were on the ridge. It was just a matter of following it. However no sooner had one difficulty been overcome, when another one lay in store for us. We were approaching the crux of the climb - a section known as The Shoulder. As the name implies, The Shoulder, or the top of it rather, is a series of steep walls of rock and ice, several metres high. A couple of them are close to vertical, with one boasting an overhang. Despite this, their dangers are mitigated by heavy fixed ropes bolted in situation on each, while the overhang's threat is mollified by the presence of bolts for holds and a vertical chain for protection. Thus, far from being a technical challenge, the true challenge of The Shoulder is to scale these walls at 4200 metres, when the body is flagging, the air is thinning and the wind is pummelling you. Not alone had we these problems but we had other trials to bear - human-related. As we advanced up the first sections we were met by the returning traffic of the first guided parties who had summitted and were now making their descent.
However the passages up the aforementioned steep wall sections are too narrow to accommodate two lanes of movement. Bottlenecks ensued. And with every bottleneck came a scramble to be first to secure belays on the steel stanchions at either end of every fixed rope. Sadly all sense of sportsmanship and fair-play went out the window here. Gruffness and assertion took over. You see my belief is that some guides, not all I must add, are so used to ferrying punters up and down the peak that they claim it as their own. And the drudgery of doing so, day in and day out throughout the summer, only fuels a negative attitude to regular climbers that share the same route as them and force them to slow down. Inevitably this leaves regular climbers with a poor opinion on commercial mountaineering and guides in general. And in our case on the day, a distaste for the punters that employed them. Of those punters, many we saw clearly didn’t enjoy the climb, and we wondered whether they got any value out of the experience. For example, Darach came across one fella, a young American bloke, who was waiting by a stanchion for his guide to climb down to him at The Shoulder. Both were returning from the summit as we were going up. However the lad didn’t look comfortable, being languorous in movement and expression. Darach casually asked him what he thought of the summit. His response was:
“I dunno. I can’t remember.”
To us that typified the guided-climb experience … of being dragged up the mountain at such speed that you couldn’t even remember the summit. What was the point in that?
Along with the traffic, the climbing was no picnic. Each wall was hard won by grappling onto any spare inch of rock or ice with the front points of the crampons. Then with gritted teeth and pumped arm muscles, we hauled ourselves up the fixed ropes. On a few occasions our efforts were rewarded by volleys of ice on our heads, discharged from the crampons of guides and clients above. There was no place for cover. With each move I made, the freezing gale whipped around, forcing me to swing like a pendulum. Where I could, I clipped a runner onto a stanchion or chain. On the overhang I made a lunge at what I thought was the right time, but the wind snapped the same moment, barrelling me sideways onto the wall. Luckily I had clipped in seconds earlier. Had I not, the potential alternative was unthinkable. Looking down I could see the ridge awaiting me - a sharp drop 6 to 7 metres - followed by a spill onto the Northface and certain oblivion. Perhaps for both of us. In that moment a picture flashed in my mind, one I had seen in Zermatt's Alpine museum a year earlier. It was a drawing of Whymper's first ascent party, or more accurately, the four casualties of the Matterhorn's first descent party of 1865. Their rope had just broken and they fell to their deaths, the twin expressions of horror and disbelief wrought on their faces.
'It had to have been at this spot,' I blithely thought.
But unlike them, and with Darach on belay, I managed a safe recovery. But to cap it all, concentration and communication between us was hampered by the roar of a CAS rescue helicopter hovering interminably, 50 metres over our heads. Verbal interaction was impossible. Not that we recognised the sounds of our voices - the cold on our larynges took care of that. Instead we resorted to hand signals and pre-rehearsed rope tugs to get our messages across. Looking back now I can fairly say that our experiences on this section of the mountain matched those of two unknowing soldiers, stumbling into the midst of a war zone. Doubtless, The Shoulder was our crux. And of that crux, no amount of speed, style or technical sophistication was of any use to us. Quite simply, primal instinct, brute strength and unwavering determination were the only characteristics that saw us battle our way through it.
We made the base of the ice field on the upper Northface. Now one sensed the summit approaching.
“It’s about another hour or so”, a descending middle-aged Australian guide informed me. “I’ll be bloody glad to get off this thing …” he continued, before his words got whipped away in the wind. Somehow I couldn’t help agreeing with him.
We traversed the steep snow and ice, zig-zagging between stanchions, 10 – 15 metres apart. My ears were numb and solid with the cold. There was no time to stop and pull on a balaclava or extra layers, just keep driving on. The face became steeper, but not steep enough to warrant ice screws or extra protection. Out came the axe. A steady pattern of movement unfolded. Swing, then crunch – followed by two kicks from the front points of the crampons. Up we went.
