A California Kid Climbing the Matterhorn's Hornli Ridge.
Some mountains you climb, some mountains you survive.
These were my final thoughts as I stepped from the steep sides of the Matterhorn back onto the glacier below which had now been totally entombed in the cold evening shadows. I was elated but somewhat disappointed too. We had come so close, so close. But close doesn’t quell obsession’s fire. In fact, it only feeds the flames.
My desire to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland was born only a year previous when I caught a glimpse of the contorted pyramid shaped mountain in a friend’s calendar. It was the quintessential mountain... big, sharp, dominating. It was perfect. I told him... “I’m gonna climb that someday.” He gave me the picture and I taped it up on the wall.
That’s how most of my obsessions start. The picture on the wall. A beautiful girl, a perfect wave, a stunning mountain summit. I think it’s a primal urge that has been with mankind since the beginning. That would explain cave art. The big wooly mammoths, saber toothed cats, the cave-ladies in fur miniskirts.
However, I learned somewhere along the way that all that fixation could really come back to haunt you if you weren’t successful in your quest. So I did my best to remain relatively calm about the whole Matterhorn endeavor. “The journey is the destination” became my mantra. “The sides of the mountain are as important as the summit itself,” I told myself.
But it was a tough sell. Let’s face it, we tend to be peak baggers. We want a collection of fancy summits, some metaphorical, to tape on our walls, focused on success and not the experience and the lessons born from the endeavor. But not me, not this time. Summit or no, I was there for the ride.
And the first part of the ride was the 11+ hour plane flight and 9 hour time difference. The climb began right then and there at the Zurich airport when I strapped the 80 lbs of gear and clothes to my back and staggered like a drunk off the train and down the main drag to the hotel. Once inside, I clipped the side rail in the reception room just enough to get me off balance and I took a header onto the orange stained carpet to the amusement of the other guests. I decided from that point on to tell everyone I was Canadian.
My climbing partner Brandon flew into Zurich the next day and we reviewed the manual of best laid plans. We decided not to rush to Zermatt and opted for the casual approach.
So we slipped on our shades and cruised into Lucern via a big red train. When we got there we bought up all the Swiss Army Knives we could carry. If you ever find yourself on the battlefield and are in need of a corkscrew, spoon, toothpick, or need to add memory to your tank’s on board computer (the new Cyber Tool knives are in!), find a Swiss soldier. They’re prepared for it all.
Then after getting fat and happy on bier and bratwurst, we decided it was time to head for the hills and get serious. After a ride on the glacier express, we arrived in Zermatt, a car free village high in the Swiss Alps. We found a cheap place to stay and began to wander the streets. Brightly colored hanging gardens cascaded from every window. The hills stretched green, topped high above by white flowing glaciers. I surveyed the peaks searching for the picture that hung on my wall, but it was lost in a pile of clouds stacked a mile high. Funny, I thought, to come 6,000 miles only to have to wait yet one more day for a glimpse.
The next day four mountaineers were caught in a snow storm on the Matterhorn and had to be rescued by helicopter. A bit troubled, I went out and bought myself another knife just to be safe.
In the afternoon, I perused the Alpine museum and immersed myself in some Matterhorn history. I shuddered at the broken rope used by Edward Whymper and party on the first ascent of the mountain back in 1865. The rope snapped during a fall on their decent, sending 4 of the climbers to their deaths. I tried to imagine what Whymper felt upon his return to Zermatt, walking back into town with less than half his team. Such a great victory at such a great cost.
Afterwards, I walked around inside of the old English Church and read the many mountaineering epitaphs hanging from the walls. Over 500 had died on the mountain looking for its frozen summit. It was indeed a mountain that often demanded the greatest price.
Early the following morning we hiked up to the Hornlihutte, a dormitory style hotel where they stack you 12 to a room, 6 on the top bunk and 6 on the bottom. The wake up call comes at 3:30 in the morning for all its guests, climbers or no. The traditional alpine start was necessary for success on such a big mountain. You wanted to summit in the morning so that you could be back down before nightfall. Getting caught on the mountain at night was just another way to “come to grief” as Whymper put it.
