MATTERHORN MADNESS UNMASKED
It all began back in 2006 when a couple climbing friends and I decided to attempt to climb the Matterhorn. We reserved a guide but a trail climb to test our Alpine skills was first in order. We were led on a 6 hour exhausting half traverse of the Breithorn that challenged us beyond our imagination. We completed the journey but lacking top fitness and more, it left us physically drained, mentally down and beaten by the mountain. It was determined that we were under-skilled in a variety of mountaineering and climbing aspects thereby deemed unsuited for the Matterhorn. I have embraced the notion that rejection is one of the most inspiring sources of motivation. Later that same trip, I purchased a large poster of Zermatt with the Matterhorn ever so stately in the background. This poster would be framed upon my return, hung in my living room and unknowingly stand as a constant reminder that the mountain would await me, sealing the fate of my eventual attempt of the Matterhorn madness pursuit.
The Matterhorn (German), Cervino (Italian) or Cervin (French) is the 7th highest peak (4,478 M – 14,692 FT) in the Alps and boasts about having one of the greatest north faces of the Alps. The mountain derives its name from the German words Matte, meaning meadow, and Horn, which means peak. As one of the world’s most easily identified mountains, it continues to inspire countless and stands as a visual center piece in the quintessential Swiss village of Zermatt. It’s an immense rock formation and is an iconic emblem of the Alps, creating a formidable border between Italy and Switzerland. Its first and tragic ascent by Edward Whymper and party in 1865 set closure to the Golden age of alpinism. This massive mountain with its unique steep chiseled 4 sided pyramid shape draws one in. Its majestic awesomeness calls out the climber in all of us, especially the average Zermatt tourist.
After 3 seasons of outdoor climbing, self education in mountaineering, a busy summer of endurance training and more recently increased indoor gym climbing, it was time to return to chase down the madness. On the first full weekend of September 2009, my Matterhorn adventure would begin with a hike from Zermatt to the Hörnli Hut including an overnight at the Schoenbiel Hut with a friend on Saturday. On Sunday after a 5 hour hike, we were able to get to the Hörnli Hut early enough to relax, have lunch and organize beds for the night. Eager to get the latest, I chatted up some unguided, seemingly savvy Italian climbers on the Hörnli hut deck after their return. They indicated they had not used the safety rope much on the way up but that the descent was longer and more difficult. Sunday’s weather was good and conditions were decent considering it had not been climbed for 4 days prior because of bad weather and an excessive amount of snow.
During a filling 19:00 dinner with multiple servings on Sunday night, I would eat with other climbers making their first attempt. Past alpine experiences were exchanged along with expectations of what was to come the following day. The capacity of the hut and the few that decided to camp set a limit on those attempting the climb to a crowded maximum. A backlog was created because of the string of previously unclimbed days and filled the climbers hut with 90 anxious Matterhorn attempters and guides. 80 mountain hikers trekking in the region were also there to experience the Matterhorn madness at its gateway and occupied a separate hut.
The real psych up period would begin at 20:00 Sunday night when I met my guide, Mike, a fit 30-something from Slovakia. We went upstairs into the sleeping area to sort my gear. He evaluated it piece by piece and decided that a number of things were not needed based on the reduced amount of ice and snow mostly just on the upper 250 vertical meters. The ice axe and a number of other smaller things would remain in the hut with the goal of making the pack as light and unrestrictive as possible. We both agreed on the philosophy; bring absolutely everything you need and not one gram more. My back pack was ready that evening. I would go to sleep in a crowded hut with bodies stacked side by side in wall-to-wall bunks after 21:30. Just before drifting off, I peered out at the mountain from a window near my bunk. The colossal rock was ominously illuminated in the moonlight silently awaiting climbers.
I awoke around 4:00 to have a very quick breakfast at 4:30 and as prompt as a Swiss watch, we were away at 4:50 as planned. On my climb day (Monday), the weather forecast was excellent and the majority of the snow from previous days had melted on the lower 2/3 of the mountain, making conditions ideal. At the onset, temperatures were just above freezing at this altitude of (3,260 M – 10,700 FT) so I layered accordingly. My guide would permanently secure a safety rope to my harness for the entire climb. In 5 minutes, as had been predicted we hit a climber’s traffic jam at the first fixed rope point.
