(…and where they might take you)
I met the two Germans on the trail north, above Trift. There were only four of us en route to the Mettlehorn. If there were any others I'd have seen them as I was on that goat-path most of the day. I had come for the Matterhorn but by then, on our next to last day in Switzerland, had given it up. The Mettlehorn was for consolation. It isn't much compared to the Matterhorn. Still, getting up there is a feat, its summit more than a vertical mile above the village. I had never been so high except in an airplane, and I had no technical climbing experience, yet had come hoping to try the Matterhorn.
Long before I'd heard it described as "…mostly a walkup." I had no interest in mountaineering then but that tantalizing (and misleading) phrase had stuck with me and now, twenty-some years later, I'd begun to think I needed just such an adventure to get me by one of life's long gray periods. I was about to turn fifty. Recently I had switched from a dreary job to an exasperating one. I was doing little that I enjoyed and accomplishing nothing important to me. If I were ever going to try a big mountain it had better be soon and so, in late summer of 1984, my wife Cathy cooperating with the whim, we took a charter flight and trains, by way of Zurich, to Zermatt.
The first day we hiked from Schwarzee to the Hörnli hut, the starting point for the usual and easiest route up the mountain. We talked with an American who'd been to the top that morning. Young and lean, he didn't look especially whipped but was limping, his leg muscles already stiffening. He had attempted the climb four years earlier but had to quit, exhausted when he reached the Solvay Refuge, an emergency shelter located at 13,000 feet. This time he'd trained there for two weeks, hiking or climbing every day. He said the highest sections of the Hörnli ridge were grueling. Near the summit he'd experienced an out-of-body sensation that he blamed on fatigue and altitude. He shook his head, it hadn't been worth it. I was having doubts.
The weather that week was a determining factor, clouds and rain more prevalent than sun. It never rains on the Matterhorn, I was told. It only snows. Until it burns off, the fresh snow makes the climb too strenuous. On two of those rainy days we took the train to Berne for some city life. Finally with only a day left I had to settle for the Mettlehorn.
I spotted the first German on the knoll above Trift. In Zermatt you see lots of tourists, many of them German, costuming as alpinists: middle-aged, stocky, ruddy-faced men and women in heavy boots, knee-high stockings, and drab climbing knickers. Their backpacks are full and some carry ice axes, but you have the feeling the paraphernalia is for show, and that these folks don't stray far from the shops and restaurants. This man—in his early forties, dark hair, lanky build—didn't fit that stereotype, and he seemed to know what he was doing so I asked him if the trek to the Mettlehorn was hard going, as I'd heard. "No… it is an easy tour," he said, speaking precisely, setting his mind to English. We went on together for awhile. He let me know my pace was too quick so I adjusted it to his.
Two others came along: a Swiss who spoke no English sailed past, too fast for either of us; and an older man, another German, closed in on us as we approached a ridge spanning two peaks. I guessed all three had spent the night in the old farmhouse-lodge at Trift, starting out fresh that morning, saving themselves a couple of hours hiking up the steep ravine from Zermatt. According to the first German the peak to our right was our destination. It was closer than I expected. We had to cross a sloping snowfield to reach the col. From there the ridge led to the summit.
I took off my pack to look for gloves. The two Germans started across the snowfield, traversing it with no difficulty. I approached it cautiously, afraid of a sudden ride down-slope. The older German called over to check that I was all right.
When I reached the col I saw the first German near the top. The Swiss was already coming down. The ridge was clear but the summit dome held about an inch of new snow. I climbed carefully, using handholds where I could. As I came near the top the German directed my moves. He seemed glad to see me.
"You have made it," he said. "But I have bad news—it is not the Mettlehorn." He was studying a topographic map, and showed me where we'd gone wrong. We were on the Platthorn; the Mettlehorn was more to the north, higher and steeper than the Platthorn. We could see the trail-line we should have taken. Far below, it crossed another big snowfield, then zigzagged up the southern face of the Mettlehorn. We followed the progress of the other German. He'd taken the correct route but after negotiating two or three switchbacks, was coming back down. "He has no crampons," my companion explained.
