Switzerland's Mighty MatterhornOne of the world's most photogenic mountains and one damn good birthday present
Around this time last year, my wife, brother, sister-in-law, mother and I were trying to figure out what to get my dad for his upcoming 60th birthday. Buying presents is easy—buying meaningful presents is one of the great challenges of our modern, internet-supplied life of excess. New golf clubs . . . no, he already has a set he likes . . . a new iPod . . . what, to replace the one he got last year until he replaces the new one with next year’s model . . . and on we went. Then finally we hit the jackpot idea. What is it that every self-respecting Swiss man (and woman) yearns to put on the old resume, the sure-fire coup that guarantees you bragging rigs in every circle of beer buddies, a dream that has stayed constant from earliest memories up to the present? To climb the Matterhorn! At 4,478 meters, the Matterhorn, perhaps the most alluring peak in the Alps, is only the ninth highest peak (or fifth, depending on how many satellite peaks one counts) in Switzerland but easily has one of the most strenuous and dangerous standard routes of the Alps—the Hörnli Grat. And that’s really where the problem with the Matterhorn begins: it’s been climbed so often by so many people that the assumption is anyone can do it—a dangerous assumption quite obviously true for other mountains as well. In the case of the Matterhorn, however, the gulf between its supposed ease and actual difficultly, combined with its mythical appeal, nonchalantly quick access, and fixed ropes for a wholly inadequate (by fixed ropes standards) selection of moves, makes it a particularly disaster-ridden brew. Sure there are plenty of unqualified idiots who attempt Denali each year but booking the glacier flight takes at least some level of foresight and the fact that it sits near the Arctic Circle leaves no doubt that packing an extra pair of long underwear is advisable. By contrast every tourist who goes to Switzerland ends up gazing at the Matterhorn’s picturesque pyramid shape from Zermatt—from where it is only a sunny, couple hours hike to its base and a free shot at glory. The only thing that keeps a whole bus load of Japanese tourists from falling off its flanks on a daily basis in the summer months is no doubt the 5th class vertical moves that welcome climbers immediately off the firn. That was the point where I too began to think that maybe I’d be in for a hard day after all. What my dad was thinking at that point, I can only imagine.
But let’s back up. In hindsight, it was a great idea to hire a guide for my dad. There is no way I could have responsibly led him on this climb. Of course the reason why we did hire a guide was for no other reason than it wouldn’t have made much of a 60th birthday present to give him something I could do for him for free. A trip up a mountain with your son is no doubt fun but at best a dinky present—an adventurous but no less cheap variation of the coupon-style ‘I’ll cook you a meal/bake you cookies/give you a backrub/or any other thing I would and normally do for free’ type present. So all of us decided to chip in and hire my good friend and frequent climbing partner Lucas to rope up with my dad while my wife and I would form our own little rope team.
After spending some sunny days rock climbing, Lucas, my wife Djahane and I took the train up to Zermatt to meet up with my parents who had set up base camp in one of the numerous spa resorts in town. My dad is not a climber. The last time he roped up, he told us, was during his military service some time in the late 60s. But he had been training hard over the past few months and over a fondue dinner he told us he was eager to put his new-found fitness to the test. The next day we hiked up to the Hörnli Hut at the base of its steep, namesake ridge and roped up. Since my dad had not climbed for decades Lucas thought it was best to practice some of the opening moves in daylight. My dad’s first foray into the mountains went well enough. We climbed for a few hours and returned for dinner as the sun was setting behind a ridge. What had started as a present to my father was beginning to give back to me. I felt for the first time that my dad had been invited into my world. There is a certain satisfaction in analyzing each and every move of a climb—my dad does the same thing with his golf—and we found ourselves over dinner reflecting intently on what had really been a warm-up on the lower reaches of the Matterhorn. But more poignantly, there is a special intensity in expecting a grand adventure. Knowing over dinner that your relationship to your small group of companions is going to change irrevocably the following day is a powerful potion. My dad was giddy like I hadn’t experienced him since I was a kid.
We left the hut promptly at 2:00 am the next morning. The distant lights from the village far below looked little different from the hazy stars above. If you’re not used to it, ascending frozen rock over exposed terrain in pitch darkness is a lot like scuba diving in the dark, replete with an acute awareness of being in a completely foreign environment. All senses are slightly off kilter—hearing and seeing, your sense of balance, all not to be fully trusted. The beam of your headlight disappears into blackness wherever you turn; there’s nothing for your eyes to focus on. The steady breeze morphs into a droning buzz in your head. And then there’s the unfriendly feel of the cold and damp rock on your hands. My dad, normally not much an endurance athlete though always an adventurer, quickly settled into the stoic, slightly dazed trance somewhere in between resignation and meditation. One step and one pull after the other he silently followed the orange cord that tied him to Lucas up the dark reaches of the mountain. I followed a few meters behind, insanely proud.
Lucas set a blazing pace for us; the 1,200 meters (ca. 4,000ft) of climbing from the hut to summit demands it. Though a ridge route, the climb weaves back and forth. Across a steep scree and ice-filled gully, over a couple of fifth class moves, then through a long stretch of fourth class climbing on the ridge proper, back in a gully to avoid an imposing tower . . . throughout the route is steep, a fall at just about any point would almost certainly send you all the way to the glacier below. Of course my dad slipped occasionally, as any person would who is not used to balancing on loose rocks with a howling wind beating relentlessly at one’s back does. Lucas always kept the rope tight—the truly difficult but integral skill in a guide’s arsenal—preventing my dad from toppling. A rock would shoot out from under his feet but he would still be standing in the same place, slightly shocked but immediately ready to move on. Halfway up the mountain we stopped to take a short break. My dad was flush, sitting collapsed on his backpack breathing heavily. “How are you doing,” Djahane asked him. “Good,” he said, though his face said otherwise. I recognized in him a sensation I’ve had many times—the overpowering will for something to intervene and make the decision to turn around take itself, to mediate what would otherwise be a self-inflicted failure. I don’t blame him. It was tiring, it was cold, and the wind was being particularly pesky.
Right on cue, it started snowing—a lot. Thick, wet flakes. The storm forecast for the late afternoon had arrived twelve hours early. Before we were done packing up our water bottles, the rock was covered in a slippery glaze. With that, we had no choice but to turn around and begin the very delicate work of down-climbing the many loose and step sections. A few hours later we were back in the hut for breakfast. Descending the wet ridge had been slow and tedious work but we made it without any incident. My dad was visibly disappointed but glad to be back in one piece. Even though we had failed to reach our objective my dad was proud and energized about his experience. Climbing does that, it is an experience that grows and continues to give as you analyze it, retell it and relive it in your mind. The fact that a few days after our foiled ascent two Americans who failed to turn around when it started to snow slipped and fell to their deaths—while obviously a tragedy—eased his sense of failure and in some ways contributed to the weight of the experience. His buddies, too, seemed to care less that he had not stood on the summit than that he had donned the old climbing boots every Swiss man has somewhere in the back of his closet and taken his shot at the pinnacle of Swiss mythology. This present, then, may have been the best we ever gave. The only problem is that it is going to be hard to outdo it when he turns 65.
Read more from Martin Gutmann at his website: alpinenotes.blogspot.com