After all the years of talking about returning to the Swiss Alps to climb the Matterhorn it was finally summit day and I was scrambling up the mountain. My climbing guide Tino and I made an alpine start in the dark from the Hörnli Hut a little over an hour earlier. We were well on our way up and making good time as dawn broke over the surrounding peaks of the Pennine Alps. We had not yet reached the Solvay hut, where most climbers make the go/no-go decision to continue on to the summit. It was a relief to be able to turnoff my headlamp and see the route in daylight, but what the dawn revealed about the weather made my heart sink. The horizon was a solid mass of dark storm clouds heading swiftly towards the Matterhorn.
The day before at the Hörnli Hut I spoke to climbers who had just attempted the Matterhorn, but were forced to turn around at the Solvay Hut because of snow at a lower elevation than usual for August and deteriorating weather. Thunderstorms dominated the forecast all week. The night before my summit day, lightning struck all the peaks around us. Just a few weeks earlier an American woman was killed by lightning on the Matterhorn. I had to wonder, was all the time, money, and other dreams deferred that I invested into climbing the Matterhorn going to be for nothing? I no longer had any control of my destiny; all we could do now was keep going and hope for the best.
It was the last Sunday of August in 2017. I had traveled halfway around the world from my home in Seattle to chase a sixteen-year-old dream. In early September of 2001 I was last in Zermatt hiking below the Matterhorn. I made a promise to myself then that one day I would return to climb the Matterhorn. In a way though, the real reason I was climbing in Switzerland went back nearly thirty years.
Note: There is a lot of bloviating between here and the Matterhorn. If you are on your lunch break and looking to read a quick Matterhorn trip report you are probably thinking, "Tl;dr, what is all this crap about Mark Twain and travel? This guy needs a bottle of writer's Pepto-Bismol, he's got a bad case of logorrhea," If that is your situation then go ahead and just skip to the section "I'm really going to climb that?".
The journey is the summit
Being available at anytime in a totally accessible world seemed to me pure horror. It made me want to find a place that was not accessible at all: no phones, no fax machines, not even mail delivery, the wonderful old world of being out of touch. In other words, gone away. I wanted to drop out. People said, "Get a cell phone, use FedEx, sign up for Hotmail, stop in at Internet cafés, visit my Web site…" I said no thanks. The whole point of my leaving was to escape this stuff, to be out of touch. The greatest justification for travel is not self-improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace. As Huck put it, lighting out for the territory.—Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
These days you see lots of people on vacation with mobile phones, which I think is crazy. They are not present; instead of enjoying the wonders of the world they traveled so far to see they are taking selfies, making calls, texting, and scrolling through their social media feeds. They may have traveled a long way for their vacation, but because of their mobile phone umbilical cord they have never really left home. To my mind, part of the whole reason for a vacation is to unplug from the Information Age and live in the moment, even if only for a few weeks, so the idea of traveling with a phone is an appalling thought. I was traveling in Switzerland without a phone and very limited Internet access and it was great. I agree with Theroux about travel and being disconnected from my day-to-day life; that's kind of the whole point. You do not even have to travel to the back of beyond in Africa like Theroux did in Dark Star Safari to disconnect. I was in the heart of Europe and I was able to voluntarily opt-out of the Information Age.
Information overload is not a new problem, but it has gotten exponentially worse with mobile phones. Although the streets of every modern city are now filled with shambling smart phone zombies, so addicted to the dopamine hits they are getting from their junkie doses of information that they are terrified to be separated from their glowing screens for even a minute, this is a problem that has been building for a long time. Theroux published Dark Star Safari in 2003. In their song Too much information, the band The Police sang about the problem of information overload in the modern world. “Too much information running through my brain; Too much information driving me insane.” It was on their Ghost in the Machine album from 1981! Since then information overload has only grown by multiple orders of magnitude. People have become conditioned to be entertained and distracted every waking moment of their lives. Internet addiction is not inevitable; we do not have to live this way.
Komodo Island, 1992
I am not a Luddite, I have an engineering degree and I worked in the aerospace industry for years and now work as a software engineer. I love technology, but I do not believe in blindly embracing every fresh product disgorged by Silicon Valley just because it is new and shiny. There is something to be learned from how the Amish relate to technology. Contrary to popular perception, the Amish do not reject everything the modern world has to offer, they just have a process of carefully deliberating whether or not to adopt a new technologies in terms of the values of their community. I'm not saying I want to adopt the lifestyle of extreme simplicity of the Amish, but there is a valuable lesson there; that we should mediate our relationship with technology (like mobile phones and the Internet) based on our values and the kind of life we want to live. Mobilephones might be a necessary evil of modern life, but do we really want to live in a manic state of permanent information overload salivating like Pavlov's trained dogs every time a red dot appears on one of our phone's apps indicating an update?
I am old enough that I was in my twenties before mobile phones and the Internet began to invade all our lives. I feel lucky to have had the experience of living in and traveling in the world before the era of infinite information and constant contact. When you really travel, you understand the meaning of the expression, "The journey is the destination." How you arrive at your destination is as important a part of the experience as whatever it is you are traveling to see.
In the 1980s when I was in high school and information was scarcer I would buy back issues of National Geographic from the local used bookstore for a dime. I loved reading them and dreamed about visiting far away places. In high school I also discovered the travel writer Paul Theroux. His stories of travel were gritty and unsentimental. He avoided the beauty spots that are the whole point for most authors of travelogues. His writing had the ring of truth and made me want to explore. At the time I was not sure how I could afford to travel; it seemed like something only rich people did. We did not have much money when I was growing up. Family trips were limited to places that could be reached by car in a day. When my high school classmates would talk about family vacations to Hawaii it was something that seemed impossibly out of reach for me. The first time I ever stayed in a hotel was not until after college when I was traveling for work.