After waiting our turn, we climbed up the fixed ropes, commencing the awakening day with a daunting task in the early morning darkness as our headlamps lit the way. Following this wait, I was immediately thrust into the middle of a moving queue; scrambling, climbing and scaling varying vertical faces. The climbers’ formation line developed as there was an optimal route to take and everyone tried to ascend as fast and as safely as possible. What was safe going for some was slow for others and in turn provoked what I would call, "climber’s pressure". I found myself amongst climbers of mixed abilities, many seemingly stronger than mine as the speed of ascent was unexpectedly fast. I was climbing at a pace that put me above the anaerobic threshold, a point where you cannot speak because of constant rapid respiration. I believe I had the endurance and the aerobic capacity but a lot of training was at sea level. I was sucking wind big time but I climbed on.
There was a strong focus by all to get to the summit as fast as possible for various reasons, one being to avoid a return in darkness. Another was an interest to get ahead to avoid being behind slower, less experienced climbers and get held up in large queues while being potentially exposed to increased rock fall from above. The pressure was on and this went on for the first two hours with the pace mostly being set by the climbers’ queue. The queue would force me to go at an uncomfortable climbing speed, ascending rock faces that were doable at my level but challengingly difficult because of the accelerated tempo. My intent was to try to climb as efficiently as possible. I had not envisioned what felt like a race. Respiration, heart rate and perspiration were all elevated to redline levels. I quickly felt overdressed as I was heating up fast. With the queue pressure, I had no time to undo my backpack and gloves and remove a layer. It would all cost time creating a climber’s rage behind, so I just zipped down and sweated it out. I brought along 1.5 liters of hydration fluid as was recommended but would this last with this blazing intensity? All these thoughts weighed on me but I continued to ascend as directed. I was out of breath and barely able to complain so I just focused on the intended task of what I had come here to do, pure climbing. I found myself in a controlled state of fury for 15-20 minute blocks of time. It was the culmination of everything at once that included an intense expenditure of energy along with a fear of going too fast for my ability climbing up difficult, vertical terrain in the darkness. Like a soldier, I would march on, trying to remain optimistic that something would soon improve during this unexpectedly radical period of sensory overload. Relief in short segments would come but only when we came to a waiting point at the next safety rope securing point. It was a welcome respiration breather and time to let the heart rate drop back to some normal level. But the rapid ascent would soon repeat like a runner at the starting blocks as we launched again when my turn came. Perhaps my climbing abilities were not as skilled as the other’s, forcing me to the anaerobic threshold point and beyond quickly. My exhausting interval treadmill workouts in training would aid me here but how long and how intense would the next rapid climbing interval be and how many more would come without them burning me out or getting some level of altitude sickness? My mental exhaustion limit was being tested. When is daylight coming? Darkness still posed an eerie unfamiliarity that made the climbing mysteriously more difficult. You heard stones and rocks falling but had no idea how big they were or which direction they were coming from or going towards. This added to the uneasiness and was far from an ideal start to a long day. My endurance, short burst anaerobic physical conditioning, fear of death and ability to handle unexpected circumstances were all being tested right to the limit. I could not remember a time feeling so outside of my comfort zone as in those first two hours on the mountain.
A positive sign at last; the sun began to rise around 6:40, almost 2 hours into the ascent. I looked over at the Wallis summits that I had climbed two weeks earlier and was struck by the brilliant orange glow illuminating the horizon while silhouetting countless 4000 meter peaks! It was an uplifting inspiration and a welcome confirmation that the weather would be good just as predicted. I was trying to snap photos at every waiting point and was luckily able to capture that morning sunrise high up. Daylight quickly made the entire mountain visible and created a general feeling that this was the positive turning point in the climb that I needed. We reached the Solvay hut, an emergency refuge, a known half way milestone point from a climbing perspective and the only other hut on this route. We took our first break around 2.5 hours into the climb, just past the hut. I engulfed a power bar and gel rapidly while chasing them with tea quickly producing an immediate energy response. The short sitting rest was a great boost and I was eager for the summit even though we were only about half way there.