In the fading daylight, Brandon and I walked to the foot of the mountain where our climb would start early the next morning. We scoped out a bronze Madonna and Child statue 20’ up on a ledge and several more epitaphs bolted to the rock. The mountain seemed to be one giant memorial.
That night, packed like sardines and wrapped in damp blankets, my mind drifted back over the many epitaphs. The room heaved and rolled in the darkness as 12 restless mountaineers wrestled with their fears and dreams.
When the lights went on at 3:30 am, the hallways came alive. 5 guided parties were suited up, roped, and out the door before Brandon and I had even finished gulping down our sweetbread breakfast. The only other unguided team besides us were a pair from England, a father and son team with whom we chatted with the previous day during dinner.
We hustled out the door to hopefully follow on the heels of the guides. The start up the mountain in the dark through its maze of rock piles and dead end trails would be much easier if we could follow them.
But they were gone. We could see them already high up the route, their headlamps flickered in and out of the darkness. We were on our own.
Fighting for breath, we struggled on in the darkness until the sky was awash in cold dark-blue light. We clicked off our lights and continued on. The route steepened, we roped up, the sky filled with pale sunlight. The Britts followed closely behind. We labored on to the halfway point, the Solvay Hut at 4000 meters, a two bed shack. This emergency bivouac was equipped with radio and blankets for stranded climbers. We paused there for food and water, celebrated our progress and waited for the Britts.
Looking down the west ridge, the Hornlihutte came into view. It was a mere speck amongst the brown rock talus below. Despite having climbed a couple of big walls in Yosemite, the view made me dizzy. Because of the Matterhorn’s isolated position in the range, it took on unrealistic proportions. This finger of crumbling rock pointed over a mile into the sky above Zermatt.
Brandon muttered that the Britts must have turned back. There was no sign of them below. We decided to move on. As we climbed up the steep Mosely Slab, we could see small avalanches of rock, ice and snow rumble down the west face to our left. The guided parties were just above us on the route. We were encouraged to see them until we found out that they had already summitted and were on the way back down.
“Dude, those guys haul ass,” Brandon commented. These Swiss guides knew the mountain intimately, some of them having summitted over 50 times. But I was still in disbelief.
Brandon and I had both agreed before the climb that to use a guide was to somehow lessen the journey. Guides were for peak baggers. We were in it for the experience. We scoffed as they came closer, working up our best scowls for the weenie clients who were being led up and down the mountain like greyhounds on a leash.
Over the next half hour we bumped past each of the down climbing parties as the guides barked orders to their clients ... “No, go there... stop... stay there... grab here... go down...” I tried my best to feel contempt but I caved each time they scampered past.
“So, how was it?” I’d ask enthusiastically.
“Oh man,” the clients would beam, “it’s incredible up there!”
And deep inside, my heart would swell with envy.
Then, as the storm of parties disappeared over the brink and the din of shouts and clinks of metal faded, we found ourselves alone again, but this time we were the only ones still going up. The silence was crippling.
The time finally came when it was time to pull out the ice axes and crampons and beat our way up the ice sheets. I belayed Brandon up a steep mixed face full of ice, snow, and rocks. He heroically clipped into the rare and widely spaced metal rings that protruded out of the snow and rock and then belayed me up. We were finally on the “shoulder”. Only one more short pitch and we would be climbing up the fixed ropes to the summit ridge. The summit seemed inevitable. We were so close now.
Then it hit us both like an avalanche. We were still a good two hours from the summit. We were close, but the climbing in the ice and snow would go slowly. We were used to the sunbaked walls of Yosemite, not high alpine ice.
I looked at my watch... 11:30 am. The guide book said it would take 5 hours to reach the summit, but it would take us 9 hours at best. The reality of turning back became suddenly clear.
My heart sank down into my boots.
As I climbed to Brandon’s belay, I shook my head. He was reading my mind and let out a small laugh.
“Brandon, I don’t know if we’re going to have time to summit and get down...”
“I know, I was thinking the same thing while I was waiting for you to come up.” A pause. “But why? We should be able to do this. What happened?”
“We wasted too much time route finding in the dark. That’s how the guides got so far ahead.”