After I graduated from high school in 1989 I wanted to take some sort of vacation to celebrate, but I only had a small amount of money saved from my after-school restaurant job. I found out about something I could afford called the "Green Tortoise" through a friend's hippie dad. At that time they operated a bus service up and down the West Coast. It was a bohemian version of Greyhound. Their motto was "Arrive inspired, not dog-tired." Inside the buses there were booth style tables and the back half of the bus was a large flat area covered with cushions that you could sprawl out on. At night the booths folded up and transformed into bunk beds. At night everyone could lie flat and sleep comfortably, but in close quarters—not for people with personal space issues! From Seattle the bus drove overnight, stopping for a couple hours at a campground in Oregon owned by Green Tortoise where there was a salmon dinner, sauna, and a river for a quick swim. At the hostel I stayed at in San Francisco I met a lot of young travelers who shared stories of journeys all over the world achieved with very little money. I discovered there was this whole sub-culture of budget travel. With some German tourists I met at the hostel we rented a car and drove over to Yosemite. A week later I was back home in Bellingham, but the seed had been planted and I knew I wanted to travel again. I had discovered the world of "backpackers" as budget travelers called themselves, because everything you had with you during your time abroad was carried in a single backpack.
Mt Shuksan, 1996
I was eager to join the globetrotting impoverished jet-set, but it would be a few years before I could travel again. My first big overseas trip was in 1991. I studied Spanish in high school and college, so I really wanted to be an exchange student and spend a year studying at a university in a Spanish speaking country. Unfortunately, my school lacked a true exchange program so to study abroad would have been through a program outside of the university and it would have been prohibitively expensive for me to study abroad. I did discover an alternative option. I learned that as a university student I was eligible for a temporary work visa for many countries. I did not have enough confidence in my Spanish that I wanted to work in a Spanish-speaking country. At that time the program had just opened up for Australia. I applied and got the visa. Between my sophomore and junior years of college I took a year off from school to travel. For 9 ½ months I lived my dream of traveling the world and I was able to pay for it along the way by working in Australia.
Those were the halcyon days before the Internet and mobile phones when the world was a bigger place. Except for a few expensive phone calls to let my family know I was still alive I was completely cutoff from home and the communication was strictly one-way, in the form of me sending postcards home. On my way to Australia I stopped off in Fiji and New Zealand. In Australia I worked in the laundry room of a hotel in the Whitsunday Islands, as a waiter in a Bondi Beach restaurant in Sydney, and I picked pears & apples in small farm towns in Victoria and New South Wales. In New Zealand and Australia, I hitchhiked everywhere I went. After Australia I traveled through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. At the end of my 9+ months of travel I was not ready to go home yet, I still wanted to keep going. Vietnam had just opened up for tourism at that time and I really wanted to go. After that I wanted to explore India, but it was June and I was out of time. I had to go home to work; a summer job was waiting for me and I needed to save money so I could return to college in the fall. My year abroad did not do anything for my Spanish, but it was an education.
Even back in the early Nineties there was a constant quest for "authenticity" in travel. I remember in Lombok, Indonesia I saw a flyer for a guesthouse that said "Discover us before Lonely Planet does". This was in 1992, long before the weather eye of the Internet would be constantly scanning for "authentic" travel experiences. Now that quest for authenticity is hyper-intensified by the Internet, which pounces on cool travel experiences, and before you know it there are a hundred reviews on TripAdvisor for your "unique" experience.
There is a popular quote attributed to Paul Theroux, "Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going." Some people find this quote arrogant, but what Theroux is talking about is a different style of tourism, an ascetic of travel that emphasizes really experiencing the place you visit and not creating a big impact as a tourist that has a negative impact on the places and people you are visiting. It is a style of travel that takes time, but does not require a lot of money. You often travel day-by-day without a strict itinerary, keeping yourself open to the possibility of serendipity taking you places you never anticipated, but which often become the highlights of your trip.
The problem with travel is that it is like a drug—the more you travel the more you want to travel to see all of this great big fascinating planet we live on. Of course, as you get older the opportunities to travel and to travel for extended periods of time get fewer and fewer. Also, I am not independently wealthy so the reality of my financial situation meant that I would never be able to travel as much as I would like to. In the Nineties I discovered climbing. I was already an avid hiker so scrambling to the top of mountains was just the natural next step. I never got the bug to do hard technical climbing, I think I just liked being in the mountains for a lot of the same reasons I like travel. Hiking to the summit volcanoes in the Cascades satisfied that same desire for authentic experiences and living in the moment that you get from travel. It is a cliché of travel that "the journey is the destination". It is just as true of climbing mountains. At the summit of a mountain there is nothing there, just the air above you. It is how you get to the top that is what the experience is all about.
It would be nearly ten years before I would have the chance to travel again for an extended period of time and this time I was able to combine travel and climbing. In 2001 I was working as a contract engineer at the aerospace company Boeing. I finished a contract and decided to take the opportunity to travel again before accepting another job. The trip plan I settled on would be my version of the Grand Tour of Europe; traveling for eight weeks from Paris to Istanbul via France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. That journey was my introduction to the Alps when I visited Chamonix, Zermatt, and Interlaken. A climbing friend, Rob Dymond, joined me for the beginning of the journey. Along the way we attempted Mont Blanc in Chamonix (got weathered off and didn't summit) and then hiked around the foot of the Matterhorn in Zermatt. Standing in the Höhbalmen alpine meadows on the Edelweissweg trail gazing up at the majestic summit of the Matterhorn, I knew it was beyond my abilities at the time, but I made a promise to myself that one day I would return to climb it.
In 2003 I spent six weeks traveling in Morocco, Spain, and Portugal. The first three weeks in Morocco were a blast and while I did love Spain and Portugal, after that trip I swore off travel to Europe. I was a little bored by the Iberian half of my vacation, even with running with the bulls in Pamplona. Morocco could be a challenging place to travel and everyday felt like an adventure, but in Europe it was all too easy, everything just works there—it lacked challenge and these were places that everybody went too.
It took another book by Paul Theroux to remind me that you don't always have to journey to the ends of the Earth to experience the frisson of travel. In his travelogue The Kingdom by the Sea
, he traveled around the coast of Britain, and discovered new things about a place he describes, as "…the most written-about country in the world…the most widely explored country on earth…" It was a useful reminder that I did not always have to cross the Khyber Pass to have an adventure.
Even in Switzerland, which has been a tourist destination since the early Nineteenth Century I could find the kind of experience I was looking for. It just takes a little more imagination, you have to work harder for it in Europe. I realized I had been lazy; traveling in the developing world makes travel an adventure by default. Just by stepping off the airplane in a country like Pakistan you are going to have an adventure, but in Switzerland you have to earn it.