After about 5 minutes we were off again. The welcome break and new multiple routes to take, thankfully dispersed the climbers’ queue, making going at your own pace now possible. This opened up the opportunity to really enjoy the climb without the pressure of being continually forced to your potential limits of failure. We would start to see snow and ice melting on rocks creating wet and slick surfaces along the way. This made the going slippery and nerve-wracking on sections where falling was not an option. I kept wondering when we would put on the crampons as this would be a sure method of having a solid footing on the treacherous surfaces. On the contrary, using crampons on dry rocky surfaces can be more difficult because they can act as a tripping mechanism, making the going a bit awkward. Additionally they are less efficient in these somewhat partially snowy and icy conditions, consuming valuable energy. I kept waiting for my guide to okay the use of crampons because one slip at the wrong place could be potentially fatal. The point of conversion is a personal choice. I waited as we ascended on these intermittent wet and icy parts, making each foot placement ever so carefully. Eventually, it was finally time to stop, sit on a fairly inclined section and don the bear trap teeth-like crampons.
Once they are properly installed on the bottom of your boots, you are able to sink them firmly into the snow and ice with each step. When planted properly, they provide an unmatched grip to Mother Earth at most angles of incline easing trekking and climbing up the steepest of icy and snowy slopes. Large white snow patches began to appear quickly on less steep surfaces where it would take hold. Using crampons would be the only way one could ascend the steep upper section of the climb. Fist-size fixed ropes were installed to aid the ascent in these precarious segments of the mountain. This activity of using your upper body to pull and simultaneously ascend what felt like climbing up a vertical ladder was physically demanding but it sent a shot of good endorphins throughout the body knowing that you were using almost every muscle in sync to achieve your mission. The mountaineer happy gauge was on high!
The summit was getting closer but the significant effort to get there was being felt. All conditions were right for success; weather, training, properly functioning equipment and physical condition. I proceeded steadily but followed the guide’s pace. All the prep of what to bring, what to leave behind, and how to be fully familiar with all the equipment in all situations was now paying off. After 4 hours and 20 minutes of nearly continuous climbing, we would reach the Swiss summit at 9:10. Taking that last step to the summit was amazing! I did it. Three years after being discouraged from even attempting the climb; I was now on the top of the Matterhorn. Climbing further up was not possible as more mountain above did not exist. With brilliant clear skies, the view was now a full unrestricted 360 degrees. Swiss, Italian and French peaks dotted the skyline, near and far. We noticed some climbers celebrating on the lower Italian summit having taken the Zmuttgrat route that was connected by an ever so thin 100 meter rocky ridge. I looked down and observed steep drop-offs all around me with the exception of the ridge. On the horizon, there was Mont Blanc, clear as day, a snowy peak I had climbed one year before. I spotted Zermatt, quietly lying in the valley below but the distance was so significant. I had been there just Saturday morning and had made it to the summit purely by human power in the last two days. A rewarding feeling of amazement sank in deeply.
I sat, drank tea and swallowed a power bar gazing out at a small airplane circling the peak along with a tourist helicopter hovering above. We gazed at each other from a relatively short distance in a stare of wonder both knowing who took the more difficult way of getting to this altitude.
We had taken the Hörnli-ridge to get to the summit and we would return on it. After having digested the views and a second power bar, it was time to return after a good 15 minutes on the summit. It was now time to tackle the descent, the longer and traditionally more difficult part of the climb mainly because descending on steep sections made for slower going. Securing the safety line to fixed points on the mountain also added time to the descent.
