Zermatt proudly celebrates its role in the Golden Age of alpinism:
A bergführer is a mountain guide. This little square is the traditional spot where guides would gather to chat and negotiate with potential clients:
Ulrich Inderbinen is one of Zermatt’s favourite sons. He lived to 103, and climbed the Matterhorn around 370 times, the last when nearly 90:
His obituary describes his transition from a hard life on his family’s alpine farm to one of the world’s most experienced guides:
At the age of 20 he decided to better himself by becoming a guide but in order to be accepted for the training course he had first to climb a mountain, which, as a farmer’s boy, he had never done. In September 1921, he therefore set off on an amazingly foolhardy ascent of the Matterhorn with his younger sister, a friend and the friend’s sister, none of whom had any real climbing experience. The girls wore long skirts and carried flickering lanterns which often blew out in the pre-dawn darkness as they groped their way upwards, searching for scratches left on the rock by the boots of previous climbers. They all returned safely and Ulrich eventually qualified as a guide in 1925…
At the Monte Rosa Hotel…
..a plaque commemorates the climax of the Golden Age, the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn by the Englishman Edward Whymper:
What the plaque doesn’t record is the horrific aftermath of that ascent. A contemporary engraving captures the triumph of Whymper and his six partners, who gained the summit via the Hörnli Ridge……
..but met with tragedy during their descent: a slip and a breaking rope. Only Whymper and the Taugwalders, father-and-son guides, survived:
The approach to the excellent museum, and another incomplete tribute:
With the great peak hiding in one of her petulant sulks, I head indoors, and below ground, to learn some more about this fascinating area and its often tragic human history. Oh, and to evade the numbing cold:
Some pyrotechnics at a display demonstrating the mountain’s geological pedigree…
..and some wonderful exhibits recreating the pre-mountaineering lifestyle in the isolated mountain settlements.
But it’s the relics of the early days of mountaineering that most intrigue me: the canteens, the natural-fibre ropes, the wooden ice-axes…
..and — let’s be honest — the death. Says About.com’s Climbing page on the Matterhorn:
Over 500 people have died climbing the Matterhorn since 1865’s tragic accident, many on the descent. Deaths average now about 12 annually. Deaths are due to falls, inexperience, underestimating the mountain, bad weather, and falling rocks. Many of the mountain’s victims, including three from the first ascent disaster, are buried in Zermatt’s downtown cemetery.
I spend a solemn hour absorbed in the relics of long-departed climbers, who perished on the Matterhorn or surrounding peaks: the Breithorn, the Rothorn, the Weisshorn, the Dent Blanche:
I love the defiant pose struck by Ms Noll-Hasenclever:
Eerie and compelling, these glimpses of another era recovered from victims of the Pennine Alps:
..in their immaculate pre-synthetic attire:
A splintered axe tells a gruesome tale:
Not all the stories end horribly. John Tyndall, a 19th-century Irish physicist, made the first ascent of the Weisshorn and climbed the Matterhorn three years after Whymper. He has a glacier named after him in Chile, as well as peaks in California and Tasmania:
But then we’re back with these silent artefacts that say so much: the hobnailed shoes, the busted canteen…
..a barely faded bandana, a misshapen felt hat…
..and some primitive goggles:
They don’t photograph well — the indoor lighting, and my guilty, hurried snaps — but these simple objects have a startling power. Whymper’s axe is a well-worn, reliable tool…
..while the infamous rope, thinner than my index finger, exerts a terrible emotional power:
And here’s Mr Inderbinen again, on one of his final climbs. A survivor of that first “amazingly foolhardy ascent” and over 300 others:
Inevitably, I muse about fate, luck, and the price of passion. I often wonder how my own mountain journey, pursued with my usual zeal, would have ended.
Mountains were a late discovery — I was in my mid-thirties, and living in mega-mountainous Japan — but I made up for lost time with a convert’s passion. Dozens of hikes, usually alone, often high in the mountains. Did some stupid things. An unplanned somersault. Got lost climbing Mt Yari on my birthday — and compounded my woes by climbing higher. An unnerving Christmas Day blizzard. It was hiking, not climbing, but this inner voice kept telling me to take it further. Higher. I was reading climbing stories, considering doing a mountaineering course. Ropes and crampons seemed inevitable.
But so many of those climbing stories ended in death. I read everything by Joe Simpson: darkness, doubt, and death amid the exhilaration. Then Göran Kropp, who’d ridden a bike from Sweden to Everest, climbed it, and cycled home again, died doing some basic rock-climbing. How could I, with my obvious dearth of common sense, possibly survive real climbing? Sometimes I’d lie down on my futon and a sensation of falling would send such shockwaves of fear through me that I couldn’t sleep…
I chose to walk.
And now I’m walking through the climbers’ cemetery. That’s right: they have their own cemetery in Zermatt. Another sombre, dry-mouthed hour…
..watched over by the brooding, gargantuan presence you can feel even when she’s hiding:
So many young lives lost, for what must seem, to non-climbers, a pointless pursuit. Yet I feel an enormous respect for these doomed adventurers. I feel I understand exactly what drew them. And gazing sadly at their names, thinking of our short time on the earth and the ways we choose to spend it, I can’t help wondering if…if…
Well, perhaps it’s best not to wonder.
Mountain guides: victims of their profession. Here we lost our lives, where we found them again. On the holy mountain of the Lord:
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote
Next post: First steps on the Appalachian Trail