Matterhorn trip report


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Matterhorn trip report

  1. 1. ZERMATT I swore up and down I would never climb the Matterhorn, at least by the standard route, but the first time I saw this beast of a peak, I knew that I had to climb it some how. It was the most beautiful mountain I had ever personally seen. The Classic North face was the proud line that I wanted to climb, but at the time we arrived in Zermat it was in terrible shape. Although it was early season, there was little snow and ice on the wall. The route was a crumbly mess without it freezing together the millions of tons of blocks waiting to succumb to gravity. The Matterhorn. The Hornli route climbs the sharp ridgeline bisecting the North and East faces.
  2. 2. It's spring in Zermatt; one of Switzerland’s most posh mountain towns. Dan and I are sitting in an outdoor bistro surrounded by a mix of tourists and locals, all dressed to the nines and out for a Sunday brunch. In contrast, Dan and I haven’t showered in a week, we smell like pigs, my long unruly hair is in dreadlocks, and we have huge packs full of sharp objects awkwardly clogging the already thin isles. Needless to say, we were the undesirable types that the shopkeepers would rather not have among their clientele. To top it off, I had a toothache that was at the peak of intensity. After being ignored for over a half hour, a waiter finally greets us and hands us a menu written in German. No problem, although I know almost no German, I can read a menu fairly well, and when the waiter returns, he greets us again and goes off in his native tongue. Baffled by his German, I try and convey that I want a salad, and a sandwich. When he realizes we’re Americans, he waves his arms wildly and speeds off to get us a menu written in English. After what seems like an eternity, a different man approaches our table. By the way he is dressed it appears that he is the manager. To my surprise he only speaks a few words of English, and he is obviously disturbed about something that Dan and I have done. “The menu’s the menu’s!" He was clearly saying. Yes, I said; we need menus. No! The Menu’s, he says as he put up his hands sarcastically, as to question where are they? We pointed at a waiter and tried to communicate that he had taken them. The manager then pointed to our packs, and continued “The Menu’s”! At that point Dan had enough. “That dude took the fuckin menus!" He was pointing at the doorway into the restaurant. Our original waiter was nowhere to be found. The man turned quickly on his toes, and stormed into the restaurant in search of our server. Dan and I looked at each other like we had both just eaten dirt. “The dude thinks we took the menus” Dan said. What a bunch of crap! Every one in the place was looking at us now, and I actually felt as gamey as I looked. The entire bistro had us for a couple of menu pilfering dirt bag climbers. Why would we want to steal a menu? “Tourists steal em all the time dude.” I shook my head and smiled sheepishly at the heads looking accusingly in our direction. I wiped my face slowly with both hands cupped together, and wondered when this streak of bad luck was going to end. It all began two days ago when we arrived in Zermat. The day had started out fair enough, but as we were trudging up to the base of the Matterhorn, I began to feel an aching in my wisdom tooth that I failed to have removed ten years earlier. When they first came in, I remember the
  3. 3. dentist saying to me. “These are going to give you problems later on if you don’t have them pulled, but there is room for em now, “ its up to you.” As appealing as the thought was of this guy kneeling on my chest whilst ripping teeth out of my grill, ...I was inclined to decline. By the time we reached our camp, below and to the East of the North wall, my head had a pulse of its own. The pain of the decaying wisdom tooth was pounding in sync with my heart. Dan stared up at the Shmid route on North wall and I knew he was thinking of a way we could change our plans at the last minute and climb it instead of the standard route. Not a chance ,we don’t have enough rack, I reminded him. That wall is a mess right now. Dan is a man of few words, and just kept staring at the wall. The normal bivy for the Hornli route, was the Hornli hut. This allows one to sleep in the warmth of a hut, complete with bedding and a freshly cooked multi coursed meal, all of this part of the way up the North West flank of the Matterhorn. The moderate cost of the accommodations were more than Dan and I were willing to shell out, besides I rarely use the huts, if I can help it as it adds a social element to any climb that I am constantly trying to avoid. We pitched the tent in a high cold wind, and settled in before it even got dark, as to avoid the howling wind outside. My tooth was pounding, and we didn’t have a single aspirin in our gear. The night crept slowly by, and my tooth robbed me of any sleep. In the morning we waited for it to get light before we were out of the tent. We
  4. 4. were in no hurry to join the guides and their clients on the route. We both grossly underestimated the length of the route. By the time we were slogging up to the hut, we were by far the last climbers on the Mountain There is a certain danger in underestimation in any sport but it is often deadly when linked with mountaineering. Our plan was to let everyone get a huge lead, then climb fast. Today, we were both going light. I figured we would be off the mountain by late afternoon, and so I took my light down jacket for the summit, and my gore Tex shells for the wind or snow. I only had light gloves, and nothing for my head. We each carried two powerbars to eat, and less than one quart of water. I was fully confident that it would be another stroll in the alpine park like many of the other classic routes I had done in the Alps. I didn’t give much credit to the Hornli Ridge being the hardest normal route of any
