Ascents of Riffelhorn and Matterhorn in 1970

Matterhorn

The Matterhorn, along with Mount Everest and Mont Blanc, is probably the most famous mountain in the world. It owes its fame first and foremost to its beauty, but also to the tragedy that occurred during the first ascent in 1865.

One of the things that set the Matterhorn apart is that it is set apart! Unlike many of the highest alpine peaks, the Matterhorn sits in splendid isolation on a pedestal that is itself carved out from the surrounding landscape. It has often been compared to an obelisk or a pyramid.

When I first saw the Matterhorn in 1969, I wrote home that it looked like a painted backdrop in an opera-house, i.e. something romantic and unreal. And "unreal" may be the best description I can give. Just as with the Grand Canyon, you feel the impulse from time to time to turn around and check that it is still there!

Link to live high-resolution camera on Gornergrat.

Matterhorn postcard.

A postcard from my 1970 sojourn in Zermatt.

As with many of us, the Matterhorn's profile is best viewed from one side; in this case the Zermatt valley, from where it exhibits a splendid symmetry and harmony. From the Italian side the mountain looks quite different. - From Zermatt, the Matterhorn initially seemed totally inaccessible, and the first approaches were all made from the Italian side.

The story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn has been told many times. Here are two accounts:

http://www.oldnewspublishing.com/whymper
http://static.nzz.ch/files/5/5/8/Matterhorn_1.10542558.pdf

    In brief, the young English illustrator Edward Whymper and the Italian mountain guide Jean-Antoine Carrel (from the French-speaking valley south of the Matterhorn) had both made unsuccessful attempts to climb the Matterhorn during the preceding years and had agreed to join forces for another attempt from the Italian side in the summer of 1865. When Whymper arrived in the village of Breuil on the Italian side, he discovered that Carrel had been engaged by a large Italian party and was about to make a serious attempt from the Italian side. He hurried back to Zermatt and managed to assemble a party consisting of three English amateurs (Hudson, Douglas, Hadow), an experienced French guide (Michel Croz) and two local mountaineers (Peter Taugwalder Sr. and Jr.). They discovered that the climb from the Swiss side was less difficult than it looked, and they made rapid progress. They spent the night on the mountain and reached the summit on July 14th, 1865. There they spotted the Italian party just a few hundred meters lower and managed to attract their attention, causing them to turn back. - During the descent, the inexperienced Hadow slipped and knocked Croz down. As a result, Hudson and Douglas were also dragged down by the rope. This caused the rope to snap, leaving Whymper and the Taugwalders in shock after they had witnessed their comrades plunge down the north wall. - Carrel returned to reach the summit from the Italian side just three days later.

The tragedy attracted much attention in Europe at the time. Whymper was severely criticized, and was even accused of having cut the rope to save himself! He later commented: "A moment of negligence can cause a lifetime of unhappiness."

Its beauty and history make the Matterhorn a very special mountain to alpinists. To experienced climbers, the ascent is more of a pilgrimage than a challenge. From a technical viewpoint, the normal route offers little of interest to them, the rock is loose, and the many inexperienced tourists cause queues in some places and constitute a stonefall hazard. The climb is easy under normal conditions, and fixed ropes provide assistance in a few steep and exposed passages. But the very accessibility of the mountain is what makes it so dangerous. More than 500 climbers have died on the Matterhorn, typically by underestimating the difficulties that arise when the weather turns bad: the cold, the rocks coated with snow and ice, the poor visibility.

After my visit to Zermatt in 1969, I was determined to climb the Matterhorn. I had read Rebuffat's book "Men and the Matterhorn" over and over. In the spring of 1970, I wrote a letter to the mountain guides' office in Zermatt to book a professional guide. I got a courteous reply that I should contact them once I got there.

I arrived in Zermatt around July 20th, going by car from Sweden. I checked in at the Gornergrat hotel and went to the Bergführerbureau (the mountain guides' office), where I was referred to Mr. Werner Perren, an experienced guide. He recommended that we should make a preparatory climb on the Riffelhorn before attempting the Matterhorn, to which I agreed.

Riffelhorn and Matterhorn.
Riffelhorn and Matterhorn

 

The Riffelhorn is a small rock peak on the Gornergrat. It is just a hundred meters high, give or take. It offers a variety of routes, from easy to technically demanding. As it can be easily reached by train (there are two stations on the Gornergratbahn nearby), it is often used for training and for letting a guide and his client get acquainted during a few hours.

