There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
—The Men That Don't Fit In, by Robert Service
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 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. 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; it'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. The streets of every modern city are now filled with shambling smart phone zombies, so addicted to dopamine hits they are getting from 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, but it was intensified by the Internet and exploded with the first iPhone. Theroux grumbled about it in Dark Star Safari which was published 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. When I see people walking down the street glued to their phones I want to shout, "Put down your fucking phone! Why did you even leave your house if all you want to do is stare to your phone all day!" 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 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. Mobile phones 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 could buy back issues of National Geographic from the local used bookstore for a dime and learn about the world that way. 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 the 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 that also served as a sleeping area. At night the booths folded up and transformed into bunk beds. You could even sleep in the overhead luggage racks. 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 Germans travelers 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 lacked confidence in my Spanish so I decided against working 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.
My mother did not understand my desire to travel. She had never been outside of the country and was worried I was dropping out of college. Before I left I tried to reassure her that it was only for a year and I would be back at university next fall, but here fears were never quite allayed. Even on the far side of the world I would not escape my mother's concerns. Hitchhiking in Tasmania I got a lift from a woman in in her sixties who was prim and proper and reminded me of Dana Carvey's Church Lady character on Saturday Night Live. She listened politely to my stories of travel and where I planned to go next. She then asked me in a tone of disapproval, "…and what does your mother think of you traveling?"
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. I am not independently wealthy so the reality of my financial situation means that I will never 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 developed a passion for hard technical climbing, I just like being in the mountains for a lot of the same reasons I like travel. Hiking to the summits of 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:
All the morning, as we loafed along, having a good time, other pedestrians went staving by us with vigorous strides, and with the intent and determined look of men who were walking for a wager. These wore loose knee-breeches, long yarn stockings, and hobnailed high-laced walking-shoes. They were gentlemen who would go home to England or Germany and tell how many miles they had beaten the guide-book every day. But I doubted if they ever had much real fun, outside of the mere magnificent exhilaration of the tramp through the green valleys and the breezy heights; for they were almost always alone, and even the finest scenery loses incalculably when there is no one to enjoy it with.
I certainly resemble that remark. I was traveling with a GPS watch so that I could record my hikes and climbs. When I was in Annecy, France I hiked alone as fast as I could up Mount Baron, constant checking my watch to maintain my pace and heart rate, barely able to grunt out a "Good morning" in reply to all the cheerful greetings of "Bonjour" from the French hikers I passed on the trail. Even in 1878, people were gadget crazy, Twain's hiking companion wore a pedometer. Of course the technology was not as advanced in the Nineteenth Century so their pedometer was laughably inaccurate:
Harris carried the little watch-like machine called a "pedometer," whose office is to keep count of a man's steps and tell how far he has walked. […] …we stepped into Oppenau, just eleven hours and a half out of Allerheiligen—one hundred and forty-six miles. This is the distance by pedometer; the guide-book and the Imperial Ordinance maps make it only ten and a quarter—a surprising blunder, for these two authorities are usually singularly accurate in the matter of distances. […] We made Zermatt at three in the afternoon, nine hours out from St. Nicholas. Distance, by guide-book, twelve miles; by pedometer seventy-two.
There is a trail above Zermatt, Switzerland named in honor of Twain who help popularize Zermatt with A Tramp Abroad. The "Mark Twain Weg" follows the route Twain hiked, an area that affords stunning views of the Matterhorn and ends near the Riffelberg hotel which stood in Twain's time. He used the experience to mock the overly earnest, aggrandizing, and self-important tone of the Alps mountaineering expeditions of his day, a style of mountain writing that still survives in the 21st Century. Here is a condensed version of "Climbing the Riffelberg" from A Tramp Abroad:
The expedition consisted of 198 persons, including the mules; or 205, including the cows. I commanded the chief guide to lash them all together on a strong rope. He objected that the first two miles was a dead level…I would not listen to that. My reading had taught me that many serious accidents had happened…from not having the people tied up soon enough. …ready to move, I never saw a finer sight. It was 3,122 feet long—over half a mile…
Climbing the Riffelberg
We were mounted upon very small donkeys…in time of peril we could straighten our legs and stand up, and let the donkey walk from under. To add to the danger and inconvenience, we were constantly meeting returning tourists on foot and horseback, and as constantly being crowded and battered by ascending tourists who were in a hurry and wanted to get by. I had to encourage the men constantly, to keep them from giving way to their unmanly fears. We followed the mule-road, a zigzag course, now to the right, now to the left, but always up, and always crowded and incommoded by going and coming files of reckless tourists who were never, in a single instance, tied together.
