Ascent of Weisshorn in 1974

On August 3rd, 1974, while sitting outside Fouquet's café on the Champs Elysées in Paris, sipping my Campari soda, watching the tourists walk by, I contemplated my failure to climb the Weisshorn that summer. True, I had climbed the Mont Blanc two weeks earlier (after a failed attempt, due to weather, the previous year), but I had then moved on to Zermatt to crown my climbing career with the mountain of my dreams, the Weisshorn. Unfortunately, bad weather had forced me to give up that idea. Instead, I had decided to return home, going via Paris to do some sightseeing. But I could not quite make up my mind to go home. I had listened to the weather forecast, and it seemed to be improving in the Alps. - On the other hand I mentally listed 10 good reasons why I should not return to Zermatt. Some of them were:

Weisshorn summit behind Mettelhorn.

The summit of the Weisshorn appears above the clouds in this photo from 1969. The lower peak across the valley is the Mettelhorn.

  • Long, expensive and tiresome trip back to Switzerland.
  • Weather forecasts in the Alps are not very reliable. The weather is very variable in the mountains. I might be in for another bout of bad weather.
  • Even if the weather cleared up, there would be lots of new snow left from the latest storm.
  • My guide in Zermatt during the past four seasons, Werner Perren, had declined to guide me on the Weisshorn. "Conditions are bad and it is too far away." Had he also thought that I might be "out of my league" there?
  • I had been near the point of exhaustion on Mont Blanc. Weisshorn was just 300 m lower and much tougher.
  • According to one author, the Weisshorn required more than average stout-heartedness ("mehr als mittelmässige Beherztheit") due to the airy and exposed summit ridge. Would I qualify?
  • There was always an element of danger. Was it not time to quit while I was "ahead"?

    Still, I had been enthralled with the Weisshorn ever since I got my first glimpse of its peak, incredibly high over the surrounding clouds, back in 1969. It was a feeling that no photograph could adequately convey - you had to feel it in the muscles of your neck! I did not really have a choice - I had to return! C'était plus fort que moi!

    The following day I drove back to Switzerland and Zermatt. Late in the evening I arrived in Randa, the little village below the Weisshorn. It was raining heavily. I stopped at what looked like a hotel and asked if they had a room. I got one, but it seemed that it was not a regular hotel but rather some kind of youth hostel. Later in the evening when I entered the washroom, I found myself surrounded by shrieking naked school girls.

    The next morning, the weather had improved, although there were still some lingering clouds. As I could not find a mountain guides' office in Randa, and as the Weisshorn seemed to be outside the range of the Zermatt guides, I had a bright idea, and found out what the phone number was to the Weisshorn hut. I called the cabin host up there and asked him to recommend a good professional guide. He recommended a guide named Isidor Brantschen, and we agreed to meet in the hut that evening. So after a short trip to Zermatt to rent climbing boots, crampons and an ice axe, in the afternoon of August 5th, I took the path going from Randa up to the mountain hut.

A look back at the village of Randa from the trail to the Weisshorn-Hütte.

Randa is at 1400 m altitude, the Weisshorn cabin at 2900 m, and the summit of the Weisshorn at 4505 m, so I would have to climb well over 3000 m within less than 24 hours. Happily, the trail goes on the west side of the valley, which is largely in shadow during the afternoon, but it was a steep stroll. I recall sending a mental message to my future self: "Before lunch tomorrow you will be dancing down this trail that seems so tough right now!"

The Weisshorn hut at 2900 m.

The Weisshorn hut in the afternoon. Rimpfischhorn is in the background.

I met Isidor Brantschen at the hut. He turned out to be a friendly, athletic, relatively young guide with sideburns.

The evening passed quickly. It became cold when the sun set behind the mountains, and we had to get up very early. - That night I did not sleep very well. My ten good reasons to abstain from this climb came back to me, and I had a premonition that bad things would happen.

The wake-up came at 2 a.m. We dressed, had breakfast and got underway under a clear sky. We made good progress up the slopes to the base of the mountain proper. We roped up, and the real climb started before daybreak in semi-darkness.

The climb was not difficult, but the darkness forced you to be extra careful. Around 4 o'clock we reached the "Frühstücksplatz" ("Breakfast spot"), where we had a snack while daybreak occurred. This was where the long ridge leading up to the summit started.



My guide Isidor Brantschen
Sunrise on the Weisshorn.
Sunrise at the "Frühstücksplatz"
Matterhorn, Zinalrothorn, Schallihorn, Dent Blanche
Sunrise on Matterhorn, Zinalrothorn, Schallihorn and Dent Blanche

The view to the north. Brunegghorn (3833 m) in the foreground. The Bernese alps in the background lie on the far side of the Rhône valley.