  5. 5. Climbing on the lower mountain in the morning Mountain in the Alps. When we passed the Hornly hut late in the morning, we topped off our one-quart water bottles, and then we were off. We had a really light rack , a rope and a few carabiners each for protection. After climbing for six hours, we had caught the guides and clients who had left the hut at 3:00 AM. We found ourselves waiting in line as descending climbers rappelled down, clogging the anchors on the summit cone. Finally the last pair of climbers rappelled past, and we started the steep ice and rock that led to the summit. I had lost the point off of one of my crampons, and the pitches were awkward; fairly easy, but extremely exposed and runout between anchors. Dan and I swapped leads, on the ice pitches on the summit cone. We were still a few rope lengths under the summit when a storm that we had been watching all afternoon began to engulf us in cloud. Lower down a Swiss guide had grabbed my shoulder and strongly suggested that we turn around because of the storm that was now closing in. We probably should have turned around but didn’t. We were alone when we finally pulled onto the summit, and I was anxious to begin the descent as soon as we were on top. Dan wanted a summit photo. So I took a shot of him. I was really anxious to bug out. Dan told me to stand where he was for a photo, I snapped and told him I didn’t need a fuckin photo,
  6. 6. lets just get the fuck out of here! We immediately began the unending rappels down the Dan flaking the rope, almost to the summit Dan On the Summit of the Matterhorn route. It was beginning to get dark, and it was snowing at a steady pace, although the wind was only slight, our vision was becoming alarmingly limited due to the clouds we were in. We did every thing we could to rappel faster and more efficiently. Soon we ran into some climbers from the Chech Republic that were rappelling at a snail's pace. There were four of them, and they told us in fairly good English that they intended to stay in the emergency shelter at mid height. When we told them we were not, they all looked at one another like we were either insane or stupid. After waiting for almost a half an hour at one set or rappel anchors, we decided that down climbing past the Chech’s would be worth the risk. Once past the pile up at the next anchors, we began to make steady progress, and were soon at the rufugio at mid mountain. We stopped and contemplated staying there for the night. Dan knocked on the door, as it seemed there was a party going on inside of the tiny shelter? When the door opened, the room was packed with drunk Frenchmen obviously in no predicament at all and using the outhouse sized shelter as a mid mountain pub.
  7. 7. We obviously weren’t staying there for the night. Now that scene was worth having a The Salvay Hut at 4000M “stock photo” The storm a few hours before we summated. photo of! Though we didn’t break out the camera. Totally pissed off, we gave the drunk frogs the bird and rappelled off into the mist and snow trying to locate each set of rappel anchors in succession. It was dark by now, and it was beginning to get difficult to locate rappel anchors in the blackness, and heavy cloud. Our headlamp beams were reduced to tubes of misty diffused light that were nearly useless, and the temperature was dropping rapidly. I had been sweating in my down jacket most of the day and it was soaking wet and beginning to freeze solid. I noticed that it was doing more harm than good by wearing it, but I refused to take it off. “We should have bummed some water off the frogs at the refuge “ I told Dan. Neither of us had drank in hours, as we had run out of water about half way up the hill anticipating some run off somewhere along the route. It was too cold and we found none. There was a long traverse somewhere along the descent, but neither of us remembered where. The wind was beginning to pick up, and the snow stung my face as it melted, and was re frozen by the wind one flake at a time. We kept rappelling down the mountain in to the night, and after a while it was becoming obvious by the desperate slings we were encountering that we had blown by the traverse long ago, and were following some other dumb asses slings to nowhere. It looked as though it was time for a new plan. After trying to guess where we were on wall,
  8. 8. we decided we would try traversing North. The wall was steep and loose and we were constantly starting large rockslides. Soon we were belaying each other on steep, unstable ground, and eventually found ourselves in the middle of a vertical bowl with a massive abyss below us. By now the snow was falling hard, and I realized then that we might have to spend the night in the open. I once again began to despise my lifestyle. After some discussion, we decided that we should go up instead of down, and try to cross a giant ridge, that blocked our traverse. We knew the direction of the hut, so we headed straight for it. Swapping leads we climbed steep unprotectable rock, until we were on top of what now appeared to be a tower not a ridge. When at last I pulled up on to the tower, I was almost afraid to look over the other side. When I finally did, it was quite obvious that there was a sheer drop for thousands of feet, although my headlamp only would cut through a minuscule portion of it. My heart sank. I was getting myself into these situations 3 or 4 times a year and the familiar feeling of something squirming in the pit of my stomach began to build. Followed by a desperate “What the Fuck”. It looked Another shot of the most beautiful storm i"ve ever seen, before it engulfed us.