Napoleon of the mountain world
While I was feeling these things, I was groping, without knowing it, toward an understanding of what the spell is which people find in the Alps, and in no other mountains—that strange, deep, nameless influence, which, once felt, cannot be forgotten—once felt, leaves always behind it a restless longing to feel it again—a longing which is like homesickness; a grieving, haunting yearning which will plead, implore, and persecute till it has its will. I met dozens of people, imaginative and unimaginative, cultivated and uncultivated, who had come from far countries and roamed through the Swiss Alps year after year—they could not explain why. They had come first, they said, out of idle curiosity, because everybody talked about it; they had come since because they could not help it, and they should keep on coming, while they lived, for the same reason; they had tried to break their chains and stay away, but it was futile; now, they had no desire to break them. Others came nearer formulating what they felt; they said they could find perfect rest and peace nowhere else when they were troubled: all frets and worries and chafings sank to sleep in the presence of the benignant serenity of the Alps; the Great Spirit of the Mountain breathed his own peace upon their hurt minds and sore hearts, and healed them; they could not think base thoughts or do mean and sordid things here, before the visible throne of God.
—Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
Although most people know of Mark Twain as the author of novels like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he also had a very successful career as a travel writer. In 1878 Mark Twain traveled across Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, mostly on foot, a journey he chronicled in his 1880 travelogue, A Tramp Abroad. The book is snarky and humorous like you would expect from Twain, but occasionally sincerity gets the better of him and he waxes rhapsodic about things like "…the benignant serenity of the Alps". In this, Twain was unconsciously echoing one of his contemporaries, John Muir, who shared a similar sentiment (much more succinctly though) in an 1873 letter to his sister, famously stating, "The mountains are calling and I must go…"
In 2017, sixteen years after my first visit to the Alps I finally answered that call and returned. The 2017 trip was my first vacation in five years so I decided to go all-in and attempt to check off one of my bucket-list items: climbing the Matterhorn. I like to think of it as the "Grand Tour Redux: Alpine Edition", since I was revisiting many of the places I had visited in 2001 on my first Grand Tour. I followed roughly the same plan as sixteen years before: fly into Paris and take a train to the French Alps (then Chamonix, this time Annecy). Followed by the Swiss Alps: Geneva, Zermatt, and Interlaken. If you are just planning on being in the Alps, it is better to fly directly to Geneva, but there were other things I wanted to see. After the Alps I would visit Germany, Belgium, and Iceland, but unlike my first journey to the Alps where climbing was a bonus, the primary focus of this trip would be climbing.
The Swiss Alps are the exact opposite of the oft-the-beaten track travel destination that I have been chasing for years. Vacationers have flocked to the Alps since the advent of the railroads and a growing middle class in the Nineteenth Century gave birth to the modern tourist industry. Switzerland is where the very idea of adventure travel was born. Although Twain was there one hundred thirty-nine years before me, there were a surprising number of things that have not changed at all about people vacationing in the mountains including a competitive edge to the way some people hike:
I'm really going to climb that?
The summit of the Matterhorn offers very clear choices: a misstep to the left and you die in Italy; a wrong step to the right and you die in Switzerland.
–The Abominable, by Dan Simmons
Although I've wanted to climb the Matterhorn since 2001, it was not like some burning desire that I thought about night and day, it was more like something that was in the back of my mind that I would like to do someday. It was a book that renewed my serious interest in climbing the Matterhorn. My brother gave me a copy of The Abominable for Christmas a few years back. The novel opens with the main characters on the summit of the Matterhorn. I wish I could say that it was some profound and soul-stirring testament about climbing in the Alps that gave me a mission to climb the Matterhorn. No, it just happened to be the spark that reignited my interest. The Abominable is an entertaining thriller set in the Alps and the Himalayas in the 1920s that includes Nazis and Yetis. The fact that I was on the Matterhorn because of this book is only slightly less ludicrous than if I climbed the Eiger after watching the Clint Eastwood movie The Eiger Sanction.
Remember the Matterhorn
Before I could climb the Matterhorn I had to train for it all summer. From all the reading I had done I knew that you have to be fast on the Matterhorn. The standard route on the Matterhorn is the Hörnligrat
—Twain would call me out on this), which you climb after spending the night at the Hörnli Hut. From the Hörnli hut you should plan on being on the summit in four hours. The summit of the Matterhorn is 14,692 feet and you start from the Hörnli hut at 10,700 feet. In terms of summit day elevation gain this is comparable to the summit of Mount Rainier, which is 14,411 feet, and you start from Camp Muir at 10,188 feet. For an average person it takes about seven to eight hours to reach the summit of Rainier from Camp Muir. I've climbed Rainier three times and I know from experience how winded I get. So that meant to me that I would have to train hard for the Matterhorn.
A few years before I read House and Johnson's book Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete
. It inspired me to buy a GPS enabled sports watch with a heart rate monitor chest strap to train for climbing. All summer I was hoofing it up and down steep hiking trails constantly glancing at my wrist to make sure that I was keeping my heart rate in the target zone and slowing down or speeding up my hiking pace to maintain my zone. There is an essay in Training
contributed by Mark Twight, TINSTAAFL (There is no such thing as a free lunch)
, which is about how there are no shortcuts to the amount of time you have to put in to train for climbing. I thought a lot about that on the trail when training and the acronym became a curse word. I would grumble "Tinstaafl!" whenever I did not feel like hoofing it up hiking trails on hot summer days.
My decision to climb the Matterhorn was made at relatively the last minute; I pulled the trigger in May for a trip at the end of August which felt to me like very little time to plan an overseas climbing trip. I had a long internal debate, it would be an expensive trip and I was trying to finish a novel—this would be a huge distraction. On the flip side I had been talking about climbing the Matterhorn for years; I was not getting any younger so if not now then when? Things had lined up well at work for a long vacation, so I decided this was going to be my best opportunity. It was too little notice to get any friends to go with me, so I would be traveling solo. Since I was going alone I signed up with Seattle based climbing company Mountain Madness for a guided climb. I was not in top shape at the time, but I still had a few months to kick it into gear and get into climbing condition for the Alps.
