ATTEMPT ON THE MATTERHORN – July 1999 by Andrew Wright
At long last I found a cheap way to Zermatt, home of the glorious Matterhorn. A long distance bus from London to Geneva and, from there, a train to Visp; then the rattling, toy like, red, Glacier Express through impossibly green alpine meadows and pine woods up to Zermatt. Views of gushing waterfalls and fierce churning glacial rivers coloured the journey. In Zermatt I dutifully visited the picturesque graveyard containing the remains of men who had perished on the amphitheatre of high summits towering above the town. I went to the Alpine Museum and learned of Edward Whymper’s first ascent of the Matterhorn during the 19th century’s Golden Age of Mountaineering. Then, a long look at the shreds of the hemp rope, in its glass display case. It was the very rope that had failed to save the ill-fated members of Whymper’s group. All fear inducing and intimidating to an already uncertain mind.
I shouldered my enormous pack once again; it must have weighed over 50 pounds. I spent the night at the Schonbuhlhutte and still carried the flea in my ear after being berated by some Frenchmen for disturbing their late slumber, as I rummaged to pack my gear in the bunkroom. “It is normal to pack outside”, one said. "Bloody frogs", some might have muttered. The pack rendered me to a slow methodical space walk of movement. Each step a deliberate and individual motion. One foot forward and elevate the weight. The track was steep and narrow, winding a zig zag path up the shale scree. By late afternoon I would reach the Hornli Hut. Famous, as it was, the start point of the ‘easy’ route up the Matterhorn. As I climbed, straining under the hefty load of the pack, sweating and heaving, a young man with his girl, on a day walk, came by. The man said, with a hint of irony, “That looks brutal”. I could only smile weakly in agreement.
It was a relief to have dumped the pack in the bunkroom of the Hornli hut. As I munched on some dried fruit, I looked up at the forbidding rock and snow banks above the hut. I was frightened. Here beyond the hut was the fearful void. What was it like? Was it too difficult and dangerous, only to tackled by ‘serious’ climbers? There were few other climbers at the hut. Two Belgians arrived, with intent. They looked well equipped and experienced. I decided to ask if I could make a beginning on the climb with them in the morning. So much for any supposed spirit de corps in the mountains. One of the Belgians replied haughtily “there will be no beginning with us, if you go, you go entirely alone”. It truly would be a point of surmounting the fear that as I always supposed.
I was up at 3am to make an Alpine start. The Belgians were underway. I would let them go. He deposited much of the gear from the pack and set out into the biting cold of the blackness following the beam of his head torch. He inched across a short snow ridge leading from the hut and scrambled up onto a rock ledge from where the route began. There were no markers to help. It was misty with low swirling cloud. He could hear the occasional voice emerging ghost like from the silence. It was the Belgians. They were returning, why was this? Had they taken a false route. They were retreating because they feared bad weather was coming. As the Belgians reached me the same climber who had been so haughty at the hut sneered “you will never reach the Solvay hut”. The Solvay hut is an isolated bivi shelter high on the ridge and a point of sanctuary from danger. Now the Belgians had retreated I knew that I was the solitary person on the mountain. I was truly alone and unnerved by the foreboding and discouraging words of the arrogant Belgian.
I decided to continue, with considerable trepidation, to see something of what the route ahead was like. To cross a steep snow pocket I fastened ill-fitting crampons to my boots. As I moved slowly across the bank of snow a crampon fell off and slid ten metres down, nestling itself on rocks just before a gaping drop. I had to rescue it. I was un-nerved. As I regained the height a rock the size of a fist came bouncing past, not five feet from his head. This was the final straw. I had no helmet for protection. The rock would have made a nasty dent in my skull. It was time to retreat. I was relieved, it was over. It was good to look at the route; to have never looked would have been the true failure. I could always return another day.
I still hadn’t climbed the Matterhorn, but was it necessary? It was just one mountain, one challenge; there were many others, planted into my mind on countless adventures. Would I return to the Matterhorn? Maybe, if an opportunity arose. If the right transport to Zermatt was cheap enough. Yes, I think I would, one day. Maybe I could walk there, from Chamonix, on the high level trekking route.
Transport was with Eurlines bus from London to Geneva, then public train to Visp before boarding the Glacier Express to Zermatt.
Accomodation Swiss Youth Hostels at Geneva and Zermatt. Mountain refuges, namely the Hornli and Schonbuhlhutte huts. Wild camping.