I rented climbing boots and on July 22nd Werner Perren and I took the train up to the Rotenboden station. An American lady looked at Werner's climbing gear and asked: "Have you actually climbed the Matterhorn??" Werner smiled mildly and said: "Yes." - (He could have replied: "Yes, several hundred times.")

At the foot of the Riffelhorn we roped up. I was a little concerned about just having a loop around my waist - I had expected it to be more like a harness. "If I fall, I will be sliced in half!" Werner patiently explained that this was enough to prevent a fall. And of course, there would not be any risk of a free fall on the route we were taking.

As it turned out, I had no trouble following Werner up the mountain. As I looked back, I did not exactly feel comfortable, but I noted with some satisfaction that I was nowhere near to feeling panicky. I have seen people freeze up when they had to descend steep ladders: clinging desperately with shaking knees, so I know what real vertigo looks like. I did not seem to be prone to that condition, and I suspect that most people who claim to fear heights confuse perfectly healthy feelings of apprehension with a dangerous loss of self-control, which is something else altogether.

Werner Perren and Riffelhorn. Werner Perren on the Riffelhorn.

In a postcard, I described my first impressions:

"It is tricky, difficult to see your own feet. But it is reassuring to feel the constant tug of the rope. It is just a little unpleasant when the "fuehrer" disappears around a corner and becomes unavailable for advice.

Next, I am going to just walk around in the area and get used to the thin air for a week, then wait for good weather. This is great fun!"

Werner Perren on the Riffelhorn. Stefan Zenker on top of the Riffelhorn.

The very next day, I ascended the Mettelhorn, which is an easily accessible peak to the northwest of Zermatt. Although it is overshadowed by the surrounding peaks, it reaches the respectable height of 3400 m, so the altitude gain from the village is about 1800 m. The route first brings you along a steep path to the Trift hotel above Zermatt; it then follows the Trift gorge westwards. You then turn north, cross a benign glacier and walk uphill over the moraine to the foot of the Mettelhorn. The final part is an easy walk up a serpentine path on the hill itself.

For some excellent pictures from this route, see http://www.physics.helsinki.fi/~kajantie/dmettel/mettel.html.

Triftbach
View toward Taeschhorn.
Triftbach en route to the Mettelhorn
Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Castor and Pollux. Obergabelhorn and Wellenkuppe.
The view toward Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Castor and Pollux.
Obergabelhorn and Wellenkuppe, to the upper right.

The view from the Mettelhorn is magnificent. So much so that seven years later I repeated the tour, this time starting from Zermatt at midnight in order to be on the summit in time for the sunrise.

Unfortunately I developed some blisters from the rented boots. However, they subsided during the week, in time for the Matterhorn.

Stefan Zenker and Matterhorn.

In a postcard home I quoted Charlie Brown: "If I show grit and real determination, I know I can do it!" Note the flowers at 3000 m altitude.

A few days later I walked up the hills to the east of Zermatt, to the Oberrothorn, also at roughly 3400 m altitude. There is a system of cable cars in this direction, so you have an alternative if you get tired...

Movie ticket.
Museum ticket.

 

Zermatt cemetery.

In between these excursions, I enjoyed just sitting at an outdoor café on the main street in Zermatt, looking at the endless stream of passers-by: Japanese tourists, some of whom spent just one day in Zermatt on their European tour, tanned mountain climbers in full gear, tennis players, skiers returning from summer skiing on the glacier, American ladies with poodles, Swiss and German families with dad carrying the rucksack.

I visited the cemetery, the museum, the cinema. On a rest day I sat by a brook humming Beethoven's "Szene am Bach"; at least that is what I wrote home.


Receipt for payment to the Bergfuehrerbureau.On Sunday afternoon, July 26th, I got a phone call at the hotel from Werner Perren: The weather looks promising, so tomorrow afternoon you can walk up to the Hörnli hut. Take your time. I will meet you there in the evening. - An obnoxious guest from Burgdorf at the hotel had spread the word among all the guests that I was planning to climb the Matterhorn. Now he wanted to know if I had written my will, and professed to be concerned that I had neglected to do so!

Next morning, after a good night's sleep ("just like an astronaut", I reported home), I went to the Glacier shop on main street and rented climbing boots and crampons. I would not need an ice axe.
In the afternoon, I took the cable car up to Schwarzsee for the two-hour walk up the path to the Hörnli hut. During my visit the previous year, the path had been blocked by snow on lower part of the the Hörnli ridge, but now conditions were excellent. The crampons tied to the back of my rucksack made a clinking sound that seemed to announce to everybody that I was a bona fide alpinist bent on conquering the Matterhorn. I felt like a cheat and impostor.