In the other direction the massive, tilted hammerhead of the Matterhorn soared over an unbroken platform of clouds, a magnificent sight.
"It's the most spectacular thing I've seen in nature," I told him.
"I would assume so," he replied. Then, as if he had sensed the condescension of his remark, he added, "It is also the most spectacular thing I have seen."
I asked him if he'd thought of climbing it. No, it was a technical climb—therefore not for pedestrians like us, was the implication. Considering we hadn't even made it to the Mettlehorn, I had to agree.
I took out a snack, and he withdrew a small notepad and pen, and began to write in tiny meticulous lines. Recording his impressions of the site, I imagined. Truly Germanic. Then he produced a camera and began adjusting it, presumably for a shot of the Matterhorn. I suggested a picture of him with the 'horn in the background. He seemed reluctant to put his camera in the hands of a stranger but I could see he liked the idea. The opportunity to be photographed pricked his vanity. He removed his hat, slicked his hair, and posed on the edge of the rock, crossing his legs and forging a smile.
As the clouds moved up he prepared to leave. Hurriedly I gathered my stuff, not wanting to be left up there with poor visibility. I dogged his steps going down. We saw the other German now coming up the Platthorn, seeking that one peak for his efforts. He and his countryman exchanged phrases across the slope.
At the col I unshouldered my pack again to get a drink, and was stunned to find the upper compartment open and my wallet missing. It didn't contain much money but my driver's license and credit cards were in it, somewhere on top. "You must go back," said the German. This I knew but, weary, I dreaded having to go up there again and having to cross that snowfield late in the day.
The other German was hollering something from above. The first answered, using his hands as a megaphone. I heard the word "fantastic," and supposed they were discussing the view. But it was my wallet. "He has found it," the first German said. "You only have to wait here and he will bring it to you." Delighted, I shook his hand. He said we might meet again in the village but I didn't see him again.
The other German was blond and heavyset, friendlier than the first, more spontaneous, and his English more fluent. As he approached he sang in German, then in English: "I—have—your—mon-ey." As he handed me the wallet I offered him all the cash in it, forty Swiss francs, but he refused, saying he had plenty of money.
We descended to the snowfield and crossed it with ease. I knew the rest of the way would be uneventful, merely a long trudge back down to the alleys of Zermatt.
"There it is. Oh, wow. Wow-wow-wow!"
(Woman overheard on terrace of Zermatt hotel, on first sight of the Matterhorn.)
We ended the vacation in Italy. I reasoned that my affair with the Matterhorn was over too but, back home, the idea of climbing it began to haunt me again. That fall I took a rock climbing lesson, did poorly, but was only momentarily deterred. I spent half a day at the American Alpine Club—located in New York City, at that time—and on a trip to London in May, put in equivalent time at the British Alpine Club library, searching for information about the Hörnli Ridge route and the feasibility of the climb for a beginner. I conferred by phone with John Jenkins who with little experience had scaled the Matterhorn and written about it for the New York Times—and with Alphonse Franzen, a 61 year old Swiss guide who reportedly had been up it more than 500 times. I was pretty sure I'd go back. I bought a rope and harness, some carabiners and an ascender, and practiced until I was confident on elementary rock routes. By early summer I had made travel and hotel arrangements and was working out almost every afternoon, alternating days of jogging, rock climbing, and scrambling up and down a 400 foot slope near work.
On July 20 I left for Switzerland, traveling alone this time, although I was joined there by Amerigo ("Mig") Farina, a friend who hiked with me for five days (on one of those training days we went up the Mettlehorn, the summit that had eluded me and the two Germans the year before). I met with Alphonse Franzen, the effusive guide I had phoned from the States. With his beer-barrel physique, fisherman's cap, flashing eyes, and sun-burnt face he had the appearance, as Mig later observed, of a rogue pirate. We discussed the preliminary climbs and workouts I'd have to do—some with him, some on my own—to prepare for the Matterhorn. Much of Franzen's time was taken by a wealthy German woman who climbed all season long and provided him the luxury of helicopter lifts up to the huts and climbing sites. His routine clients had to be worked in around her outings which took many of the finest days.