Meanwhile another problem lurked. A mind-game concerning time. Before we set out, Darach and I accepted we needed to make the summit within the guidebook time of 7 hours. Although I wasn't wearing a watch I sensed 7 hours was up, or almost up. Consequently I felt uneasy. I knew Darach to be a cautious and principled man, and my fear was he would stick by the book and insist on a retreat at 7 hours on the nose, even if we were a stone's throw from the summit. Numerous thoughts and emotions coursed through me at this prospect. For my part I was determined to make the top. I thought little of sacrificing an extra few minutes or half an hour in order to claim the prize. After all, it was still before noon, and if we made it by then, we had all day to descend. Nine to ten hours before it got dark. Besides, we had worked too hard to get this far and I wasn't going to give that up. Not without a fight. Quietly I hoped Darach shared the same view and I didn't broach the subject. Thankfully I didn't have to. Afterwards Darach told me he felt the same way at that point. It would have been an opportunity lost had we given up. I was thankful for small mercies. Meanwhile I clawed onwards; swing by swing, step by step, stanchion by stanchion. And although the day was clear and beautiful, the persistent wind cut through us and it was still bitterly cold. Two Greek climbers overtook us, their rope travelling in parallel to ours for some distance. I noticed the clothes and gear they were wearing - top of range stuff and all brand new: axes, harnesses, boots, extenders, crampons, helmets, jackets ... the lot. Probably ten grand's worth of gear between them, and most of it carefully colour co-ordinated. Quite a contrast to us with our rough beards, our raggle-taggle array of abused equipment, our mish-mash of colours, and my decrepit green jacket with its network of holes, artlessly patched up with strips of grey duck tape. I couldn't help thinking they were either serious professionals, off-duty and out for a days hike, or rank amateurs playing at being professional. Most likely the latter. I found out when we made the top at three minutes past eleven. There to meet us was the leading Greek, shouting and jumping for joy, waving his ice axe in one hand and the Greek flag in the other. His mate, close to tears, was hugging the statue of madonna. Needless to say, Darragh and I were in no condition for such animation at that point. All we were happy to see was no more mountain. Instead we skirted the cornice and did a cursory 360 degree examination of all the peaks in the region. Half in Switzerland, half in Italy. Then demurely and rattling with the cold, we left the Greeks to their celebrations and began our descent.
I lost count of the number of abseil pitches we made going down. Fifteen … twenty maybe. We played it safe, perhaps too safe, reckoning most sections were too steep and slippy to downclimb easily. As a result descending took ages, and by the time we cleared The Shoulder all of the guided parties were well below us. Hours below in fact, which had ramifications for us. With no one to aim at, much time was consumed charting the route down. Navigation was made eyeing up footprints and crampon marks. And naturally the fixed protection and strategically placed slings assumed dual roles of bearings and tools. On a few occasions progress was hindered by the rope getting snagged between rocks, which was frustrating. And tiredness was a factor also. The effort for the summit had been draining. But at least one thing was now in our favour – decreasing altitude.
Time ticked by quickly. So quickly that by 6pm I got a surprise when I abseiled blindly onto the foundations of the Solvay hut. It had taken over 6 hours to descend 500 metres. Yet we were not alone. A German couple followed behind. We hooked up and discussed our moves. It was getting late and given the tiredness and the progress we were making, Darach and I opted to spend the night in the hut. Our motivation for continuing was wavering and besides, we didn’t care for a potential finish in the dark, especially with the hut beside us now. The chances are had we continued he would probably have been fine, but we didn’t want to run the risk of a lack of concentration or fatigue being the cause of an accident, particularly in the dark. The Germans thought otherwise and decided to press on. Upon which we left them instructions to inform the guardian of the Hornlihutte of our decision and safety.
The Solvay hut is just that - a basic wooden hut. No heat, no water, no electricity, no candles, no food. Just a large garden shed perched on a ledge 4000 metres high. It’s got a window and door, a large bunk bed, a table and bench, and an unspeakably foul toilet that reaches sub-zero temperatures on summer evenings. But despite its shortcomings, we were glad of it. It was shelter from the cold winds and the oncoming night. There’s not much about it to occupy you and nothing to read, apart from the visitors book, so the only activities left are to eat, stay warm and sleep as much as possible. It had been a while since we’d dined, so we rummaged through our rucksacks for food. Darach found a cold tin of tuna, some dried mango and pineapple, and I produced an equally chilled Mars bar, one and half litres of Evian water and a black, frostbitten banana. We shared the fruit and water, an opted to heat up the tuna and Mars bar by placing both items under our armpits for twenty minutes. I gazed out the window as the Mars thawed. Plumes of cloud gathered and rolled outside, drifting up the East face to vanish again over the summit. It was strange, everywhere else was clear; as if the core of the mountain was on fire and the East face was smoking. The atmosphere was quiet and lonesome too.
Inside, the hut was chilly. Having eaten we began settling down for the night. It was essential to maintain body warmth, so we donned every item of clothing we had. Despite shivering all over, my feet were particularly cold. Improvisation was called for. I removed my boots and wrapped each foot in a gore-tex gaiter, zipping them up and wearing them as oversocks. Then I placed both feet into my plastic rucksack liner, wrapping it around both ankles tightly. As for the rest of me, luckily the hut had blankets. So I parcelled myself up mummy-like and hopped onto the lower bunk. Dressings were complete by the wearing of two sets of gloves and a balaclava. I stopped short of wearing the helmet. Darach wrapped up in a similar fashion and lay down next to me a few minutes later. Our 50 metre rope and handful of slings made for a half-decent pillow. Finally our litre of water was wedged between us so it wouldn’t freeze. Patiently we waited for nightfall and sleep.