Our troubles thickened. About the middle of the afternoon the seventeen guides called a halt and held a consultation. They had a strong instinct that they were lost, but they had no proofs—except that they did not know where they were. They had met no tourists for some time, and they considered that a suspicious sign. Plainly we were in an ugly fix…I made a barometric observation, to get our altitude…by my scientific reading either thermometers or barometers ought to be boiled, to make them accurate…I boiled it half an hour in a pot of bean soup…the dish was so greatly liked…I ordered the cook to have barometer soup every day.
The difficulties of the next morning were severe, but our courage was high, for our goal was near. At noon we conquered the last impediment—we stood at last upon the summit…and I walked proudly into the great dining-room of the Riffelberg Hotel and stood our alpenstocks up in the corner. …it was a mistake to do it in evening dress. The plug hats were battered, the swallow-tails were fluttering rags, mud added no grace… There were about seventy-five tourists at the hotel—mainly ladies and little children—and they gave us an admiring welcome which paid us for all our privations and sufferings.
The reader has just seen what a man who undertakes the great ascent from Zermatt to the Riffelberg Hotel must experience. Yet Baedeker [popular guidebook] makes these strange statements concerning this matter: distance—3 hours, road cannot be mistaken, guide unnecessary. I have pretty effectually throttled these errors by sending the following demonstrated facts: distance Zermatt to Riffelberg Hotel, 7 days…the road can be mistaken. If I am the first that did it, I want the credit of it, too.
Twain also had opinions about travel writing that are still relevant today. Sprinkling travelogues with the local language is something that lazy writers (like me) do.
…there is another set of men who are like you; they know a word here and there, of a foreign language, or a few beggarly little three-word phrases, filched from the back of the Dictionary, and these are continually peppering into their literature, with a pretense of knowing that language—what excuse can they offer? The foreign words and phrases which they use have their exact equivalents in…English; yet they think they 'adorn their page' when they say strasse for street, and bahnhof for railway-station, and so on—flaunting these fluttering rags of poverty in the reader's face and imagining he will be ass enough to take them for the sign of untold riches held in reserve.
I am certainly guilty of this. For example in Switzerland I wanted to use the German spellings to add more local favor to my writing and maximize my umlauts. For example: Hörnlihütte vs. Hörnli hut. Twain would not approve, but why have only one umlaut when I can have two? After all, as the names of numerous metal bands like Motörhead, Queensrÿche, and Mötley Crüe have taught us, umlauts are bitchin'. Also, in my defense some things should not be translated. In Zermatt I stayed at the Hotel Bahnhof. That translates to the Train Station Hotel, which lacks charm and sounds to American readers like the equivalent of staying at a cheap motel next to a Greyhound station.
Although today Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it was not always so. In the Nineteenth Century it was a poor country especially in the mountain regions. Anyone who has traveled in the developing world has had the experience of being pestered by poor children trying to sell you food or trinkets. I always have mixed feelings about it because I want to help these kids out by buying something, but if I bought from every single one, I would be broke in no time and laden down with more food than I could eat and more junk than I could carry. Twain observed something similar when he was in Switzerland. It really stood out to me and was reminder that that not that long ago this was an impoverished region of Europe:
At short distances—and they were entirely too short—all along the road, were groups of neat and comely children, with their wares nicely and temptingly set forth in the grass under the shade trees, and as soon as we approached they swarmed into the road, holding out their baskets and milk bottles, and ran beside the carriage, barefoot and bareheaded, and importuned us to buy. They seldom desisted early, but continued to run and insist—beside the wagon while they could, and behind it until they lost breath. Then they turned and chased a returning carriage back to their trading-post again. After several hours of this, without any intermission, it becomes almost annoying. I do not know what we should have done without the returning carriages to draw off the pursuit. However, there were plenty of these, loaded with dusty tourists and piled high with luggage. Indeed, from Lucerne to Interlaken we had the spectacle, among other scenery, of an unbroken procession of fruit-peddlers and tourists carriages.