That first week we climbed the Rifflehorn, a small mountain used for practice and tryouts. After he had belayed me through a few moves at the start he muttered, more to himself than to me, "I will take you on the Matterhorn." Of course I was thrilled to hear that. My modest climbing routines on home crags had paid off.
After I had passed all of his tests on rock, ice, and at altitude I had to wait for an opening in his schedule and suitable weather. It was a tense period because my vacation was melting away quickly. I didn't like thinking this but he kept reminding me, I still might not get my chance. I spent part of a brilliant afternoon up behind the Hörnli Hut, watching climbers come off the mountain. A path across a snowfield leads to the headwall where the actual ascent begins. Here, in a recess in the wall, sits a life-size Madonna, paid for by the German lady, Alphonse told me. Coming past the statue, having made the top, the climbers looked flushed, bright-eyed, tired, elated. Seeing them was proof the ascent is routinely done. Still I was apprehensive. They had performed in a high altitude world I had no actual knowledge of; perhaps it required skills and stamina beyond mine. I watched two climbers who were conversing in Italian. They stood at the base of the wall, in a jumble of ribbon-red rope. Describing their climb to an onlooker, gesturing as he spoke, one of the Italians lost his footing and fell back onto the snow. A fall right there is no more dangerous than slipping on a wet suburban lawn. But, still keyed up from the ascent, he screamed as though falling into the abyss.
The last Sunday morning of my stay I met Franzen in the square. The weather report promised fair conditions through the following afternoon, time enough for an ascent. He was to have asked the German lady to relinquish his services this once, since it was my final opportunity, and she had agreed. The climb was on. I went back to the hotel to get ready.
I laid out everything I thought I'd need and, on impulse, photographed the array. Clothing and gear covered the bed. In retrospect my gear and clothing were amateurish. Danner light-weight boots, fine for day hikes in New England but really inadequate for the Alps. Cotton long underwear. Blue jeans for climbing pants. Flimsy rental crampons that looked like those cheap roller skates kids had when I was a boy. But there was too much stuff and I would leave some things. My harness, for instance, still holding the earthy smell of Connecticut rock, and my helmet—I would do without them. Alphonse could tie me on without the harness, and he scoffed at the need for a helmet. But I would take up a pint of water that I'd brought from home. I fancied the idea of having some of my own deep-well water atop the famous Alp. If we didn't make the summit I would drink it at the Solvay Refuge, or the highest point we reached.
On the way to the hut that afternoon I stopped at Schwarzsee and sat for a few minutes, peeled an orange, and watched the tourists. This fellow wearing thick spectacles caught my attention. Gaunt and stoop-shouldered, around 55, he could have been typecast for a bookkeeper or school master but for his powder blue coveralls which looked wildly implausible on him. Compared to my primitive trappings his outfit suggested serious intentions, but I ruled him out as a Matterhorn contender, deciding that the bib pants were an affectation.
Alphonse was already at the hut when I checked in. He ushered me to a small room with bunk beds, advised me what to do in preparation for morning, and urged me to relax. After I'd rearranged the contents of my pack I took off my boots and stretched out on a cot. I felt set. Make it or not, I had trained hard and would do my best. Such thoughts and the wind whistling by the window behind my bed were calming. Later on Alphonse looked in on me again, like a nervous mother, to make sure I was resting. Subsequently there was a tap at the door.
"Come in!" In came the fellow with the state-of-the-art pants. His bearing was tentative and apologetic. He spoke to me in German. "I'm sorry, I don't understand German."