Riffelhorn, Riffelsee, and Matterhorn
While researching the Matterhorn I read a blog post titled "Your 'Mandatory' Matterhorn Climb" by Dan Renyi on the web site of a mountain guiding company, Climb Big Mountains, in which he states, "OK, of course, it's not mandatory. But one thing's for sure. If you've gotten your hands dirty with mountaineering, then sooner or later you'll want to nail one of the most emblematic peaks on the Planet: the big, bad Matterhorn. Right? Seriously. No matter if you're a young titan or a 40-ish dude with a small beer-belly who started climbing a bit too late
[emphasis mine], you probably want this mountain – or have it already – on your list." I winced reading it, that last bit was a little too close to the mark—I needed to get in shape.
After making the decision to climb the Matterhorn I scribbled a note on half an index card and taped it on the inside of my apartment door at eye level. "Remember the Matterhorn," it read. Whenever I left my apartment it would be a daily reminder that I needed to be training for the Matterhorn and preparing for my trip. I was in Austin that spring and while there took a side trip to San Antonio to visit the Alamo. So, riffing on "Remember the Alamo" I would "Remember the Matterhorn".
"Remember the Matterhorn" meant I would have to be out training regardless of the conditions. It was a summer of bad forest fires in British Columbia; thick smoke reached all the way from Canada to Seattle. The daily weather forecasts often included just the word "smoke". The air quality in Seattle in the summer of 2017 got so bad that it was worse than Beijing, China. Later, when Eastern Washington State started burning there was a time when it was literally raining ash in the city.
That summer I got real familiar with the I-90 corridor hikes east of Seattle like: Mt Si, Mailbox Peak, Granite Mountain, and McClellan Butte. I did not do much climbing that summer prior to my trip. I knew the route I would take on the Matterhorn was within my technical climbing abilities so I prioritized my limited free time on physical conditioning. It was a hot summer by Seattle standards. I would be out hiking after work and it was often 90 over degrees at the summit. At least you could get above the smoke, but at the trailhead you felt like you were hiking in a smoky bar. I would also go for conditioning rides around Lake Washington after work. The sun would be a hazy red ball in the sky at 6pm, hours before sunset. The next day my throat would be sore from riding in the smoky air. I squeezed in as much training as a could in a busy schedule and had to hope when I flew out of Seattle for Paris on the 17th of August that it would be enough.
Riffelhorn GPS track
"Travel is glamorous only in retrospect," so stated Paul Theroux in an often-quoted interview in the British newspaper the Observer. For climbers its analog is Type 2 Fun and climbers amnesia. I thought about that quote on my way to Zermatt from Paris and many other points on my vacation. I was traveling on the cheap and my rambles and misadventures around the Continent had many moments that felt a lot more like the movie Eurotrip than some glossy spread in Condé Nast Traveler. Independent budget travel means you often do not know what is going to happen next and I would not have it any other way; it's what makes travel fun.
The usual rule of travel is to pack light and I made it work with two packs...just barely. Everything I needed for over three weeks of travel including climbing gear was stuffed into a daypack and a large rolling bag, both of which were bursting at the seems. In Paris the Metro is old, so there are few escalators. I really hated schlepping my big rolling bag up and down all the staircases in the Metro. At the Hotel Banhoff, I was staying on the 3rd floor. Only in Europe, what we consider the 1st floor they call the zero floor. So I was actually staying on the 4th floor and had to drag my damn bag up four flights of stairs since the hotel did not have an elevator. Everyday in Zermatt after a long exhausting day of climbing I got extra exercise trooping up and down the stairs to my room and the kitchen in the basement.
Getting to Zermatt from Geneva was a snap. When you hear people people talk about Swiss precision, they ain't kidding. The roads, bridges, and railways are all immaculate. The trains run exactly on time, literally to the minute. All countries in Europe, even Germany, compare poorly to that Swiss level of perfection. When I returned to France I really noticed that the trains run late and were dirty by comparison to Switzerland, but in France the women were sexier and the food better so I guess you can't have it all in one culture.
My first day in Zermatt I got a taste of European style hiking. I took the cogwheel railroad up to the Gornergrat, a high ridge with sweeping views, and then hiked back down to Zermatt. There are railways and gondolas all over the place here so it is easy to get high in the mountain with little effort. The views were amazing and I got some great photos of the surrounding mountains. You got to love that European hiking where you can take a train to the top and then hike down.
There is a hotel at the end of the railroad line to the Gornergrat. From the observing platform at the Kulm Hotel I got my first really good view of the Matterhorn. It was a perfectly clear day. It was not the chilly morning air that took my breath away; it was the stunning view of the mountain. I had to pinch myself. It was hard to believe that after sixteen years I was finally back. The Matterhorn does not disappoint. It is as striking in person as you imagine. It is one of the most iconic mountains in the world. If you ask a kid to draw a picture of a mountain they will likely draw the Matterhorn even if they do not know it by name. I remember way back in 1999 the first time I climbed Mount Rainier, when we got close to the White River trailhead the mountain looked so huge and I kept thinking, "We're really going up that?" I had that same feeling looking up at the Matterhorn, "I'm really going to climb that?" It is so big and dramatic and even though you can see the route clearly it seems impossible when you are anywhere except on the mountain.
I had hiked up the ridge above the Gornergrat to take more photos and this was the last picture I would get to take before hiking back to Zermatt. Unbeknownst to me my camera's battery was almost dead and I had accidentally left my spare battery back at the hostel. Just as I was about to get a good photo of a couple ibex (Alps mountain goats) the battery died. On the hike down I ended up missing out on some other really great photos: the Matterhorn reflected in the Riffelsee, a herd of Swiss sheep with bells on walking down the trail with the Matterhorn in the background, an weathered old crucifix (also with Matterhorn in the background), a small alter with Mary in it carved out of a living tree surrounded by fresh roses. I am a crazy shutterbug so missing those photos still hurts.
Pollux GPS track
I can't say I love Zermatt. It is an expensive resort town, like Vail, Colorado. That said I couldn't complain about it either, like it was my favorite mountain town in the American West that got ruined by commercialization; Zermatt has been a tourist town since the 19th Century. Going out for a meal in Zermatt was not cheap. It was at a minimum 30 Swiss francs (CHF) for a sit-down meal. The cheapest food outside the supermarket I found was a grilled sausage stand on the Bahnhofstrasse main street that sold a brat and slice of dark bread for 6 CHF. That combined with 1.70 CHF tall boy beer from the supermarket was my standard post-climb meal in Zermatt. Traveling in Europe during the tourist high season in late August went against everything I know about budget travel, but if I was going to climb the Matterhorn I had to be there when the weather was good.