My climbing guide Tino told me about how deeply ingrained the profession of mountain guiding is in Swiss culture. Just like in America they have children's books about careers like being a fireman or an airplane pilot, but it Switzerland they also have children's books about being a mountain climbing guide. It was already a career in the Nineteenth century and Twain observed Swiss children playing at being guides:
It was during this walk from St. Nicholas, in the shadow of the majestic Alps, that we came across some little children amusing themselves in what seemed, at first, a most odd and original way—but it wasn't; it was in simply a natural and characteristic way. They were roped together with a string, they had mimic alpenstocks and ice-axes, and were climbing a meek and lowly manure-pile with a most blood-curdling amount of care and caution. The "guide" at the head of the line cut imaginary steps, in a laborious and painstaking way, and not a monkey budged till the step above was vacated. If we had waited we should have witnessed an imaginary accident, no doubt; and we should have heard the intrepid band hurrah when they made the summit and looked around upon the "magnificent view," and seen them throw themselves down in exhausted attitudes for a rest in that commanding situation.
Climbing in a very developed area like Zermatt required surprisingly little gear compared to what I was used to in the Pacific Northwest's Cascade Mountains. This is one thing that has changed since Twain's time:
I read several books, and here are some of the things I found out. One's shoes must be strong and heavy, and have pointed hobnails in them. The alpenstock must be of the best wood, for if it should break, loss of life might be the result. One should carry an ax, to cut steps in the ice with, on the great heights. There must be a ladder, for there are steep bits of rock which can be surmounted with this instrument—or this utensil—but could not be surmounted without it; such an obstruction has compelled the tourist to waste hours hunting another route, when a ladder would have saved him all trouble. One must have from one hundred and fifty to five hundred feet of strong rope, to be used in lowering the party down steep declivities which are too steep and smooth to be traversed in any other way. One must have a steel hook, on another rope—a very useful thing; for when one is ascending and comes to a low bluff which is yet too high for the ladder, he swings this rope aloft like a lasso, the hook catches at the top of the bluff, and then the tourist climbs the rope, hand over hand—being always particular to try and forget that if the hook gives way he will never stop falling till he arrives in some part of Switzerland where they are not expecting him. Another important thing—there must be a rope to tie the whole party together with, so that if one falls from a mountain or down a bottomless chasm in a glacier, the others may brace back on the rope and save him. One must have a silk veil, to protect his face from snow, sleet, hail and gale, and colored goggles to protect his eyes from that dangerous enemy, snow-blindness. Finally, there must be some porters, to carry provisions, wine and scientific instruments, and also blanket bags for the party to sleep in.
If I had known to read Twain's account before arriving in Zermatt I might have taken my climbing guide Tino to task for his lack of proper gear. Where, I might have asked, are our grappling hooks, ladders, and flasks of wine? How are we in anyway prepared to climb in the Alps?
Like I mentioned earlier, despite most of A Tramp Abroad being a comic travelogue occasionally Twain lets his guard down gives an unfiltered reaction. When viewing the Matterhorn he is clearly awestruck and a little overwhelmed by it:
We were approaching Zermatt; consequently, we were approaching the renowned Matterhorn. A month before, this mountain had been only a name to us, but latterly we had been moving through a steadily thickening double row of pictures of it, done in oil, water, chromo, wood, steel, copper, crayon, and photography, and so it had at length become a shape to us—and a very distinct, decided, and familiar one, too. We were expecting to recognize that mountain whenever or wherever we should run across it. We were not deceived. The monarch was far away when we first saw him, but there was no such thing as mistaking him. He has the rare peculiarity of standing by himself; he is peculiarly steep, too, and is also most oddly shaped. He towers into the sky like a colossal wedge, with the upper third of its blade bent a little to the left. The broad base of this monster wedge is planted upon a grand glacier-paved Alpine platform whose elevation is ten thousand feet above sea-level; as the wedge itself is some five thousand feet high, it follows that its apex is about fifteen thousand feet above sea-level. So the whole bulk of this stately piece of rock, this sky-cleaving monolith, is above the line of eternal snow. Yet while all its giant neighbors have the look of being built of solid snow, from their waists up, the Matterhorn stands black and naked and forbidding, the year round, or merely powdered or streaked with white in places, for its sides are so steep that the snow cannot stay there. Its strange form, its august isolation, and its majestic unkinship with its own kind, make it—so to speak—the Napoleon of the mountain world. "Grand, gloomy, and peculiar," is a phrase which fits it as aptly as it fitted the great captain.