The long eastern ridge, on the right side in the photo below, starts as a rocky stairway in the sky, but there are several "gendarmes" (i.e. towers) blocking the path. They have to be bypassed - which forces an exposed excursion out onto the northern or southern wall - or climbed, an airy experience. About halfway up, the ridge turns into a snow crest and gradually becomes steeper.

Weisshorn at dawn

Weisshorn at dawn as seen from the Mettelhorn. I took this photo in 1977. My ascent in 1974 took place on a similarly beautiful day.

A gendarme on the ridge being sidestepped by two climbers. - Yes, I know it is a lousy picture, but it gives some idea of the terrain.

Halfway there! This is where the snow trail starts. Only two more hours to the summit!

Looking back at two climbers, with Dom and Täschhorn in the background.

The climbing was more impressive than difficult, and I had no trouble keeping up with Isidor. The view was breathtaking, but I managed to breathe regularly all the same. - Once we got to the snow, you could not call it a climb any longer. From now on it was just a long, strenuous walk up a steep path in the snow. This was when I started to get short of breath and really noticed the altitude.

There was plenty of snow, but it was frozen and firm, and there was a clear path.While walking, you use your ice axe as a walking stick. I got a little worried at one point when I could see daylight through the hole made by my axe. Obviously, there was overhanging snow at just an arm's length from my feet, if that! - I would hate to be the first man to make a new path after a heavy snowfall has erased the previous one.

The path became steeper, the air became thinner, and progress became slower. Afterwards Isidor admitted that if he had not known that I had just climbed Mont Blanc, he would have been concerned that I might not make it. When we finally reached the summit, I felt sick and was close to tears, more from relief and fatigue than from joy at success.

Weisshorn summit, Weisshorngipfel

On the summit of Weisshorn, August 6, 1974 with Matterhorn as a backdrop. The Matterhorn is lower than the Weisshorn, but because of Earth's curvature, it reaches above the horizon as seen from the Weisshorn.

There was another pair of climbers on the summit to share in our mutual celebration. Handshakes all around. After a short rest, we started our descent. I had no wish to start sliding down the steep, snowy path, so I made sure to dig in my heels, and to stay fully upright - if you lean backwards, you increase the risk of sliding. After the steepest part, we encountered several climbers on the way up.

Weisshorn ridge

Two climbers still on their way up. It was at this point during the ascent that my ice axe poked a hole in the snow so you could see daylight through it.

Once we reached the end of the snow trail, my breathing improved, and I started feeling better. It helped to meet several struggling climbers still on their way up, I am ashamed to admit, knowing that they still had a couple of hours of hard work to do in softening snow. The weather was still perfect, and the view was magnificent.

The sensation of vast spaces and the play of light and shadows are hard to describe, but this image helps me to bring it back:

Descending the Weisshorn
Weisshorn ridge
The end of the snow trail.
Gendarme on the Weisshorn
Looking down on a gendarme on the Weisshorn during descent.

One of the gendarmes on the ridge is named the Lochmatter Turm in honour of a famous guide who found his death there. That was the spot, where I happened to drop a glove that I had carried under my sweater. Undeterred, I asked and got permission from Isidor to climb a few meters into the south wall under the gendarme to collect it, which I did.

Have to wait to let the middle man in a threesome pass.
The last man in the trio overcomes an obstacle.
Weisshorn ridge
Close to the end of Weisshorn's east ridge during descent. From now on the descent becomes steeper but less airy.

When we finally got down to the glacier below the mountain, I was very tired, but the descent to the hut was easy. We reached it around noon. In total, the climb had taken 10 hours: 6 for the ascent, and 4 to get back.

I thanked my nice guide for a wonderful experience, but did not linger in the hut. I continued down the path to the valley, mentally making a face to myself: "Did I hear you say dancing down to the valley??" I continued to Zermatt, where I returned my climbing gear and drank a large bottle of Rivella, a Swiss specialty. A man saw how lustily I emptied the bottle, and said: "Ja, das ist das schönste was es gibt!" (Yes, that's the best there is!") - "Besonders nach einem heissen Tag am Weisshorn" ("Especially after a hot day on the Weisshorn"), I proudly replied.

Late in the afternoon I started my return trip, going to my brother who lives near Zürich. Once there, I must have been extremely poor company, needing at least twelve solid hours of sleep.

This turned out to be my last 4000-m peak. In the following years, I made several smaller excursions on my own, and in one case together with a French colleague, but the Sturm und Drang period was finished.

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  Last edited or checked June 23, 2006.

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