  9. 9. as though we would be bivying in the open tonight, I looked at my lumpy distorted frozen Jacket and wondered to myself if my clothing would get me through the night. I usually am anal about knowing “Everything” about a mountain and route I climbed, but I don’t think we even decided to climb this thing until a few days ago, while we were getting drunk in Interlaken. What I did know about the Matterhorn, was that the most common way climbers expired on its faces, were to be caught in a storm on the descent and freeze to death in an open bivy. One thing was for sure, we weren’t sleeping here, as there was no place to even stand. We had one 50-Meter rope and one 12-meter rope with us, so our rappels were going to be short. The bigger problem was, we had no anchors to rappel from. I took a rock, and smashed at the shorter of the ropes, until I had cut off a section about ten feet long. I then slung it around a horn of rock, and rappelled to the end of our lines. We repeated the process until we were out of rope. We did however find a suitable ledge to lay on. It was about three feet wide, but it was about fifty feet long. We found a place that had a small bulge over the top, which would offer some shelter from the snow. We then began to build a wall around us out of the crumbly shale that the entire mountain is comprised of. Soon we had a wall about two feet high that we thought might help with the wind; should it pick up With one rope coiled beneath us, and our feet in our packs, we settled in for a long cold night. I took my helmet off and set it on the rock wall we had built. The headlamp attached to the helmet illuminated our bivy as we situated ourselves. In the distance there was the loud sound of a helicopter hovering above and to the South of us. After a while of listening, we came to the conclusion they were pulling the Chech’s off the mountain one at a time and taking them down to the hut. We kept our lamps on even though we weren’t about to be rescued. But it would be nice for someone to know we were up here. Sometime during the apparent rescue, I bumped the wall, my helmet along with the headlamp fell off the ledge and we both watched as it tumbled and bounced down for well over a thousand feet. When it came to a stop, the Petzel lamp was still burning. We were both amazed. Soon the chopper was having a closer look at the lamp with its spotlight, probably thinking that I was still attached to it. Dan then turned his lamp off, as we didn’t want a rescue. Once the chopper figured out that my bean wasn’t in the helmet, it sped off for the valley and suddenly a lonely silence replaced the droning of the helicopter. We never even saw the chopper through the thick cloud, only glimpses of diffused light . The whole scene was surreal and crazy and lasted for over an hour. As the night crept on, the snow fell lightly but steadily, and I stood up every fifteen minutes to stamp my feet
  10. 10. and clap blood back into my numb hands. At some point I decided to investigate a long shot of an inkling that had been burrowing at the back of my mind. There was a ridge about a hundred feet higher than we were, just past the end of our ledge. I had discounted it because it would require difficult climbing on grotesquely loose and unprotectable rock. But as I sat shivering in unison with Dan , who was managing to get small bursts of sleep, I began thinking it was worth a try. I felt guilty getting up, as I would surely wake Dan. How could he sleep in this cold? I began to feel hypothermic and needed to move. I stood up, and told Dan that I was going to check out the rib above us. I began to scramble up the loose blocky wall that had now iced up and become even more lethal. Within minutes I was so committed to a series of moves, that I had to keep climbing up, it was the lesser of two evils. Eventually I crested the top of the rib about a rope length above our ledge. As I peered over the other side hoping to see a semi descent ridge to walk, my heart sunk. I was on the top of another massive drop-off, but I could see the lights of the Hornly hut thousands of feet below through the mist and clouds. There was no way to get to the hut from our location, and I knew I would have to downclimb back to the ledge and wait out the night. After some of the most dangerous and horrifying down climbing I had ever done, I was back to our nest. The descent had my blood flowing and I realized that my tooth was no longer pounding as it had been all day. The rest of the night was long, cold and uncomfortable. When morning dawned, we began the descent once again. With daylight and the storm gone, we