“But we’re good climbers, and this isn’t that hard of a climb.” There was another pause. Brandon is an Engineer. That should explain the thoughtful pauses. Then he spoke again, “Ok, before we make a decision, let’s think about this and then make a decision and not second guess it later.”
“Ok,” I muttered.
Engineers make great climbing partners. I was a liberal arts guy and emotions often influenced my climbing decisions. I’ve blindly climbed up death pitches before just because it seemed romantic to be out there on the edge walking the thin line. But I’ve also crumbled under the slightest whiff of doubt, even on easy terrain. It depended a lot on my mood. And right now fear was tugging at my toes, but I couldn’t let that sway me into an irrational and unnecessary u-turn. There would consequences waiting for me down at the bottom if I turned back without the summit. And they would haunt me like ghosts, that I knew.
I stared up at the icy summit long and hard. I looked back down into the abyss of broken rock I had spent the last 7 hours climbing. If we started back now we would most likely reach the bottom by nightfall. If we went for the summit, we could bivy at the emergency hut on the way down and then start down again tomorrow morning. Then the idea of wandering around on the mountain lost in the dark shot through my veins like ice. The safe decision was an easy one to reach, yet difficult to accept.
“Dude, if we go up we’re going to be in the emergency hut tonight.”
Brandon agreed. We had done the same math. 9 hours up, 9 hours down. Since the mountain was little more than a pile of loose rocks and snow, we would have to retrace our footsteps and down climb the entire route. Rappel anchors were all but non-existent on the lower portions of the mountain.
With the decision made, we took some pictures, promising not to second guess our decision in the future, and began our descent.
A long 7 hours later, after 14 hours of climbing, we feebly stepped onto the glacier and trudged back to the Hornlihutte.
Brandon, after injuring his knee on the descent, stayed that night again at the Hornlihutte. I didn’t have the cash to pay for my stay (a blessing in disguise). So I hiked 2 more miles to the next closest hotel and whipped out my Visa and spent the night in four star luxury.
Sitting on the steps of the hotel the next morning, waiting for Brandon’s voice to come over the radio, I looked up into the heavens. A swarm of clouds hid the mountain from view. Brandon’s voiced crackled over the walkie talkie...”Dude, it’s snowing up here! If there’s anybody on the mountain they’re getting screwed. I’ll be down in about an hour.”
A smile crept across my face.
And for the remaining 12 days of our trip, were were chased across Switzerland by continuing bad weather. We eventually gave up trying to find sun and dry rocks and just prayed for the end of the trip to come. Brandon missed his fiance, and I missed the beach.
Once back home, I settled again into my lazy summer vacation lifestyle and enjoyed a short spell of peace and quiet. If only I lived in a vacuum, I thought. Then I could really handle being an average mountaineer. But I didn’t live in a vacuum and I knew that eventually I’d run into a friend and they’d ask the inevitable...
“Did you make it to the summit?”
And it eventually did happen. And it happened over, and over, and over again. And each time my answer cut deeper and deeper and deeper.
“Nope,” I’d tell them, “but we were close.” Then I’d crunch out a smile and try not to feel like a failure.
But it was true. We were failures. At least we were by most people’s estimation. We had failed to reach the summit. The sleek gold plated bragging rights didn’t belong to us. Our coveted tic list would not bear this mountains name. And that’s hard for any mountaineer to handle, no matter what they tell you.
But what we did have was perhaps more important, if less glamorous. We had the gritty, dusty, blood stained experience of being that close, and turning back. We had escaped the mountain’s seductive beauty and fame, and had come down with our lives.
I must confess, even now, a year later, the picture still hangs from my wall. And yes, obsession’s fire still burns unquenched. But it will always, I suppose. I guess that’s what makes mountaineers go up, and... as I’ve so recently learned... come down again, with or without a summit, to try again.
1 Comment Add a Comment
|Beautifully written. I felt your fear, your disappointment. However, I'm glad you made the decision to turn back. I'm currently in Zermatt and still haunted by the tomb stone of Donald Stephen Williams and his epitaph, "I Chose To Climb". He was only 17. I'm just happy I'm not seeing yours. Be healthy and happy mate. I'm glad u r alive. Dan|