Hesitantly, as though he hadn't tried English in awhile, he asked if I knew which cots were taken. I said I believed all of them were available. He sat on the bunk diagonal to mine, meekly establishing it as his for the night. We began a conversation that continued at the supper table, both glad for someone to talk with. He had emigrated from Hungary to West Germany a few years before and now lived in Berlin where he worked as a chemist, an occupation that fit his bookish image. But I was wrong to assume he wasn't aiming for the Matterhorn. Indeed he had come for the climb, although he confessed to having been warned against it by the instructor who'd tried him on the Rifflehorn.
I went to sleep between eight and nine, and was awakened by boisterous voices an hour or so later. By then the room was filled with people and equipment. When I woke again I looked out the window to a clear sky, bright moon and stars. We would go. I couldn't sleep anymore so got up to use the privy, then went out in the yard and was surprised to see lights on the mountain. The highest of them appeared to be a third of the way up the ridge. It was only 3:20 a.m. A little after four Alphonse tied me on and we climbed for about an hour with headlamps. Far beneath us the village glowed, a picture for a Christmas card. "The lights of Zermatt, what a sight," I remarked.
"Save your breath," he replied, all business now and going at it hard.
Farther along, still in darkness, we heard somebody above us yell "Rock!" In English. Alphonse jumped against the wall, hugging it like his high school sweetheart. Then he called for me to do the same. I pressed in against him, covering my head with my hands. In the next instant a shower of loose rock crashed on the ledge behind us. I hadn't fully realized at the time what an extremely dangerous moment that was. Alphonse hollered up, reprimanding the guy who'd kicked off the barrage. I didn't understand his harsh language but there was no mistaking his fury. I had to question the foolish decision not to wear a helmet.
An easy technical section called the Mosley Slab led to the Solvay Refuge, a crude hut smelling of urine. We went past it a short way before pausing for a break. We'd been out about two hours, which I knew and Alphonse said was excellent time. Now I felt sure we would do it.
Above the shoulder—a prominent feature of the Hörnli Ridge—we encountered patches of ice, and strapped on our crampons. I let him know I was wary of climbing on ice. "Oh, don't start crying now," said my taskmaster. The topmost pitches were more difficult although not so bad as that American climber we'd spoken with the year before had led us to believe. Endurance was key. For me it seemed like a tough final exam: if you'd prepared enough the actual test was almost anticlimactic. Across the long Swiss to Italian summit ridge was a well-trod furrow in the snow. Alphonse celebrated with a couple of schlucks from the bottle of schnapps he carried (something like drinking and driving, I thought—I was giddy enough with our success). I pushed some of my Connecticut deep-well water on him.
We were back in the lodge before noon. I paid Franzen and said farewell. He tried to get me to stay and rest awhile before leaving but, buoyed by having climbed the mighty Matterhorn, I still felt good and wanted to get going. I'd been there nearly three weeks preparing and climbing. I'd had enough of the place and my guide's regimentation.
Waiting on the crowded cable-car platform at Schwarzsee, I felt someone touch my arm. Still in his powder blues, the Hungarian-German shot me a weak smile. How had I done? He'd made it to the Solvay Refuge but there his guide had convinced him to give it up—their progress had been slow and the "really hard" part was yet to come. Better to have gone halfway than not at all, I thought, and told him so. Pleased with my own performance, it was easy for me to talk. Naturally he was sorely disappointed.
The next morning I caught the first train out of the valley. Before leaving Europe I wanted to see Lake Constance and cross it into Germany. It rained on and off, sometimes hard, most of the day. I had just made it. Few passengers boarded the train. I had a compartment of seats to myself, and read or gazed out the window as I pleased, interrupted only after certain stops, to show my rail pass. I traveled light, having shipped the climbing equipment and most of my clothes ahead to Kennedy. Like a Gypsy on the move I carried enough rolls, cheese, and chocolate to last me until night, if need be. Also tucked in my carryon bag was the lightweight camera I'd bought for the trip. On an unfinished roll it had a couple of latent images of Alphonse and me, grinning at the guy who'd offered to snap us on the top.