found the correct descent with little trouble. It was a long walk back to Zermatt. Even though we had summited, I really didn’t feel triumphant….. Yet. Back in the bistro I uncuped my hands from around my aching face to see Dan trying to shoulder his massive pack. “Lets get outa here dude” he says, almost knocking over the entire table behind him . The lack of food was wearing on our sensibilities, and there looks like a slim to zero chance of a feast at this place. Stumbling out into the cobblestone streets of Zermatt, we head for the grocery store for our usual canned delights. A short train ride brought us back to my home away from home. Interlaken, Switzerland, where I spend the climbing season every year. The guide season had not really started, and even if it had I was only getting the occasional bone thrown at me in those days . So I was broke. I was hanging out at Ballmer’s “ the giant youth hostel in Interlaken”discussing what I was going to do when Eric Balmer rolled up. He asked what was going on, and how the climb went. After I told him my predicament, he told me to wait a minute and sped off. He returned two minutes later telling me to get in his BMW
  11. 11. wagon. We sped off to the dentist. He told me to go in and tell them I was Mr. Eiger Nordwand, and they would take care of me. By now I could barely speak I was in so much pain. I sat tense in the dentist chair, with a death grip on the arms ,as he poked around in my mouth . I was actually more fearful of the cost of the procedure than anything else, as Eric didn’t actually say he was going to pay for it, although I knew he would. Dr Shmied asked me if I wanted a “Knock out” I had visions of an astronomical dental bill that I couldn’t pay, so I hesitantly I told him............................... “no?” NO! what the hell was I thinking ! He shrugged his shoulders and made ready the drill, I thought I was going to cry………. The aspirin I had taken earlier surely wouldn’t do the trick. I was in a cold sweat when the drill entered my mouth. . My back was arched, and the veins in my neck were protruding enough to stand on before the drill even touched my tooth. When it finally did make contact, my head quivered and my eyes bulged out as if I were being electrocuted . It felt as though I was doing a head spin in a foot of red-hot coals . My bulging eyes looked down past my nose only to see smoke bellowing out of my mouth . I consider myself somewhat of an expert on pain, as I have broken only slightly fewer bones than Evil Knievel . When pain rises on the scale, it reaches a point where it simply turns to “Heat” like what you would feel if someone were to say,.... lob off your arm with a sword. But it’s more tolerable than the pain lower on the scale, like if someone were to begin sawing your arm off with say…...a butter knife. This was a new level of pain , like I was slowly re-entering the atmosphere . And if the pain weren’t enough, there was the noise. I’m convinced this is what it sounds like in hell, the high-pitched whirling of the drill. When the dentist was through excavating the inside of my rotting wisdom tooth, my back touched the chair for the first time in minutes. A shot of cold water on the now exposed nerve ending washed the remaining mung from the hollow tooth , momentarily sending me into convulsions. With his flashlight and a quick glance, he made the announcement. “Thees ees a tooth for coming out” Just when I thought it was over “Meester Eiger Nordwand” as he called me was about to cry like a baby. Y Y Yeah ...O.K. ...j-just do it . He reached over and grabbed a pair of high tech looking Vise-Grips. This whole situation was getting way out of hand, and this guy was looking and sounding more like a Nazi war criminal and less like a dentist. Was he enjoying this? His assistant held my arms down as he swiftly dug a pry bar into my gums and levered on the unwilling demon tooth. I straightened out flat as a board, as my melon exploded in pain. With a low droning pop the molar
  12. 12. was liberated from my cranium in one violent jerk. The ordeal was effectively over, yet my face was beet red and my head was throbbing far worse than before. After some breathing exercises I calmed down and a strange feeling of victory washed over me. Partially for having stood on the Matterhorns Summit, but mostly for the ordeal I had just been through.. I stood up, hands out from my side to keep my balance. I thanked Mr. Schmied with a wink and a smile and a thumbs up, as my mouth was stuffed with gauze. Dr Shmied cut me a smoking deal, after squaring up; I strutted triumphantly into the streets of Interlaken.