Although I was traveling alone I was not climbing the Matterhorn solo. As I mentioned, I hired a climbing guide through Mountain Madness. I had not met my guide Tino before arriving in Zermatt and we had only communicated via email. Working out of the Alps and with a surname Villanueva I assumed he was a Spaniard so I was surprised when I met him to discover he was an American who lives in Seattle. As a certified International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) guide he is permitted to work in the Alps. I guess I could have found this out if I had bothered to Google him, he does have a web site after all: http://www.tinovillanueva.com/.
I have never climbed with a guide before. I am not a big talker and usually run out of things to say after awhile. I was apprehensive about having to make conversation with a complete stranger for five days, but Tino was a cool guy and good at keeping the conversation going. I think the art of conversation is an important "unofficial" mountain guide skill that is almost as important as tying knots. Also, living in Seattle and a climber, Tino knew some of the same people I know—small world.
We were not climbing the Matterhorn right away. We had three days of acclimatization climbs of increasing difficulty prior to the Matterhorn. My guess is that the acclimatization climbs are also a way for the guides to determine if clients have the technical ability and physical fitness to climb the Matterhorn, so I had to prove myself. Also, there is a lot of fixed protection in I the Alps and there are new techniques I had to learn about climbing with this gear.
We rode the Gornergratbahn train up to the Rotenboden station, two stops before the Gornergrat, the same area I had hiked through the day before. At the Riffelhorn, which is a small rocky peak, we would spend the day practicing short rope climbing which I had never done before and multi-pitch climbing. This was both my first guided climb ever and my first real climbing in the Alps since Mont Blanc sixteen years before. With all the fixed protection there are some Alps-specific climbing techniques that I have never seen before that take advantage of the fixed protection. Three wraps around one of the vertical bars is considered a good anchor. There are bolts like we would recognize from America, but there are also beefier rings. The thing that was really unique to me were the vertical bars cemented directly into the rock. They come in three flavors: 1" diameter rebar, rebar with a "T" welded to the top, and "lollipops" which are stainless steel bars with a ring on top. The rusty old re-bar without the "T" made me nervous, I kept picturing tripping over them and impaling myself.
Climbing in the Alps is very developed. There is a lot of fixed protection on popular routes. There are often big ropes or chains attached permanently to the routes in difficult or exposed places. On some of the routes where you need to simul-climb, like on the Matterhorn, there are large steel pins like round railroad spikes cemented into the rock that you can throw your rope over in addition to using the usual rock horns. On the routes we were climbing on the Riffelhorn they even had metal plaques at the base of the climbs with the name of the route and the difficulty rating. The only thing missing was the # of bolts. We climbed a six-pitch route called "The Egg" with a French climbing rating of "4b", which translates to the American YDS rating of 5.7. We were climbing in mountaineering boots, since that is what we would be wearing on the Matterhorn.
Breithorn GPS track
The second day's plan was to climb Pollux and its twin peak Castor if time and weather permitted. It was a fairly long hike out to Castor and Pollux, but certainly made way easier by the fact that we were able to take a combination of gondolas and tram cars (the really big gondolas) to twelve thousand feet elevation. When I was still back in Seattle and read about the itinerary for the climbing and trying to make sense of how we would get to the climbs I was thinking in Cascades terms and thought we would be doing a lot of driving and approach hiking. Not the case at all. For one thing there are no cars in Zermatt. Also all the climbs we did were accessed via trains or gondolas from Zermatt. Back home a climb like Pollux would take two days, just because of the approach hiking, but in Zermatt we were able to do the climb and be back in town by late afternoon the same day—in time for a late beer-and-brat lunch. Takingthe tram cars was great, it was the glamorous Alps experience I always imaginedfrom watching the James Bond movie On HerMajesty's Secret Service
when I was a kid.
The Pollux climb was a mix of rock scrambling and snow trudging. Below the final ridge to the summit of Pollux was a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus. That's one of those "Oh, yeah, I'm in Europe moments." There are crucifixes and statues of Saints all over the place on public lands. Clearly there ain't no First Amendment separating Church & State in Switzerland. After summiting Pollux we talked about climbing Castor too, but the weather was changing; clouds were rolling in so Tino thought we should get out of the mountains. I was disappointed to not also summit Castor, but skedaddling before the weather rolled in was the right decision. That night in Zermatt it rained hard. Flashes of lightning illuminated the darkness and the rumble of thunder rolled down the valley. Each bolt of lightning increased my doubts that I would summit the Matterhorn. Worrying about the weather would be a constant theme of climbing in Zermatt since thunderstorms were forecast all week.
As it was, it was best that we did not climb Castor. My heels had been rubbing and were hurting, I could feel hot spots and thought I would end up with some blisters. My boots were about a quarter size too small and were always snug with thick socks on. Ihad been climbing in them for years, but the fit was never perfect. I got bad advice from the boot salesmen whoinsisted I should buy a snug fitting boot because the leather would stretch out—itnever did. As an experiment that day I had tried out thinner socks. It was a mistake. The thinner socks were more comfortable, but with the extra room in my boots my heels rubbed. When I got back to Zermatt I found out that it was worse than I realized, I had rubbed off a flap of skin the size of a quarter off of each heel. Luckily Zermatt was well stocked with pharmacies so I was able to purchase the blister pads and sports tape that I needed to apply to my heels for the rest of my climbs. The moral of the story is never experiment with gear when it's go time and pay attention when you feel a hot spot.
The next day the weather had improved and we had clear skies in the morning and a beautiful view of the Matterhorn at sunrise. We were taking the same series of gondolas again to the Klein Matterhorn station. All that week there was a ski camp at the same place we were going because you can ski even in the summer on the highest glacier. So each morning there was over a hundred teenagers with skis in this sort of holding pen area waiting for the gondola station to open. For us that meant that for the two mornings we were going up to the high glacier we had to race a horde of teenagers who were carrying skis and big bags of gear when they opened the station doors to get to the first gondola to avoid getting stuck behind all of them.