"When I am on the wire I am alive. All else is waiting."
(Karl Wallenda—German-born American aerialist.)
When I left Franzen and the Matterhorn in August 1985, I thought that was that. A satisfying adventure intended as a one-time kind of mid-life distraction. Now I could move on to more practical matters. So I thought then. But one thing leads to another.
Shortly after I returned home Bob Clark had a slide show of his trip to Zermatt. At that time he was part owner of a climbing shop where I went to ask a lot of questions about technical ascents, prior to my trip. Bob's stay in Zermatt coincided with mine and, just before my guided ascent he climbed the Matterhorn alone, soloed it his first time on the route, that is, un-roped, and doing his own route finding. This is all the more remarkable given that he knew two elite climbers from our home area who were involved in fatalities, heading up that Hörnli Ridge on their own.
One of Bob's slides, taken from the Italian side of the summit, captured the village of Cervinia showing through gaps in the clouds, as though seen from an airplane. That put another little bug in my head. I had invested all this time learning to climb and preparing for a serious mountain (by the end of my stay I was undoubtedly in the best shape of my life). Maybe before quitting this, I could climb the Matterhorn from Italy, where it is called Il Cervino.
That next summer I went up the Grand Teton, in Wyoming, with the Exum guides. And I did try the Italian ridge in 1987. But we were forced back at the Carrel Hut, a little more than halfway up the ridge, in the wee hours of the second day. Early that morning I was awakened by a flashlight in my face. The guide Enrico announced that the mountain was socked in and it was impossible to go up. His good news was that we could sleep in a while longer. But just minutes later lightning cracked viciously and thick wet snow was falling. The hut became a frenzied place, everyone wanted to escape at once.
In 1990, still driven by the Matterhorn, I tried the Italian ridge again, this time successfully, going with three Italians, a father and son—both Courmayeur mountain guides—and a physician-friend of theirs from Milan. Better equipped by then I was wearing heavy boots with wool socks and liners, but as we gained altitude above the hut my feet got so cold I thought I might not be able to continue. But then the sun came up, beautifully lighting Mount Blanc, to our backs as we climbed. The Italian ridge's difficult overhangs are fixed with ropes and cables to aid the climber. I wondered how the first men to ascend this side got past those brutal sections before they were rigged. We carried crampons (extra weight) all the way unnecessarily, the route entirely free of ice and snow that week. After we came down I found out that only one of my companions—the father, Cosimo—had ever been on the Matterhorn before, and he only once.
Now twenty-five years have passed since I first glimpsed the Matterhorn. My desire to climb a real mountain back in '84 seemed to me a natural outgrowth of all the long days I'd put in hiking Connecticut's hilliest northwest corner, and New York state's Catskill and Adirondack mountains. I didn't know much about the Matterhorn then, and had seized on it mainly for its reputation. By name it's probably the most recognized mountain in the world. Why it has such fame is unclear, unless you have seen it looming over the village of Zermatt. When the notion of climbing it first gripped me, in wishful moments I was fantasying its easiest, Swiss, route as a kind of mountain trail with blazes I might be able to follow on my own. When I actually saw the mountain and had spoken with Zermatt guides and climbers, I was a bit overwhelmed. I had no knowledge of rock climbing, and the monster sure looked forbidding.
As I've said, one thing leads to another. After I had learned enough for an ascent like the Matterhorn I kept climbing and improving until I was competent on rock routes that I considered difficult. I kept at it, I told myself, to stay prepped for other technical mountains I might do. I climbed in hiking boots. Since I wouldn't be using rock-climbing shoes in the mountains I didn't buy any for the first three years. Much of the time I'd go alone, with minimal gear, often climbing just one short route taking an hour or so after work, in winter coming out of the woods in the dark. Rock climbing was just a means to an end when I began but has long since become an obsessive pursuit in itself. By now I've no doubt frittered away as much time seeking out and climbing Connecticut crags as I did sitting in classrooms through eight years of grade school. Imagine that.