But lonely, conspicuous, and superb, rose that wonderful upright wedge, the Matterhorn. Its precipitous sides were powdered over with snow, and the upper half hidden in thick clouds which now and then dissolved to cobweb films and gave brief glimpses of the imposing tower as through a veil. A little later the Matterhorn took to himself the semblance of a volcano; he was stripped naked to his apex—around this circled vast wreaths of white cloud which strung slowly out and streamed away slantwise toward the sun, a twenty-mile stretch of rolling and tumbling vapor, and looking just as if it were pouring out of a crater. Later again, one of the mountain’s sides was clean and clear, and another side densely clothed from base to summit in thick smokelike cloud which feathered off and flew around the shaft's sharp edge like the smoke around the corners of a burning building. The Matterhorn is always experimenting, and always gets up fine effects, too. In the sunset, when all the lower world is palled in gloom, it points toward heaven out of the pervading blackness like a finger of fire.
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 (Hörnli Ridge—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), that explains why there are no shortcuts for 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 forests in Eastern Washington State started burning there was a time when it was literally raining ash in Seattle.
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 into 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 a quote attributed to the author. For climbers its analog is Type 2 Fun and climbers amnesia. It means you selectively forget the bad parts and only remember the good bits. 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. The Paris 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, like works of civil engineering art. 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 ran 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've 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 pair of 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 perfectly still waters of the Riffelsee, a herd of Swiss sheep with bells on walking down the trail with the Matterhorn in the background, a 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. It is not like it was a favorite mountain town in the American West that got ruined by commercialization; Zermatt has been a tourist town since the 19th Century. You see a wide range of people in Zermatt from scruffy climbers to overweight tourists in brand new hiking gear and even fully veiled Arab women. 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.
While in Zermatt I stayed in a dorm room at the Hotel Bahnhof, a hostel with a mix of dorms and private rooms. I was not thrilled to stay in a dorm—there is always someone snoring, but it was the high tourist season and all the private rooms were booked. When traveling I don't need a lot of amenities, just a quiet place to sleep at night. If you avoid the party hostels, hosteling is still a good option—there are people of all ages and families staying there, not just college kids going crazy on holiday. I am not over hostels, especially when traveling by myself—I would rather save money for other parts of my trip, but I am over dorms.
You meet a lot of cool people staying in hostels, but you also meet a lot of weirdos. In my room in the bed below my bunk was a Polish ultra-runner who would get up early to run and then lay in his bunk the rest of the day watching humorous YouTube videos in Polish on his phone that he laughed at with an unsettling high tittering laugh. He would not say hello when you greeted him, just stare at you bug-eyed. He had six pairs of his shoes perfectly lined up in front of his bunk. I accidently bumped one pair and he freaked out and immediately sat up so he could position his shoes. After a long day of climbing I would want to take a nap in the afternoon, but it was hard with the constant creepy laughing from the bunk below me. I lay there trying to get some rest and vowing to never stay in a dorm again.
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; 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. Tino does have a web site after all: http://www.tinovillanueva.com/.
I never climbed with a guide before this trip. I am not a big talker and usually run out of things to say after awhile. I was apprehensive about making 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 where we would practice the techniques of guided climbing and I would learn about how to use all the fixed protecting that is a feature of climbing in the Alps. 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.
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 multi-pitch climbing and practicing short rope climbing, something I had never done before. 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 all the gear permanently attached to the mountains. 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. In addition to the fixed anchors 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 reading about the itinerary for the climbing and trying to make sense of how we would get to the climbs I was thinking in terms of Washington State's Cascade mountains and figured 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. I loved taking the tram cars, it was the Alps experience I always imagined from watching the James Bond movie On Her Majesty'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. I climbed in them for years, but the fit was never perfect. I got bad advice from the boot salesmen who insisted I should buy a snug fitting boot because the leather would stretch out—it never 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 discovered 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. 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 racing 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 it was a more technical climb than Pollux and would take longer. I appreciated a shorter hike, although my heels were covered with blister pads and sports tape 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 double-check I was not missing anything. Like 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. All the fixed protection on the Hörnli Ridge route makes it easy to climb 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.
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. Whenever you see pictures of the Matterhorn one side is usually lit and the other is in shadow. It is the classic view of the northeast ridge that you see in most photos of the Matterhorn and on packages of the Toblerone chocolate. That line between the dark and light sides is the Hörnli Ridge and my route to the summit. 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 large building that can accommodate 130 climbers. It is staffed with a kitchen so you can order 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 Hörnli Ridge 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 committed to do this in May and three months later at 4am I was awake and getting ready still not entirely believing I was there and finally about to start climbing the 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 buffet, 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 starting gun. We were not at the front of the line but were middle of the pack. We were lucky that there were only fifty climbers on our summit day. The hut sleeps one hundred thirty so we could have had some real traffic jams on the climb. It is very crowded climbing popular routes in the Alps like the Hörnli Ridge. You have people right behind you the whole time who will pass you if pause for even a minute. Tino warned me about the crowds. It was a far cry from the remote wilderness experiences I knew in the Cascades. 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 speculated that because of the dry winter the Matterhorn was in climbing condition way earlier than a normal year 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 fixed ropes on the Matterhorn vary from heavy nautical looking ropes to thin ropes with braided sheaths, but they all 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. 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. 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 very spartan, 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 Matterhorn. The mountain is a dangerous place. 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 every year. The Matterhorn 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. It is traditional mountain guide bread baked in Zermatt with fresh apples, figs, nuts, sultanas, cinnamon, and cocoa; 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 many 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 a few snacks during our 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 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 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 in the 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 and safe.