Once again we were trudging across the Grand Verra glacier, but the Breithorn Half-traverse we was a lot closer to the Klein Matterhorn station than Pollux. This was a good thing because the Breithorn Half-traverse was a more technical climb than Pollux and would take longer. Also, although my heels were covered with blister pads and sports tape, but they were still sore and bugged me during the hike. All I could do was tape-up-and-go and not complain; it was my own damn fault.
The Breithorn Half-traverse is a "committing" route meaning that once on it there was no easy way off and you just have to see it through. It also had significantly more exposure than Pollux with some shear drops of hundreds of feet. The assessment from Tino about how it compared to the Matterhorn is that the climbing on the Breithorn was more technical, but the exposure on the Matterhorn was more intense, which would prove to be true.
The weather again held off long enough and we got to the summit with no issues. Once we completed the technical rocky ridge portion of the traverse the remainder of the climb to the Breithorn summit was a snow slog across a ridge. My ankles were tender from the lost skin, but the blister treatment and tape were working well enough for me to function. If the weather had not improved this might have been all we did this day, the snow slog to the top of the Breithorn, which would have been annoying. In town some of the tour companies advertised a "My first 4000m peak" Breithorn climb introduction to mountaineering for 199 CHF, which is just the hike from the Klein Matterhorn station up the snowy slopes of the Breithorn to its summit. That is not what I traveled halfway around the world for, so it was a relief the weather cooperated and we got to do the "whole" Half Breithorn traverse. Although the weather was good on the Breithorn, near by the Matterhorn was wrapped in clouds—bad weather on the Matterhorn kept me wondering if I was going to be able to summit. Because the forecast was so poor all week, Tino discussed several back-up plans I should consider if weather precluded climbing the Matterhorn.
Matterhorn from Zermatt
On the fourth day of guided climbing, it was time to hike up to the Hörnli Hut where we would spend the night before our Matterhorn summit day. Since we were only going up to the Hörnli hut the day got off to a leisurely start and we stopped for lunch on our way up. At the restaurant Café du Pont in Zermatt I selected the fondue because it was the most Swiss thing I could think of. Tino ordered the rösti with a bratwurst. We talked about Tino’s climbing plans after the Alps. I was his last paying client for the summer season. After this he and one of his climbing buddies were off to India to attempt the first ascent of a new route in the Himalayas.
During lunch we went through my gear to make sure I was not missing anything. Like for all of the other climbing we had done so far I was carrying very little gear. You need to move fast on the Matterhorn, so you want to keep your pack light. I only had a few locking carabiners and slings and my ice axe, which I would not even take out of my pack during my Matterhorn climb. I did have crampons, but that was it for technical climbing gear out side of usual stuff like helmet, harness, and headlamp. For insulation I had a hat, leather gloves, mid-weight gloves, a light weigh puffy jacket, and a light windbreaker shell jacket. Even Tino was not carrying much outside of his rope. All the fixed protection on the Matterhorn means you can climb with a very limited set of technical gear.
I was climbing in my light summer mountaineering boots, Salewa's Rapace GTX. You see a lot of guys heading up to the Matterhorn with heavy mountaineering boots like La Sportiva's Nepal or Scarpa's Mont Blanc, but as Tino pointed out that if conditions are severe enough that you need those boots you are not going to be climbing the Matterhorn anyways. Conditions have to be pretty good to summit the Matterhorn, if it is too snowy or icy you are not going to make it.
Matterhorn GPS track
We rode gondolas up again, but this time only to the Schwarzsee station. From there it is a two-hour hike up to the Hörnli Hut. During the approach hike I kept looking up at the Matterhorn trying to understand the Hörnli Ridge route, but it still looked impossible. Even at the base of the mountain the route is not obvious. Wheneveryou see pictures of the Matterhorn one side is usually lit and the other is inshadow. It is the classic view of thenortheast ridge that you see in most photos of the Matterhorn and on packagesof the Toblerone chocolate. That linebetween the dark and light sides is the Hörnli Ridge and my route to thesummit. Tino kept emphasizing that this was for real and the deadly seriousness of climbing the Matterhorn, but also joked that it is, "The only horn that matters."
The Hörnli hut is one of those alpine huts that completely blows the mind of anyone used to climbing in undeveloped mountain areas. My first experience with huts in the Alps was when I stayed at the Tête Rousse hut on Mont Blanc in 2001. Coming from the Pacific Northwest and climbing in the Cascades I could not believe that we could stay in a staffed hut at the same elevation as the summit of Mount Baker with bunk beds & wool blankets and order fresh pasta with wine for dinner. The Hörnli Hut takes it up a notch. It is a fairly large building that can accommodate 130 climbers. It is staffed with a kitchen so you can get hot meals, beer, and wine. The rooms are comfortable modern dorms with clean linens. The dining room has large windows, so you can eat your meals with a dramatic view of the Matterhorn. This is at an elevation of 3260 meters (10,700 feet). That's higher than Camp Muir on Mount Rainier. European climbing…I could get used to this.
Dinner was a three-course meal, all very delicious, but considering it costs 150 CHF for the privilege of staying one night in a Hörnli hut dorm room I better get a damn three-course meal. It wasn't cheap, but nothing in Switzerland was. After leaving Switzerland my first stop was Leipzig, Germany. At a hostel in the heart of Leipzig's old town I booked a really nice private room for about thirty Euros, the same price I was paying to stay in dorms in Switzerland.
The weather forecast was not promising, as poor as it had been all week. In my dorm room at the Hörnli hut was a Swiss woman who had just attempted the Matterhorn that day. She and her guide were staying another night to try again. They turned around at the Solvay hut. She had photos on her phone and conditions did not look great. They were enveloped in clouds and there was a thin layer of snow on all the rocks well below the Solvay hut, which is a very low elevation for snow on the route in August. I went to bed after dinner, since official wake up time was 4:30 am and start time was at 5 am and I wanted to be as well rested as possible for the Matterhorn. Tino stayed up that night and witnessed a spectacular display of lightning striking all the peaks around the Matterhorn.
The alarm on my watch started chiming at 4:00 am. It was Matterhorn summit day. This is what I trained for all summer and it is the centerpiece of my vacation. Once I had committed to it I felt like it took over my life and made decisions for me. I had to train when I didn't want to, getting very familiar with the I-90 corridor hikes in the process. I joined the Boealps climbing club's Basic Rock class in Squamish as a volunteer instructor to refresh my rock skills at a time when the smoke was bad enough for British Columbia's government to warn residents to stay indoors. It took time away from other goals I really wanted to work on like my novel and learning new programming languages for my career as a software engineer.