"…in mid-July 1926 Hitler left Munich with his entourage for a holiday on the Obersalzberg. He stayed in a secluded and beautiful spot situated high in the mountains on the Austrian border above Berchtesgaden, flanked by the Untersberg (where legend had it that Barbarossa lay sleeping), the Kneifelspitze, and the highest of them, the Watzmann. The scenery was breathtaking."
Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1889—1936 Hubris
Sometimes you find a mountain; other times it finds you. We came to Berchtesgaden by train from Munich one autumn afternoon in the 1970s. Like a lot of Americans I was drawn to the place for its infamous past: Hitler's alpine refuge and the Nazi enclave had been situated on the adjacent Obersalzburg. Berchtesgaden's appeal is that of an ancient German village with steep paths, cobblestone alleyways, and a walled churchyard cemetery in the midst of the Bavarian Alps. The Watzmann, near the Austrian border, is the highest point around, and the highest mountain wholly within Germany. At 8900 feet it's not a giant but it's their Matterhorn. After a few unsuccessful trips, I finally got to the loftiest of its three summits in 2003. It is one of several smaller mountains I've sought that don't require a guide for route finding or technical problems, and it can be done (optimistically) in a single long day's push.
The Middle Teton in Wyoming is another of those that can be done in one prolonged day. Mig Farina, Len Burns, and I were stormed off it on a final stretch near the top in 1996, but I went back in July 2004 with Aric Rindfleish, another climbing friend, and we made it to the summit. Coming down from the mountain, having started (and we would finish) in the dark, we walked out in a downpour. Late that night I stood for a long time in a hot shower trying to stop the uncontrollable shivers. My thought was that's it. No more. I'd had enough. I would still hike, and climb my familiar home rock routes as long as I could, but no more marathon days in the mountains.
I revisited Berchtesgaden in September '04 with Cathy and two of our friends. On a Sunday when they took off for Salzburg I hiked from the Königsee—a fiord-like lake—to the Watzmannhaus, a huge hiker's lodge just above the tree line. It's a little more than 4000 feet of elevation gain from the trailheads, a popular destination in itself, and the lodge enables an overnight stay for a fresh morning start for those after one or more of the Watzmann's three summits.
As I was having a snack on a bench outside the lodge an elderly gent sat next to me. We sat silently for a while until he opened with a question in German. When I explained my language handicap he switched easily to English in what sounded like a refined and rather pedantic British accent. Did I think it was going to storm? He had started up the mountain but had turned back because the upper reaches were in a cloud cover. Sudden storms are the bane of mountaineers. In one of our early Watzmann attempts Mig and I were halted at the start of the summit ridge by a developing thunderstorm. And on our first attempt of the Middle Teton, within just hundreds of feet of the top, I got a terrific shock—which knocked me down hard and sent my ice-ax flying (never to be recovered)—from a lightning strike at the summit. But on this day on the Watzmann, although visibility would be poor, it didn't look threatening.
This man was a playwright and professor of theater in Salzburg, about 12 miles north of Berchtesgaden. Belying his somewhat shaky, professorial appearance he was indeed an experienced climber. He and his older brother had done many ascents of Austria's Dachstein, and he said he'd been climbing the Watzmann annually for the past twenty-five years. Most impressive, he told me he had traversed its narrow, severely exposed summit ridge un-roped, and before it was protected with iron pegs and cables. But he maintained that he climbed with great care, said he valued life and wanted to live to be an old man. (Old man? He was 76 then!) It was an inspiring half-hour conversation. Seven years older than I and still hard at it.
On our return from that trip I had a letter from Mig, my enthusiastic hiking buddy for thirty years. He was suggesting we travel to easternmost Turkey the following year to climb Mount Ararat. It was tempting, but I declined. As I am now reaching the age more for reminiscing about the mountains than climbing them, I wish I had that one to retrace in my head, going up 17,000 foot Ararat and perhaps looking for remnants of the lost ark along the way.