Climbing the Matterhorn: a rite of passage

BECAUSE of a combination of altitude and nerves, some climbers have trouble sleeping, and at 3 a.m. I find myself staring out the window at the Matterhorn's towering black silhouette. I am not an experienced alpinist. In fact I have no experience at all. Until four days ago, I'd never been roped to another climber or for that matter scaled a single major peak, and while training for this climb I often asked myself why? Why climb a mountain? And why start with the Matterhorn?

At 39, with a wife and two infant sons, I thought I had survived such youthful temptations, and in all cases but this one I have. A century ago, however, the Matterhorn also tempted Edward Whymper, who first succeeded in climbing it, and in the time since, the ascent has matured into a rite of passage, a symbol of rare adventure and vigorous youth.

Little wonder that as I contemplated my fifth decade, the thought of climbing it could be so incredible.

In that respect I am not alone. By 4 a.m. the H"ornli Hut's dining room is already filled with climbers checking equipment and filling water bottles with tea. My guide, Ricard Lehner, appears at my side and asks, ``Have you eaten?'' I tell him I have and we step outside and start along a worn path to the first rock face. ``It is important to start early,'' Ricard whispers, turning on his headlamp. ``Otherwise we will follow the amateurs,'' a term he uses for those who attempt the mountain without a guide.

Even after two training climbs, Ricard still does not fit my idea of a mountain guide. Dressed in worn ski pants, an old sweater, and a brimless beach hat, he is older, taller, and heavier than I expected. I suspect that any attempt on the Matterhorn would proceed at a slow measured pace.

I am wrong. Despite his size, Ricard moves with an effortless grace. ``Careful,'' he now tells me as we start up the Matterhorn's first rock face. ``A guide fell from here once and never climbed again.'' Reaching for a handhold and gripping the flashlight in my teeth, I manage to nod.

Back in Idaho I heard that a Zermatt guide once led a Simmental cow to the top of the Matterhorn. Other rumors claim that besides the cow, a monkey, a bear, and a man in a wheelchair have also reached the summit.

Glancing at the string of glowing miners' lights behind us, Ricard says, ``Only guides start this early. The amateurs must wait until it is light enough to find the way.'' It is not that amateurs are not good climbers, for many are, but even the best have trouble finding the route in the Matterhorn's maze of towers, chimneys, and false leads.

Alpen glow is just touching the Moseleyplatte as we start up its sheer lower face. The Moseleyplatte leads to the Solway Hut, a precarious 15-by-15-foot refuge built at 13,210 feet by the Zermatt guides. Without stopping we continue upward through a series of rock spires and knife-edge ridges with a thousand-foot drop down the North Wall.

Half an hour later the rising sun finds us lacing on crampons beneath the Shoulder Snowfield. Guides have anchored thick nylon ropes to the Shoulder itself and once across the snowfield, we start up its slick, crampon-scarred face. When I trust my weight to the rope, Ricard cautions me to keep one hand on the rock. I search for a handhold and fail to find one. Ricard tugs on the rope. ``Ein Moment,'' I call up to him and receive an answering tug.

Forgetting the rock and ignoring Ricard's advice, I climb hand over hand up the rope and a moment later am standing next to him on the roof.

From here to the summit is a short hike up a gentle snowfield and ten minutes later we are standing on top. For a number of minutes we have the summit to ourselves, and I am filled with a profound sense of accomplishment, joy, and wonder.

Around us the Pennine Alps dominate the horizon. To the east is the Monte Rosa, south is the Weisshorn, and west is the Grand Combin.

It is a rare and beautiful morning, but after only a short stop for tea and photographs we start down. The Shoulder's ropes are choked with climbers and we are forced to thread our way between guides and clients. Below the Moseley hut, Ricard suggests we down climb a more difficult pitch and I accept gladly, for after the summit my confidence is boundless.

Shortly before noon, a little less than seven hours since we left the H"ornli Hut, we cross the final pitch. I do not know why I step in the spring crossing the rock path. I am tired and elated and overconfident and suddenly slip, bounce, and am sliding off a hundred-foot cliff when Ricard instinctively throws his weight into the rope and stops me. For an instant I gape at the scree-covered ice below, then slowly crawl back to safety.

Accepting his hand up, I am embarrassed and grateful. How do you thank a man for saving your life? I struggle to find the words, but Ricard shrugs off my efforts. ``After how well we climbed I was not ready for a fall this close to the end,'' he tells me.

Though I doubled Ricard's tip, it was not nearly enough, and in hindsight I might have paid closer attention to the final paragraph in Whymper's ``Scramble Among the Alps.'' Four of his party were lost climbing down the Shoulder and some years afterward he wrote, ``Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.''

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