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 fortunate I was to summit the Matterhorn. These big climbing trips are always a gamble and can easily end in disappointment for many reasons beyond your control. Back home if you don’t summit it only costs you a weekend. On one of these trips of a lifetime you are risking thousands of dollars and weeks of precious vacation time. 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.
Since the then I've been asked about how challenging climbing the Matterhorn is and if you need a guide. The Hörnli Ridge is not a difficult route for experienced climbers, but it is definitely not for beginners—it's an intermediate climb. It is rated by the French mountaineering system as "AD-", which according to the Mountain Madness web site is, "Assez Difficile – Fairly difficult: Belayed climbing, in addition to large amounts of exposed but easier terrain. A wide range of protective systems are needed." For people who live in Washington State, Mountain Madness recommends that you should climb Forbidden Peak via the West Ridge as training for the Hörnli Ridge route. The route not a technically difficult, mostly scrambling and simul-climbing with permanent anchors and fixed lines at many of the most exposed or difficult sections, but you do need to be able to climb short pitches of 5.6 in mountaineering boots. You also need to be comfortable with some serious exposure as there are many narrow ridges with sheer drops of thousands of feet to either side. It is one of the hardest climbs I have ever done just because it never lets up. From the minute you start you are climbing or scrambling the whole time. It takes just as long to descend as to ascend.
A climbing guide helps because the route finding on the Hörnli Ridge is tough, especially at the beginning which also the same time you are climbing in the dark. In addition, with the fixed protection there are Alps specific climbing techniques that you would not have any experience with if you have never climbed there before. Speed is important on the Matterhorn because weather can roll in quickly. On my summit day if I had been climbing with a friend I doubt we would have summited because we would have not made it to the top before the weather changed. That said, if you have good weather you will have the time needed to climb unguided. The other time constraint to consider is that if you take too long you will miss the last gondola back to Zermatt in the late afternoon and either have to walk all the way back to town or stay another night at the Hörnli hut (assuming they are not fully booked, which is common in the high season).
I did not realize back in 1989 when I stepped on that Green Tortoise bus that 28 years later I would step off on to the summit of the Matterhorn. Although travel was not a formal part of my schooling, it was an important part of my education. It led to a lifelong love of adventure and discovery that has enriched my life and broadened my outlook. It has taken me to the far corners of the earth and to the tops of mountains.
No education is complete without travel. As Mark Twain states in another of his travel books, Innocents Abroad, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Twain published Innocents in 1869, but his observation is as relevant today as it was one hundred fifty years ago.
I love travel and I enjoy climbing and being able to combine the two activities made for a fantastic twofer of a vacation. I never really thought of travel and climbing being the same thing. Living in Seattle there is so much climbing within just a few hours drive so I have always viewed climbing as a weekend activity. It was a new idea to me to devote so much time to fly to another continent specifically to climb. I was totally stoked to achieve my sixteen-year-old dream and stand on top of the Matterhorn, but it did come at the expense of some of the other goals in my life.
While in Europe a worry kept gnawing at me about all the time I was taking away from my novel and my career for the sake of standing on top of a pile of rocks. Every choice has an opportunity cost that comes at the expense of other goals.
I had I had to wonder, was I just wasting time chasing an old dream? I am a fan of the podcast A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment by authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. In Episode #14, "So You Want to be a Writer?" Alexie and Walter talk about all the things they have to give up to write and these guys are full-time professional writers. I wasn't making the hard choices and it was coming at the expense of my novel. At least there is always SummitPost, which has turned out to be a great outlet for a frustrated writer like me.
On my vacation I was traveling with a copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Service and there were a few stanzas that really spoke to me. That's why I opened with Service and I'll end with him too:
Lastly, you who read; aye, you
Who this very line may scan:
Think of all you planned to do…
Have you done the best you can?