However we weren’t long alone. Shortly after 8pm the two Greeks appeared. Their lengthy summit jubilations, followed by a time-consuming descent meant that like us, they would be spending a luxurious night in the Hotel Solvay.
“We booked the penthouse suite for you lads,” I said, pointing to the top bunk. “I think you’ll find the room service a bit slow, but the neighbourhood is quiet and there’s no danger of your stuff getting robbed.”
A quieter pair of lads shared their frozen almonds with us in exchange for our fruit before donning their blankets and retreating to the upper bunk. There was no flag-waving now.
Surprisingly I slept well for most of the night, despite the cold, with my body maintaining a warm comfort level. The layers of clothing, blankets, gaiters and plastic did the trick. Remarkably, given the night’s conditions and the workout the previous day, we both felt refreshed. Our 6am wake-up call was the voices and shouts of Friday morning’s climbers on the lower Moseley slab beneath us.
It was a relief to be abseiling off that slab, watching Friday’s hopefuls as they competed with one another for positions ascending it - apprehension in their movements and urgency in their faces. Once off the slab we had about two hours down-climbing to make the Hornlihutte, but had all day to do it. Hence our pace was relaxed. Two abseil pitches saw us on the boulder-field. We traversed it and worked our way back onto the ridge, following it until we were past the last piece of fixed rope. It was a perfect day by the time we negotiated the last section – blue sky, warm sunshine and most particularly, no wind. Definitely Friday’s aspirants were fortunate.
“Maybe we should have waited a day, Darach,” I said. “The weather’s that bit better. You wouldn’t fancy turning around and having another crack at it, would you?”
Darach shook his head. “Not a chance. You can go on your own, pal.”
10am saw us safely back at the Hornlihutte, tucking into Rivella and strudel. The climb was over now and we could relax. It had been a great success. We had taken on the rock with all its challenges and overcome them – the climb, the techniques, the exposure, the route-finding, the altitude, the competition and the cold. The only thing that beat us was time. But we had learned a few things and we knew we’d be quicker another time.
We were tired and very satisfied as we made our way down the track from the Hornlihutte to Schwarzsee for the cable-car back to Zermatt. Every so often we’d stop and turn around to admire our quarry. The mild sensations of fear and apprehension we had upon approaching it two days earlier were a distant memory. The Matterhorn only appeared beautiful and more enticing to us now, purely because we had been intimate with it. There was no denying its charismatic lines and fine symmetry. And its flat faces with ice fields at its tip made me think of it as an upturned diamond, singled out from a cluster and awaiting special attention on a giant jeweller’s anvil. Altogether it was captivating and difficult to walk away from.
In the bustle of Zermatt, Darach and I split up. I wandered by the chapel on Kirchstrasse, gave thanks for a safe passage and moseyed into the small cemetery behind.
The epitaphs on many of the headstones provoke cautionary and unsettling feelings when read. Ambivalent feelings for the surrounding mountains that have claimed and continue to claim many lives: Breithorn, Weisshorn, Matterhorn, Zinalrothorn, Ober Gabelhorn, and more. I passed the grave of the Matterhorn's first victims; Croz, Hadow, Douglas and Hudson, 14th July 1865. The inscription on the headstone of a lesser-known climber particularly touched me. It belonged to a David Robinson of Wakefield and Bangor, North Wales, who died at 24 years of age on the Matterhorn, 28th December 1976. Nothing unique there you may think. The thing was, the hapless David met his death descending the normal route (the Hornli ridge) after having successfully climbed the treacherous North face. Talk about rotten luck? It was much like a soldier who spends years fighting a war and returns home unscathed ... only to be run over by a bus.
The stories within the cemetery put my thoughts on life, death, climbing, nature, human ambition, risk and reward into perspective. All were closely linked and each one demanded its correct measure of care and attention. Granted, for me, climbing the Matterhorn had all started with Hugon tempting me with the challenge. But that temptation grew and created a path of adventure all of its own, with multiple avenues of thought, ideas, ambition, fear and longing - until eventually that path had to be taken and those internal forces dealt with. And now it was over. A job well done. A dream realised.
I left Zermatt later on that evening. As I sat on the train heading North, I reflected on that magnificent mountain Darach and I climbed - with the obstacles and adventures it had presented us, and the trials and tribulations it demanded of us. And if truth be told I could only conclude one thing. That the Matterhorn had changed me somewhat. And changed me for the better. Because its presence had tapped into my soul and re-affirmed some basic truths. Truths we all recognise but don’t always acknowledge; that I was glad to be alive; that I was lucky to be strong and in full health; that I wanted for nothing; and that I was indeed privileged to be part of a beautiful and natural environment. And with that I returned home a humbler, happier, grateful and more content man.
© G. Galligan - August 2005