The lower part of the Hoernligrat.Once I arrived at the hut and the adjacent Belvedere mountain hotel, where I would spend the night, I asked for Werner Perren, but he was still asleep. I looked around and got acquainted with some of my fellow tourists. A German was trying to write in his notebook or diary but seemed to have succumbed to "writer's block" and looked in vain at the mountain for inspiration.
A few climbers were studying the first part of the route. The following morning they would have to find their way by flashlight.
Around sunset, four very weary climbers descended the last few hundred meters of the ridge and reached the hut. They had climbed the Zmutt ridge (the northwestern ridge) to the summit and returned via the Hörnli ridge.
In the evening I met with Werner, and he gave me my "marching orders": Wake-up at 3 a. m., then a quick breakfast. He was anxious to get going ahead of the crowd, and that meant starting the climb in darkness.

I did not really sleep that night, but a rest was welcome nonetheless. When I was awakened, there was a strange mixture of sleepiness and excitement. Everybody was struggling to find their clothing and equipment. Flashback to my military service... I had a small "continental" breakfast: coffee and bread.

When we got outside, it was pitch dark. I could gradually make out the stars. A serpentine band of dim lights was already moving up the mountain, the early starters. One could dimly see the lights of Zermatt down in the valley.

Werner roped up with me outside the hotel, checking and re-checking the knots: "Da kommen Sie nicht raus!" For me it was anything but routine. The rope was not just a rope - it meant trust and commitment.
The Zermatt guides use candle lanterns, or at least they did in 1970, perhaps out of tradition, perhaps because they consider them less prone to failure than flashlights. After a short walk to the foot of the mountain, the real climb began. It was not difficult to follow the guide, even with him blocking the light. The first part is really a giant staircase. Werner knew every step as the inside of his pocket. He muttered under his breath over some climbers who were trying to profit from his lead without paying for the services of a guide. The pace was brisk but not uncomfortable.

Gradually we gained height. At daybreak, I started to notice the vast spaces around and below us. Werner left his lantern in a cranny, and jokingly asked me to help him remember where.

We were more or less following the Hörnli ridge, always on the east side.

Suddenly a large rock came crashing down the east face, bouncing, and picking up speed all the time. It disappeared out of view on its way down to the glacier many hundred meters below. It was an impressive sight, but I did not feel particularly threatened, as we were close to the ridge, safely out of the fall line.

The Matterhorn in winter.
The Matterhorn in winter, from the Swiss side. The normal route follows the Hörnli ridge separating the lit Eastern face from the North face, in shadow.

Newspaper clipping about accident.Shortly thereafter, we reached the spot where an Englishman had fallen to his death a few days earlier. His body had been retrieved, but his red rucksack had been left behind and was clearly visible out in the east face.

My brother had sent me a news clipping about this in order to discourage me from proceeding with my plans, but it arrived too late, so I had not even been aware that an accident had taken place. (The clipping would not have stopped me.)


About halfway up the mountain, there is a small shelter for emergency use only, the Solvay hut. Just below, there is a short stretch of slightly more demanding climbing (the Moseleyplatte), but not really difficult. This was one of the few spots where we could only move one at a time.

We did not pause at the hut, and Werner was not too keen to make pauses for photography. Not very far above the Solvay hut we put on the crampons, each with 10 spikes. I had never used them before, so Werner helped me fasten them to my shoes. I had mixed feelings about them: they gave me a new sense of security on ice and snow, but at the same time they made me feel less confident on pure rock.

About here we met the first pair of climbers on their way back. I was impressed, thinking that they had already been to the summit, but Werner told me that they had been forced to turn back because the client's heart was overtasked. Did the client have a heart condition? No, he was just too tired, he could not sustain the pace.

The route now deviated a bit to the left, over patches of snow on the east side of the mountain.

When we rejoined the Hörnli ridge at the "Shoulder", where it flattens out a bit, I had my first look at the north face - an awesome sight. The north face is a single continuous wall about 1500 m high. It was first climbed in 1931 by the Schmid brothers who arrived from Munich on bicycles. (Did they tell their parents about their intentions?)