It is later than you think;
Sadly later than you think;
Far, far later than you think.
—It Is Later Than You Think, from Ballads of a Bohemian by Robert Service
Service, Robert. Collected Poems of Robert Service. New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989 (reprint ed.), c1940.
Theroux, Paul. Dark star safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Simmons, Dan. The Abominable. New York : Little, Brown and Company, 2013.
Davis, Wade. Into the silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the conquest of Everest. New York : A. Knopf, 2011. Into the silence is a fascinating history of the attempts to climb Mount Everest in the 1920s. It was an era when the Tibetan Himalayas were one of the last places on earth still a blank spot on the map. The British climbers attempting it were all emotionally, if not physically, scarred veterans of the Western Front trenches of World War 1 for whom climbing was an unconscious form of treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (something they did not have a diagnosis for at the time). This has nothing to do with the Matterhorn, but I read it before I read The Abominable and it provided a lot of useful background information about the attempts to climb Everest in the 1920s; it adds a lot to the enjoyment of reading The Abominable.
Twain, Mark (author). Blount, Roy Jr. (editor). Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels (Library of America No. 200). New York : Library of America, 2010. A Tramp Abroad is Twain's account of his travels in Europe when he walked across Germany, Switzerland, and Italy in 1878. It includes his parody of the climbing literature of his day, "Climbing the Riffelberg", based on his experiences hiking in Zermatt, Switzerland.
House, Steve, and Scott Johnston. Training for the New Alpinism: A manual for the climber as athlete. Ventura, CA: Patagonia Books, 2014.
Muir, John (author); Gifford,Terry (editor). John Muir : His Life and letters and other writings. London : Bâton Wicks; Seattle : Mountaineers, 1996.
Viesturs, Ed; Roberts, David. No Shortcuts to the Top:Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks. 1st ed. New York: Broadway Books,2006.
Poems of Robert Service
Robert Service was a Briton who moved to Canada's Yukon Territory during the gold-rush era and wrote popular ballads inspired by his experiences there. He is like Canada's Jack London. He wrote about a wide variety of subjects, but his Yukon tales remain his most popular works. You may have read some of his poems like "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee" in high school English classes. I discovered Service reading Ed Viesturs' memoir, No Shortcuts to the Top. In it he talks about working as a guide on Denali with client Dick Bass who, "...was a character. Loud, boisterous—he brought along a big hardback copy of Robert Service's poems, and every night he'd either read them out loud or recite them from memory." I took a copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Service with me on my vacation. Included here are the full versions poems that I used at the beginning and end of my essay.
The Men That Don't Fit In The Spell of the Yukon
There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.
It Is Later Than You Think Ballads of a Bohemian
Lone amid the café’s cheer,
Sad of heart am I to-night;
Dolefully I drink my beer,
But no single line I write.
There’s the wretched rent to pay,
Yet I glower at pen and ink:
Oh, inspire me, Muse, I pray,
It is later than you think!
Hello! there’s a pregnant phrase.
Bravo! let me write it down;
Hold it with a hopeful gaze,
Gauge it with a fretful frown;
Tune it to my lyric lyre ...
Ah! upon starvation’s brink,
How the words are dark and dire:
It is later than you think.
Weigh them well .... Behold yon band,
Students drinking by the door,
Madly merry, bock in hand,
Saucers stacked to mark their score.
Get you gone, you jolly scamps;
Let your parting glasses clink;
Seek your long neglected lamps:
It is later than you think.
Look again: yon dainty blonde,
All allure and golden grace,
Oh so willing to respond
Should you turn a smiling face.
Play your part, poor pretty doll;
Feast and frolic, pose and prink;
There’s the Morgue to end it all,
And it’s later than you think.
Yon’s a playwright — mark his face,
Puffed and purple, tense and tired;
Pasha-like he holds his place,
Hated, envied and admired.
How you gobble life, my friend;
Wine, and woman soft and pink!
Well, each tether has its end:
Sir, it’s later than you think.
See yon living scarecrow pass
With a wild and wolfish stare
At each empty absinthe glass,
As if he saw Heaven there.
Poor damned wretch, to end your pain
There is still the Greater Drink.
Yonder waits the sanguine Seine ...
It is later than you think.
Lastly, you who read; aye, you
Who this very line may scan:
Think of all you planned to do ...
Have you done the best you can?
See! the tavern lights are low;
Black’s the night, and how you shrink!
God! and is it time to go?
Ah! the clock is always slow;
It is later than you think;
Sadly later than you think;
Far, far later than you think.