It is what it is. I committedto do this in May and three months later at 4am I was awake and getting readystill not entirely believing I was there and finally about to start climbingthe Matterhorn, fulfilling a sixteen-year-old dream. I started the day with an unpleasant surprise. I stepped on to damp carpet next to my pack. The bite valve on my CamelBak water bladder was old and needed to be replaced. The leaky valve was touching the ground and through capillary action leaked out over half the contents of the bladder, that's over a liter. So I lost half my drinking water and my socks were now wet and I did not bring a spare pair. I did my best to dry them, but there was very little time and it meant I would be hiking the Matterhorn in damp socks. At least for the drinking water the gal at the desk let me know they still had the sweet tea left over form the night before in pitchers so I was able to refill the bladder.
Ready to climb!
Tino mentioned he is not a morning person and he looked a little bleary-eyed. The guides all sleep in a separate dorm from everyone else. The previous evening before dinner, Tino attended a meeting for all the climbing guides called the "guide's apéritif". The guides are served snacks and wine and discuss topics like: starting times and who will go first (the Swiss guides who know the way and other guides who have been up that season). The general prognosis for the day was "hope for the best." Looking out the windows the skies were clear for the moment and we could only keep our fingers crossed that the weather would hold long enough to summit—thunderstorms were again in the forecast. Breakfast was a continental breakfast, which was not bad especially considering where we were—part of what I was getting for the one hundred fifty Swiss francs I paid to stay at the Hörnli hut. Between dinner and breakfast I was well fed—that sweet Alps climbing.
The Hörnli hut did not let anyone start climbing before 5am so everyone lines up in front of the door waiting to go like marathoners lined up waiting for the staring gun. We were not at the front of the line but were middle of the pack. The day before after arriving at the Hörnli hut we checked out the start of the climb and went as far we could before it started raining. It was good to see the early part of the route because we would be starting in the dark. We were lucky that there were only fifty climbers on our summit day. The hut sleeps one hundred thirty so we could have had a much more crowded summit day. As it was we were still in a line of people all the way to the summit, but it could have been a lot worse with more delays at the choke points if there had been the full 130 people climbing. Tino thought that because of the dry winter the Matterhorn was in climbing condition way earlier than usual so the climbing was spread out over a much longer season than usual, so less climbers crowded the route that day.
Just before 5am the doors opened and it was a stampede to the start of the Matterhorn climb. No one was running exactly, but everyone was hiking as fast as they could. The very start of the climb is also the first bottleneck, a short pitch that everyone was racing to. Once there it was a case of hurry up and wait. It is also the first example of fixed protection on the Hörnli Ridge route; there was a large rope secured to the route and ladder steps cemented into the rock. The ropes on the Matterhorn have steel cables underneath. That is why it is important to wear leather gloves, to protect your hands from metal wires poking through the ropes. I was wearing Black Diamond's Crag gloves with leather palms. After the first pitch it was a bit of a blur until we reached the Solvay hut. The first hour of the climb is where climbing with a guided really pays off. The early section of the Hörnli Ridge has a lot of twists and turns. It is confusing; it would be easy to lose you way in the dark if not being lead by an experienced guide who knows the route like Tino. In terms of the climbing, it was a lot of what we practiced during the preceding days: simul-climbing and Tino leading the more technical sections and then putting me on belay. In the dark I was not as aware of the exposure.
In a German-speaking area like Zermatt, Tino's title is "Bergführer". The literal translation is "mountain leader". Of course to English-speakers, this sounds funny, the word "führer" having been tainted by history. When Hitler took the title "Der Führer" he was just calling himself "The Leader", which sounded very modern at the time. It did lead me to occasionally answer Tino's climbing directions with "Jawohl, mein bergführer!" since all of the German I know was picked up watching World War Two movies.
Sunrise Hörnli Ridge
The next major choke point on the Matterhorn's Hörnligrat is right below the Solvay hut. The Solvay hut is an emergency shelter on the Hörnligrat. This is also an important checkpoint for guided climbers. If you don't reach the Solvay hut in less than three hours your guide will turn you around. You have to be fast to climb the Matterhorn. Fortunately, all the snow that fell on the route before the Solvay hut the day before had melted out. We got to the Solvay hut in two hours, which is not super fast, but good enough.
Inside the Solvay hut it is pretty basic, but if you got stuck on the Matterhorn for whatever reason it would be enough shelter to save your life. In August of the previous year two British climbers on the southwest Lion Ridge route froze to death when caught unprepared by a sudden storm. There is no emergency hut on that side of the mountain. Ever since the tragedy of the first ascent of the Matterhorn 1865 when half the party fell to their deaths there has been a steady drumbeat of deaths on the mountain, which has claimed the lives of over five hundred mountaineers.
When we reached the Solvay hut we stopped briefly to shove some food in our mouths. Back at the Hörnli hut I purchased a hockey puck sized disc of dark brown bread called bergführerbrot
, which is traditional mountain guide bread baked in Zermatt with fresh apples, figs, nuts, sultanas, cinnamon, and cocoa. It is a dense, dark, and rich bread, designed to supply the energy needed for climbing. It was bland, but that is all right; you do not want complicated flavors at altitude. If you live at sea-level and travel quickly to an elevation above 8000 feet you are going to experience some form of altitude sickness. The most common symptom is a general feeling of malaise like a hangover, which causes you to loose your appetite and makes a lot of food flavors unpalatable. Tino tried some of the bergführerbrot
and described it well, "Tastes like calories." When I bought it the gal behind the counter laughed and said, "You won't have time to eat on the Matterhorn." She was basically right; I barely had time to cram down snacks during our few short breaks.
Below Solvay Hut
Back in Seattle before the trip I watched YouTube videos of the Matterhorn climb filmed on a GoPro. The exposure looked completely insane. I mentioned it to Tino. He pointed out that fisheye lenses always make the exposure look more intense. After the Solvay hut things got more serious, which is saying something since it already felt "for real". It was not as bad as the GoPro video, but the exposure was plenty intense as it was, the route was often along knife edge ridges with sheer drops of thousands of feet to either side.
