The Matterhorn was first summitted in 1865 by a team of seven climbers tied together on a single rope. Only three came back alive.
During their descent, the story goes, one fell off the 3,500-foot north face. His weight on the rope dragged others off the face with him. Four dangled in the abyss while three clung to the rock. Then the rope snapped between the dangling four and the clinging three.
We’ll never know what really happened. In those days, their hemp ropes sometimes did snap. And sometimes they were cut.
Since then, the mountain has claimed another 500 lives. It kills a dozen a year. During the short climbing season, it kills more than one a week. It’s the deadliest mountain on the planet. In Zermatt, 9,500 feet below the peak, the church cemetery is crowded with crosses reading, “Died on the Matterhorn.”
Eleven years ago, I set out to climb it. After testing me on other peaks, my excellent American guide was willing to let me take a shot at the iconic mountain. (The convoluted route is rarely climbed without a guide.)
Technically speaking, it’s only middle Class V rock climbing. What makes it tricky is that there’s just enough intermittent hard snow and ice that crampons are necessary continuously through the rock climb. They scrape and spark over near-vertical slabs hidden under a few inches of powdery snow from the night before and black ice from the week before. Rocks falling from thousands of feet above scream past at ballistic, dismembering velocities.
And so it goes for 4,500 feet of vertical before topping out at 14,692 feet.
The climbing for the first three hours is in the dark. That’s because the Swiss have decided that 3:30 a.m. is the optimum time to commence summit day. They figure that anything later would involve too much climbing in the afternoon snow and sleet storms, while anything earlier would be, well, too early.
So they lock 100 climbers in the high hut on the summit ridge. At exactly 3:30 a.m. they unlock the door (the Swiss are punctual, and their watches are excellent). Climbers burst out the door and race through the dark to the cliff 50 meters away.
Slow ones get stuck with the crowd just seconds after starting. That will be the first of many bottlenecks. They should quit now because they will never ascend in time to beat those storms.
So my guide and I roped ourselves together inside the hut, and when the door swung open we scrambled over the boulders and talus in a dead run to reach the cliff face. We were part of the first wave and scampered up.
There were dozens of other bottlenecks we had to reach before the competition did. The snow-covered, crumbly rock was a series of cliff bands and rocky ridges abutting sensational exposure on both sides.
Often, we simul-climbed without a belay. That is, we climbed simultaneously with neither of us secured to the rock. My guide explained that if I fell off the ridge while we were simul-climbing, he would leap off the opposite side. The theory was that we would then pendulum on opposite sides of the knife edge, supported by the connecting rope.
I tried not to put his theory to the test.
Watchful of the headlamps of our competitors, we climbed hard and fast. We kept above most of the competition and consequently were seldom slowed by the bottlenecks. Maintaining that pace under those conditions was extraordinarily difficult, and I was breathing very hard.
I realized just how hard when I heard a shout over the pounding of my heart from one of the French guides. “Meester Ameerican Guide,” he called to my guide, “you are keeling your client!” And then more in French, which I don’t understand. My guide smiled. I took the opportunity to catch an extra breath, and we resumed.
The chatter below us slowly faded, as did the chatterers. As the sun rose, we climbed past the void where four of the first seven were suspended on their rope for just long enough to know they would be dead in another instant.
And finally we were on top of the great mountain.
In good spirits, we descended. My guide told me with a laugh that the French guides and their clients had mocked my labored breathing till one by one they turned around below us. They’d dubbed me “Le Poumon” or, in English, “The Lung.”
I’d been an object of ridicule.
Years later, I was climbing in Peru. At a base camp at 14,100 feet in the Cordillera Blanca, I told my story of being mocked on the Matterhorn. Another climber interrupted me. “Wait, are you ‘The Lung’? All the French guides in Zermatt tell that hilarious story!”
You see, in the climbing world, I’m an international laughingstock.
But I’ve still got the Matterhorn.
Upbeats: Dave Riddle is climbing Kilimanjaro (in a day!) to benefit adult literacy programs. Support him at http://www.teamkilimanjaro.com/blog/fundraising/fundraisers/david-riddle.
Published Sept 28, 2014 in the Aspen Times at http://www.aspentimes.com/opinion/13165209-113/climbing-guide-matterhorn-climbed