Climb a mountain
| ZERMATT, SWITZERLAND
"What are you doing?" our guide snaps.
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.
But Dennis has arrived, and there's no backing out now. On his first day, we hike to the Matterhorn hut and look up. Our excitement is electric. Before we climb higher, however, we must pass two tests: a four-hour outing on the Riffelhorn, a brown thumb of a mountain, and a traverse of the Breithorn, which will expose us to altitude and ice.
The Riffelhorn is billed as a training climb, but we learn Zermatt guides don't equate training with teaching. When we meet that morning, Miggi is more interested in his cellphone than his clients. I'm not sure if this is the generation gap or the cultural divide, but we miss Sara.
There are more surprises. Not only do Dennis and I have to adjust to heavy mountaineering boots - no rubber-soled slippers here - but we discover we'll be climbing in tandem, 6 feet apart on the rope, rather than moving one at a time as we did in the US.
Dennis draws the short straw and spends two days looking at my rear end. We don't discuss it, but we both know if one of us slips, the other guy will get banged up, too. That's presuming Miggi gives us a tight belay, keeping the rope taut above to quickly break any fall below. As I begin to climb, too often the rope seems slack.
"Take small steps," he tells us. "Always moving. Keep your body away from the rocks."
Climbing is a sport for the coolheaded. Footholds are paramount. So is balancing your weight over them. No lunging. No stretching for handholds. Slow and steady.
My technique, unfortunately, is based on a desperate quest for survival. I hug the rock, throwing off my balance. I lunge. I scramble like crazy to get somewhere safe before panic consumes me.
By day's end I've got bloody fingers, scraped forearms, bruised kneecaps. But we've made it up a half-dozen pitches and even passed our "lesson" in rappelling, which amounts to walking off a cliff backward. Not that Miggi's impressed. "It's 10, maybe 20 percent of the Matterhorn," he says.
The Breithorn will be higher, harder, more exposed. And it will introduce us to climbing with crampons, spiked metal plates that strap onto boots and dig into the mountain's snow-and-ice cliffs.
* * *
There's nothing to do but follow Miggi up.
I get into a rhythm, smashing the tip of my ice ax into the wall we're hanging onto, taking a step up, digging the crampon into a foothold, sucking a breath.
The weather is gorgeous, the views spectacular. But we're struggling to breathe the thin air, pleading for a pull of water from the camelbacks attached to our packs.
"Fifteen more minutes," says Miggi. "If you want to climb the Matterhorn you have to keep moving."
Things don't get a lot better, even after we trade the ice for several pitches of rock along the Breithorn's ridge.
"What now?" Miggi calls disgustedly a while later.
I'm stuck on a big rock, sort of like a turtle shell with a tent stake in the middle. If I stand up, I figure, I'll fall 1,000 feet or two in either direction - the rock connects a gap in the ridge. But the alternative seems to be painful. I close my eyes and half stand, half inch forward in the saddle. Made it.
Another maneuver requires us to climb up one rock, lean over a chasm, and hug the rock on the other side. I can do that. I'm good at hugging rocks.
Meanwhile, Dennis is gasping with each step. By the time we head back, Miggi is half dragging me and I'm pulling Dennis as hard as I can. We're whipped.
The Breithorn traverse, about a third as demanding as the Matterhorn, is supposed to take five hours. We've needed six, with just two short breaks.
"What do you think?" Dennis asks, still sucking in air. "If we stay another week and acclimate, can we give the Matterhorn a try?"
Miggi doesn't hesitate. "It's not possible," he says, adding something about better conditioning and better technique.
I just want a hot bath.
* * *
"The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time."
Dennis is quoting James Taylor.
It's the day after the Breithorn climb, and he's vacillating between philosophical and dejected. Taylor is the former.
"I don't want to hang around and be taunted by that mountain," Dennis says minutes later, shaking a fist at the Matterhorn.
I share his disappointment. Still, I'm feeling pretty good about myself, and about us. Climbing sort of terrifies me. But I did it. We're here in what Kathy calls "Heidi's place," a fantastic valley of flowers and meadows, fresh-cut hay and soaring snow-covered peaks.
We've shared an adventure, even if not the adventure. And Dennis and I are laughing together with an ease that's too often eluded us. Climbing in tandem, the rope between us has somehow grown stronger.
I like that. Maybe we should do more of this.
"What if we spend a month in Colorado, get used to the altitude, and then come to Zermatt?" Dennis asks.
Could work. There's nothing wrong with dreaming.