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Climb a mountain

By Jerry LansonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 2003


"What are you doing?" our guide snaps.

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My right leg has plunged through the snow up to my thigh, and I'm tilting toward the blue-green glint of what looks like ice.

"I think I stepped in a crevasse," I answer, scrambling to safer ground.

"You're supposed to stay on the trail!"

My brother, Dennis, and I are starting Day 2 of serious training in the Swiss alps, two baby boomers chasing an adolescent dream of climbing the Matterhorn.

Today's mission is to make it up and across a different mountain, the snow-and-rock ridge of the massive, 13,661-foot Breithorn. If we pass this test, our second in two days, we'll take 24 hours off, pack knapsacks, hike to the Matterhorn's base hut for a bit of sleep, and start climbing by head lantern at 4 a.m.

That's a big "if," though. Today, I am not having fun yet.

Ahead is a 500-foot cliff covered with encrusted snow. It goes straight up. And our mountain guide, Miggi Biner, hasn't told us much of anything - about his imaginary trail along the glacier, about how to wield an ice ax, or what to expect once we reach the rock above.

"I'm not sure I can do this," I say softly to no one in particular, forgetting for the moment that this is just a warm-up.

But Miggi is already climbing.

* * *

This adventure has been 45 years in the making.

Since Dennis and I first set eyes on the Matterhorn as kids, the mountain's magic, lore, and mystery have captivated us. Even then we knew about the Whymper party, of the three who made it back and four who fell to their deaths in 1865 after reaching the summit for the first time ever.

We watched from our Zermatt hotel balcony as the Matterhorn, like a feinting prizefighter, bobbed in and out of the afternoon clouds. And we hiked up the steep switchbacks to the 10,700-foot-high climbers' base hut, where the trail ends and the rock ridge rises 4,000 feet farther into the blue.

It was on our 1958 visit that Dad gave Dennis a book titled "The Matterhorn" with the inscription, "To carry on the mountain tradition of three generations."

Three years later we returned to try the real thing: rock climbing with ropes. Dad joined us on the practice cliffs. Out-of-shape and creaky-kneed, he didn't try again. But a guide led Dennis and me up the Rimpfischhorn, one of the region's 33 mountains above 4,000 meters, or roughly 13,000 feet.

Next time, we figured, we'd climb the Matterhorn. But next time never came.

By the time I quit rock climbing in college, we brothers had never again been tied together on the same rope. Sporadically, Dennis continued to climb. But we sometimes lived in different towns and sometimes seemed to communicate from different planets.

It was Dennis who brought back the dream from a forgotten corner of our oft-neglected relationship. His exuberance pulled me along.

So when I brought my wife, Kathy, to Zermatt two years ago, it was to do more than admire the mountain about which she'd heard plenty. It also was to scout whether two overweight men might reach the summit.

* * *

"The Matterhorn pushes everyone to the limit."

That was the message I brought home from Dany Biner, mountain guide and owner of the Silvana, a hotel an hour's walk above Zermatt. If we arrived in top condition, allowed ourselves to acclimate, and then tested ourselves at high altitude, we'd have a shot.

I joined the Y and exercised for six months, barely losing five pounds. I bought a bike, balanced a morning gym routine against evening rides, and lost a dozen more.

Dennis and I spent a day together hiking, another biking. It felt good to share a common goal, to be pulling the same way. In June, we headed to the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in North Conway, N.H. There, we climbed a few modest cliffs and marveled at the skills of our bantamweight guide, Sara Reeder.

I did OK, hyperventilating only once. Sara proved to be as good a teacher as she was a climber. Gradually we gained confidence: in the rope and the slipperlike, rubber-soled climbing shoes the school lent us.

What we didn't know is that compared to the endurance needed to climb the Matterhorn, 300-foot cliffs are child's play, sort of like jogging the first few miles of a marathon. It was a lesson Miggi wouldn't let us forget.

* * *

We were expecting our guide to be Dany Biner, a serious and courteous man, not his cocky kid brother. But with his wife recovering from surgery, Dany wasn't available.

It is one more unsettling bit of news in a summer that has made our climbing plans seem about as safe as living in Iraq. On July 14, I read that three climbers have fallen to their death on the Matterhorn. Two days later, a huge slab of the mountain's main climbing route breaks off, forcing helicopter pilots to rescue 90 climbers.

Then, as we get to Zermatt, lightning strikes a climber.