One advantage was the opportunity to rappel at times on the significant vertical sections, speeding the otherwise slower journey; an alternate and also enjoyable technique of descending. Oddly we met groups of climbers still ascending much later in the day. It is not uncommon for unguided climbers to get off the classic route and take much more time on routes that go nowhere or just simply take longer due to their having difficulty with the climb. My guide indicated that unguided climbers making the summit after 4-5 hours have taken up to 12 hours to return because of getting lost and having no one knowledgeable to lead them down. Falling rocks tend to be loosened by these same individuals who wander off the classic route. On the down climb, I did see some fist-size rocks hurling down the mountain provoking unsettling feelings that stole needed confidence. We would hear shouts from below, cursing those above, who were most likely not taking care, causing the stone fall. Descending was also tougher because this was the accumulated portion of the energy expenditure. One is always fighting off fatigue and trying to be particularly careful with each step and hand hold; attempting to make it as secure as the first of the day. A wrong slip at this latter stage due to fatigue or lack of concentration would be a mistake I did not want to make. I became even more focused especially late in the down climb because a fall anywhere can be as physically damaging or deadly as anywhere on the mountain. Right at the start on the way up, I noticed a metal plaque commemorating a fallen climber from years past, only 5 minutes from the hut at the base. I thought to myself; how could someone so close to safety make a mistake there? But it happens and that is life and death on the Matterhorn. Since before it was first climbed 144 years ago according to Air Zermatt Rescue, the cumulative death total has been 430 with an unfortunate 18 just in the year 1983 alone, making it one of most deadliest peaks in the Alps.
The way down felt long as it typically is. Almost nothing is marked with the exception of the fixed ropes and the very few well worn, gently inclined paths near the base. At times, we were right on the Hörnli ridge with a 1000 meter drop-off triggering a reality check. You must embrace and respect heights and view them in a positive way that does not paralyze you. At the same time, you realize that a 5 meter fall and 500 meter fall can have the same effect. It brings about a mind control obstacle that you choose to decide how to deal with it, versus it controlling you. All strong climbers have this and use it to their advantage if done properly. Being overly confident can have negative consequences too. I continued to witness and be impressed with guides who stand, walk and climb on the narrowest of surfaces with steep drop-offs all around possessing unwavering confidence. I continued down while exercising some learned descending skills in vertical cracks by avoiding longer reaching fatter holds and going for shorter reaching smaller holds consequently expending less muscle energy with an unanticipated increase in safety.
As I returned to the Hörnli Hut on the last section, I spotted a welcome sight of a girl in a bikini sunning herself on the roof. It was a sign of returning and having made it! I conquered this intense challenge and it was big. I turned around and looked up and was amazed again at how tall it was. What an accomplishment. It was so steep and huge. I was fatigued, hungry, thirsty and mentally dazed over the whole experience, but it was done! The seemingly unattainable from an unprofessional mountaineer was achieved. We returned just after 14:00 as hikers were eating a late lunch on a crowded deck at the Hörnli Hut. An unknown climber came up to me and quickly questioned me. Did you climb the Matterhorn today? Just as I had questioned someone a day earlier. Yes, I responded. How was it? they asked. Tough I replied. I chatted a bit more with the eager climber, answering a number of his questions. I would in the end consume 9 Power bars/gels and 1.5 liters of water/tea in a 9 hour and 15 minute climb. My thin black rubber-gripped gloves were totally worn away to a fine smooth surface. The whole effort would be the most challenging single day undertaking I had ever made to date.
After receiving a certificate and thanking my guide, I hiked and used a cable car to get back to Zermatt, stood on a well known bridge in town and gazed back up at the mammoth pyramid on a crystal clear day some hours later. I felt an incredible sense of relief and joy that I had been to the peak and strange thoughts set in about the contrasting perspective of having been in the reverse position less than 8 hours earlier looking down on Zermatt. The sense of a significant accomplishment was genuine and heightened my awareness of the astounding vertical and actual distance that was traveled. The entire effort involved endlessly planning energy but the internal feeling of having climbed it was extremely rich. It was an exhausting and challenging endeavor that required reaching deep down while employing all climbing and mountaineering skills, unleashing one’s strength to the fullest and taking courage to the gutsiest levels. In the end, it was a true “standing on top of the world” feeling that had an immense sense of having completed something enormous! This was a massive personal reward ending a 3 year unfinished quest.
With all the difficulty and misfortune, a 70-80% Matterhorn summit success rate among guided climbers was estimated by the Zermatt Alpine Center, indicating that those who choose to take it on are in shape and Alpine ready. Anyone especially fit, having a fair amount of climbing experience, able to put their biggest fears aside and possessing a strong desire to climb the Matterhorn should go unmask the madness! The rewards are beyond sky high!