My passion for the Alps

I think that it must have been in 1952, at age 12, that I fell in love with the mountains. During that summer, our family rented a VW in Germany and made a trip that included a visit to the Bavarian alps: Berchtesgaden, Mittenwald, Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I was fascinated by the dramatic landscape, and by seeing snow on the peaks in the summer. The high point of the trip - literally - was a visit to the summit of Germany's highest mountain, the Zugspitze, by cogwheel railway and cable car, but I also found it quite interesting to discover signposts on the footpaths in the valley with legends such as "Zugspitze 9 hours", which meant that you could actually walk to the summit. I resolved that I would have to come back and do that some time in the future.

Annapurna book cover.What I found especially appealing in the high mountains, and still do, was the contrast at dusk and dawn between the darkness in the valley and the brilliant warm light on the mountain peaks. At sunset, there seemed to be a magic quality in the way daylight lingered on the heights long after the shadows had enveloped the valley, creating a desire to follow the light and prolong the day; a sentiment that may have carried spiritual, maybe even religious overtones, I don't know. In the morning, conversely, there was a similar desire to meet the sunlight and to shorten the wait before the valley was again liberated from the shadows of the night. "C'est peut-être un jeu, mais d'abord une fête: allons à la rencontre du soleil!" (Gaston Rébuffat). Many years later in Zermatt, I would set the alarm clock for midnight and ascend the Trift gorge by flashlight purely in order to be able to reach the summit of the Mettelhorn in time for sunrise. - There is of course also the pleasure of measuring your strength against the mountain and of overcoming your own laziness and fatigue. "Renoncer à la douceur et à la facilité" (Rébuffat).

In the following year, 1953, I received another impulse in the form of Maurice Herzog's account of the first ascension of an 8000-meter peak in the Himalayas in 1950: "Annapurna 8000 meter". This was an exciting but also very grim story from the pioneering days of Himalayan climbing. Herzog led a French expedition, including a young Gaston Rébuffat. The original plan was to climb Dhaulagiri, but it turned out that the maps were inaccurate and they had trouble finding it, so they picked Annapurna instead. Herzog and Louis Lachenal managed to reach the peak (without oxygen) but returned with severe frost bite. The rest is a harrowing tale of a five-week retreat with makeshift amputations without anesthesia, rotting flesh, maggots... - In 1953 Hillary and Tensing reached the summit of Mount Everest, which added to the general interest in mountain climbing. - My own interest manifested itself in climbing some boulders in a nearby pasture, joined to my 9-year old brother with a piece of string that served as a "rope".

Men and the Matterhorn book cover.

I got additional glimpses of the Alps during a family trip to Venice that took us by the Dolomites, and through my first solo trip to continental Europe by car in 1965. Throughout the 1960s I enjoyed reading mountaineering books, such as "The White Spider" by Heinrich Harrer on the first ascent of the Eiger north face. Finally, in 1968 I visited Grindelwald in the Berner Oberland and in 1969 Zermatt in the Valais, both in Switzerland, on my way to southern Italy. In Zermatt, I purchased a book by Gaston Rébuffat: "Men and the Matterhorn". It is a wonderful book that retells the experiences of some of the pioneers in their own words. It is beautifully written, and the translation into English does full justice to the flavour of the French original. How can one resist sentences such as: "A man facing the Matterhorn is no ordinary man, especially if he has within him the desire for conquest." or "The Matterhorn is the most beautiful peak in the world. And what beautifies it still more is the love that fragile men have brought to it: what lends beauty to a pyramid of rock surrounded by glaciers is the smile that is in our hearts."? I certainly could not!

In 1969 I only spent a few days in Zermatt. It was early July, and there was still plenty of snow above 3000 m. But I was determined to return next year to climb the Matterhorn! And even then I must have been seduced by the splendid outline of the Weisshorn which seemed to just go on and on, reaching for the sky.

During the following five years I followed a pattern of hard training in the spring to build up the necessary stamina for climbing, then going to the Alps by car, spending one or two weeks in an alpine village to get acclimatized, build strength and enjoy the scenery during long hikes, and finally climbing a peak together with a professional mountain guide. I missed the 1976 season due to a car accident in Sweden. In 1977 I took up alpine skiing, and visited the Alps both during the summer and winter seasons for much of the next decade. I discontinued my alpine excursions for a dozen years following marriage and family building during the nineties, but I brought my children there last summer, i.e. 2004.

Today, whenever I get the opportunity to fly over the Alps, you can be sure that I do my utmost to view all my old friends: Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa and the others. It brings "a smile to my heart".

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  Last edited or checked June 23, 2006.

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