The snow started a lot lower than normal for late-August so we had to put on our crampons on earlier than would be usual at that time of year. We had some mixed climbing on rock and snow. Close to the summit we got stuck behind this woman Sarah (not her real name) and her Swiss guide. We never got his name but we learned her name because he kept shouting at her to keep going. She would keep saying "No" in a timorous voice when he urged her on. There is a short difficult pitch near the top of the mountain, which was made easier by a small chain ladder that was bolted to the rock. At the top of the chain ladder Sarah somehow ended up on her back with her crampon-shod feet up in the air. My favorite quote of the day was when her exasperated guide said, "Sarah, the only answers allowed are 'Yes' or 'Yes'!" To her credit, Sarah did make it to the summit and even passed us on the descent. I was concerned about her technical climbing abilities, but I was not judging her for vocalizing her emotions. In fact, it reminded me of something the filmmaker David Breashears said when I saw him speak in Seattle about his Everest
IMAX movie. He said he always liked having women climbers in his movies to balance out the "guy effect" where as soon as the camera is on he cannot get the male climbers to talk about their feelings, but the female climbers will always share their emotions. I can relate to that, I was scared on the Matterhorn, but I would not have admitted it at the time.
The final push to the summit was on snow and was not technical. Just below the summit is a statue of St. Bernard—the patron saint of climbers. This is the same guy as born in the castle I visited in Annecy, France and the famous dogs with the barrels around their necks. St. Bernard is not just the patron of mountaineers, but also the patron saint of the Alps and all mountain travelers including: skiing, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, and mountaineers. When we finally reached the summit I was really stoked to be there, but my excitement was tempered by the knowledge that it takes as long to descend the Matterhorn as to climb it—we were only halfway through the climb.
The Matterhorn's true summit is the Swiss summit. The border between Switzerland and Italy literally runs across the summit of the Matterhorn, which the Italians call Monte Cervino. A short hike across the summit ridge leads to the Italian summit. If you have seen photos of people on the Matterhorn next to a large ornate cross that is the Italian summit. A lot of the climbing teams that had been ahead of us on the route were now over at the Italian summit. Concerned about the weather we did not spare any time to hike over to the Italian side. We did not linger long and started descending after a taking some photos and wolfing down a quick snack. As is often the case, the descent feels harder and more dangerous than the ascent. At least I was not gasping for air on the way down.
The majority of accidents in mountaineering happen during the descents. From the very beginning the Matterhorn was no different. On July 14, 1865 a party lead by British climber Edward Whymper and Swiss guide Peter Taugwalder reached the summit of the Matterhorn. On the descent over half the party fell and only the quick thinking of Taugwalder wrapping the rope around a rock horn saved the lives of himself, his son, and Whymper. The rope broke below where Taugwalder wrapped it and four members of their team fell thousands of feet to their deaths. My first day in Zermatt I visited the Matterhorn Museum where you can see the actual rope used by Whymper and the Taugwalders. It was preserved because it was submitted as evidence in the inquest convened to investigate the tragedy. It was a little unnerving looking at that broken rope and thinking about all the people who have died climbing the Matterhorn. I should have waited until after my climb to visit the museum.
For the most part the descent went smoothly, but we did have a close call. The rock is not great on the Matterhorn. Although the mountain is beautiful from a distance up close it is not a elegant spire of granite like the Cascade's Prusik Peak; it is more of an eroded slag heap like Mount Rainier's Little Tahoma. The worst part of the descent was when I stepped on a boulder that gave way and tumbled down the mountain. We were just below Die Schulter
("The Shoulder"), which is the final steep knife edged ridge to the top. Fortunately this was on a traversing portion of the descent so the rocks fell down the side of the mountain and not onto other climbers. As I was scrambling frantically to get out of the way the boulder whacked me on the shin. It was big enough that if it had hit me the wrong way or I had not scrambled out of the way fast enough I could have ended up with a broken leg or ankle. On the descent I was walking in front. If it had not been for Tino's quick reaction catching my fall we both could have been pulled off the mountain. This is how Tino describes what happened, "It went slow motion. It looked like a ledge collapsed and seemed really unlikely. A few rocks near my feet also fell with the big ledge rock but I leaned back hard into the mountain, yanked back on your rope, dug my heels in and tried to get my feet and body on something solid. Thankfully it worked."
Before this incident Tino had even been talking about how the extremely dry winter the Alps had was leading to increased rock fall this summer. We were on route when this happened so that means that hundreds of climbers this season had stepped where I stepped, but I just happened to have the bad luck to be the one that triggered it. It was a pretty serious ding my leg sustained. It did not tear the fabric of my softshell pants, but still hit my left leg hard enough to pulp a deep gouge into my left shin about the size of a thumb print. It would take over three months before the swelling fully subsided and I am going to have a scar there for the rest of my life.
That incident really spooked me and I was very ready to be off the mountain. Lower down we saw a rescue helicopter hovering close to the mountain. We were not sure if it was a rescue, it looked more like a training operation. If things had gone worse with the boulder it might have been me riding in the rescue litter. I could see safety at the Hörnli hut hours before we got there. We just kept picking our way down which seemed like forever before we were back on terra firma
Descending Hörnli Ridge
Looking back up at the summit of the Matterhorn from the safety of the Hörnli hut we could see that it was now wrapped in clouds. We got really lucky, scoring a weather window that lasted just long enough for us to summit. I really appreciate how lucky I got with the weather window to summit the Matterhorn. These big climbing trips are always a gamble and can easily end in disappointment for many reasons beyond your control. That same summer a friend attempted Denali but was denied the summit by bad weather. That winter another friend attempted Aconcagua but had to turn around because of a health issue.
For Tino he got to end the summer guiding season with a 4/4 record of successfully guiding clients to the summit of the Matterhorn. I was the fasted client Tino had that summer, eight hours and forty-three minutes hut-to-hut. It was late afternoon by the time we got back to Zermatt, but early enough that I was able to get my beer-and-brat. It might seem a little lame as a celebratory meal, but at the time it was freakin' delicious. Sipping on beer out of a tallboy can and reflecting on all the work I did to get ready for the Matterhorn I thought, "Man, that was a lot of work for just eight hours of my life." Of course, all the work that summer training is why it went so well.
Viesturs, Ed; Roberts, David. No Shortcuts to the Top:Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks. 1st ed. New York: Broadway Books,2006.