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
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!
to live high-resolution camera on Gornergrat.
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:
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
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.
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!"
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 en route to the Mettelhorn
The view toward Monte Rosa, Lyskamm, Castor
Obergabelhorn and Wellenkuppe, to the upper
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.
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...
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.
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.
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, from the Swiss side. The normal
route follows the Hörnli ridge separating the lit Eastern
face from the North face, in shadow.
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?)
|This guide, Josef Lauber, was a good friend of Werner.
We kept company all day long. His client was a young Scotsman,
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
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
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".
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.
Zinalrothorn and Weisshorn
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.
The "Shoulder". We met these climbers
during our descent.
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.
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.
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
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.