Tourists assault Matterhorn in record numbers, hot weather raises dangers

She was young, fit, and fashionable. It was 1871, when women wore ankle-length dresses and flowered bonnets, and Lucy Walker was no exception. She was the first woman to scale what has become the world's most recognizable mountain - the Matterhorn. Today, although the attire has changed, the basic urge has not.

This summer a record 3,000 people will climb this town's proudest possession, according to the Zermatt guides' office. During the month of August alone, up to 100 people a day will be scurrying up and down its well-worn path.

Those planning to challenge the Matterhorn spend a night at the Hornli hut, then venture the remaining 4,000 feet to the 14,689-foot peak - along a path on the so-called Hornli ridge, which divides the north and east faces - the next day. Walking up and down can be done without much trouble, even by novices, during the summer daylight hours.

Experienced climbers take on the mountain's difficult north face in winter.

''The Matterhorn is easy to climb,'' says a local mountaineer, repeating the standing joke. ''What's tough is dodging the falling tourists.''

Reliable statistics on casualties among Matterhorn-climbers are impossible to come by. The local guides, who charge about $200 to escort climbers to the peak and back, prefer to talk about their successes.

But residents say this year has been especially rough. Several weeks of unusually warm and sunny weather have melted the snow and ice, which in turn have loosened rocks along the path and made footing difficult. In the past month , six people have been killed on the Matterhorn.

Danger has been a part of the Matterhorn's life since man first managed to conquer it. In 1865 in one of mountaineering's most famous disasters, D. R. Hadow reached the peak. But he slipped coming down, dragging three of his fellow climbers with him. Their rope broke and the four men were killed.

But their seven-man party, led by British climber Edward Whymper, had been the first human beings to stand on the top of the Matterhorn.

The many successful climbers, however, tend to play down the danger and emphasize the excitement. ''It was the thrill of a lifetime,'' recalls Max Seaton, an American teacher who climbed the Matterhorn with his family several years ago and will never forget it.

The town of Zermatt (population 3,700), which allows no cars within city limits, earns the bulk of its revenue from tourism (up to $150 million a year). It is one of Western Europe's largest and most popular ski resorts. It opened what was hailed as the highest lift in Western Europe, enabling skiers in winter , and sightseers and hikers in summer, to reach the 12,533-foot Klein Matterhorn (small Matterhorn) by a cable car that at one point dangles between two supporting towers 1.8 miles apart.

Twenty-nine of the 38 Swiss peaks that measure more than 13,000 feet high are in the Zermatt region.

But it is the Matterhorn - dominating the view from Zermatt to the south - that continues to evoke an almost religious awe among visitors and local residents alike.

''Do you have a room with a view of the Matterhorn?,'' asks the typical tourist.

''Of course,'' answers the hotel owner, ''it's part of the deal.''

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