Josef Lauber, Mountain guide from Zermatt.
This guide, Josef Lauber, was a good friend of Werner. We kept company all day long. His client was a young Scotsman, I think.
The climb along the "Shoulder" was airy but not difficult, even with the scraping crampons, but once we arrived at the "Head" of the mountain, it became much steeper. We were now climbing on the north side of the ridge, not far from the spot where the pioneers had had their accident in 1865. The route has now been furnished with fixed ropes in the more exposed and difficult passages.
By now, I was beginning to feel the effects of the thin air and the steep climb. I suggested that we should go a little slower, but Werner would have none of that. He encouraged me: We are already there, just look! And he was not exaggerating: after another 50 meters, the slope gradually became more gentle as we approached the summit.
Werner Perren approaching the summit of the Matterhorn.
Reaching the summit of the Matterhorn.

Stefan Zenker and Werner Perren on the summit of the Matterhorn.Around 8 o'clock in the morning we reached the summit. We shook hands and posed for the traditional portrait.

My initial feeling was one of relief more than jubilation. From this point on I would not have to worry about perhaps having to turn back. From now on, a conflict between ambition and safety could not arise.

The summit ridge is narrow, with impressive drops on both sides. The summit cross has been erected near the highest point on the Italian side.

The day was perfect. No clouds, no wind and relative warmth. Still, we spent no more than 15 or 20 minutes at the top. I snapped photos and we had a snack. Then it was time to start the descent.

Our roles would now be reversed, in that I would go first and Werner would follow, so that he could stop me quickly if I should start to slide. This made me a little apprehensive. On the way up I had been facing the mountain, watching Werner's feet all the time, trying to imitate his movements as closely as possible, with little opportunity to admire the surroundings. Now I would face away from the mountain most of the time and respond to his commands of "rechts", "links" and "in die Fallinie".

Dent d'Herens and Mont Blanc.

The view from the summit towards the west. Dent d'Herens is in the foreground. Mont Blanc is prominent in the background at a distance of around 70 km.


Dent Blanche. Zinalrothorn and Weisshorn.
Dent Blanche
 
Zinalrothorn and Weisshorn
Matterhorn north face.

A peek into the abyss: The north face of the Matterhorn, seen from the summit. - Actually you cannot see much from here. Most of the north face is hidden behind the convexity of the first few hundred meters. - The drop down to the glacier is more than 1500 m.

The descent down the "Head" of the Matterhorn went well, although at one point my feet lost contact with the ground after I had grabbed a fixed rope that pulled me sideways. Werner did not have to intervene. We met a considerable number of climbers on our way down, but they did not impede us too much even in the narrow passages. They seemed content to let us pass and get a short rest while waiting.
Matterhorn shoulder.
The "Shoulder". We met these climbers during our descent.
Descending the Hoernli ridge.

We were still encountering climbers on their way up as we were approaching the Solvay hut. - The black shape on the ridge at the top of the picture is the Hörnli hut, some 800 m below this point.

The Solvay hut.

We enjoyed a short rest at the Solvay hut on our way down. This shelter may only be used in an emergency. There is space for only six or eight people, I believe.

I think that it was financed by a Belgian industrialist in recognition of his rescue on the mountain. Its construction in 1915 must have been an amazing feat in its time, long before helicopter transport became available.

If you need to respond to a call of nature during the night, you certainly had better be wide awake while stepping out !

At an altitude of over 4000 m, it probably is not a common sight even in summer to see sweaters come off, but this was an unusually warm day.

 

Matterhorn diploma.On the lower parts of the Hörnli ridge, it became less obvious where the route went, and Werner had to give his directions more frequently. He muttered impatiently under his breath when I deviated from the correct path. Of course, he knew every step along the way. On occasion, when I had to reach around a corner, he could direct me to "a good hold just a little lower, can you feel it?" - In my defense, it is notoriously difficult to find the correct route on the Matterhorn on the way down, and this is a major contributor to the accidents that occur every year.

As the temperature increased on the way down, I was getting increasingly uncomfortable and regretted having put on long underwear in the morning. The lower part of the mountain seemed to take forever on my tired legs.

As we finally approached the Hörnli hut, I made an effort to cut a good figure on behalf of the many binoculars directed our way from the tourists sitting on the terrace outside the hut. Werner was now in good spirits and expressed his satisfaction with his client.

When we reached the hut shortly after noon, the Scotsman who had accompanied our team had his priorities right. He ordered "Two large beers". My sentiments must have gone in the same direction.

After some rest, there was still a fairly long walk down to Schwarzsee. From there I took the cable car down to Zermatt. I phoned home to report my success, had a nice supper and slept soundly for 10 hours.

I stayed in Zermatt for a few more days and then started the long drive back to Sweden, where I was about to start a new chapter in my professional life.

  Last edited or checked July 30, 2011.

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