Mountains, Switzerland, Urban Walking
Comments 7

I Chose Not to Climb


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……

Gustave Doré

..but met with tragedy during their descent: a slip and a breaking rope. Only Whymper and the Taugwalders, father-and-son guides, survived:

Gustave Doré

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’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: 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



  1. Loved this entry and the sobering pictures of a fascinating place. I remember reading the Chris Bonington book, ‘Everest the Hard Way’ in the ’70’s and being fascinated by it. I thought it would be something I would want to do as an adult, but I think I realised I didn’t have the ‘bottle’ for it…

    • Blimey, some of those Brits ‘ave bottle, don’t they, Greg? I’ve got some Bonington books here too, including the one you mention, and that “I Chose to Climb” epitaph is based on Bonington’s autobiography of that name.

  2. I chose to climb.

    Admittedly in a fit of pique that the first time a friend took me out it scared the bejeezus out of me!

    However, I got hooked. I’ve never been a great climber and never will. I got into winter mountaineering (a natural progression if you perversely enjoy suffering, which you obviously do if you stick with climbing – especially the traditionally protected kind we engage in here in the UK).

    Rock climbing is dangerous, but winter mountaineering is a lot more so. There are so many objective dangers (rock-fall, avalanche, opening crevasses). You can do your best to minimize them, but you can’t eliminate them.

    With my first kid on the way, I’m scaling back my risky activities. But where do you draw the line? Objective danger is more of an issue on an Alpine trek than it is on a summer rock climb. I narrowly avoided rock fall on the Grand Randonees from Chamonix to Zermatt which I walked a couple of years ago.

    When I arrived in Zermatt I hankered after climbing the Matterhorn. The way that peak dominates the town is unlike any other mountain I’ve seen. It sits so ‘aloft’. The sight of it made me want to climb it. There was one problem. I’d just hiked there from Chamonix and so wasn’t carrying the requisite equipment. I couldn’t afford to hire it and certainly couldn’t afford the guide I would need for climbing such a technical mountain in an area I didn’t know.

    Zermatt is wonderful though. Such an odd juxtaposition of people and place. It’s part populated by scruffy, smelly mountaineers on the one hand, and the elite, super rich global jet-set on the other! I couldn’t believe how many shops were offering botox!

    • CR, thanks for the evocative reminiscence. That walk to Zermatt is one I must look into. I too was amazed at the impact of that mountain over the town, it’s just incredible.

      I suppose one thing I like about hiking rather than climbing is that if I screw up, I am usually not putting anyone else in danger. And I screw up a lot…

      • It’s an odd thing when you climb… that acknowledgement between you and your climbing partner that if you screw up, the other person reaps the consequences too. It’s something that’s utterly implicit between you, never spoken and should always feel comfortable if you’re climbing with the right paratner.

        To be honest, rock climbing isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Most countries (especially across Europe), climb on fixed bolts that are drilled / glued into the rock. They ain’t coming out. The lead climber is usually only looking at a short fall onto a solid anchor if they come off; their partner won’t even suffer that.

        ‘Traditional’ climbing in Britain (where ethics concerning treatment of our natural rock formations are much stronger) involves placing pieces of natural protection (usually metal ‘chock stones’) in whatever cracks and crevices you find as you climb. Obviously the safety of the route in this situation depends on the amount of places available to place protection, having the suitable protection to place and your ability to place it satisfactorily.

        The potential for accidents in this style of climbing is much greater (and hence so is the possibility that you will get your partner into trouble), but this is why all climbs are carefully graded by difficulty. It’s important as a traditional climber to understand these grades and the ones at which you can safely operate.

        Of course, half the fun of climbing is developing the ability to push into gradually higher graded climbs, but I think my days of doing that are now past!

        You should definitely look into the Chamonix / Zermatt walk. I think it’s one of the best in the Alps. It’s often called the “Walker’s Haute Route” and is a summer alternative to the famous winter skiing “Haute Route”. You can do it two ways – by carrying an axe / crampons and a rope and making a long glacier crossing from the village of Arolla (highest campsite in Europe!), or by diverting course at Arolla and taking a much longer route that avoids glacier crossings.

        I did the latter. You can even extend the last section into Zermatt by taking in the Europaweg (I think that’s what it’s called). I wasn’t able to do this as I was walking with my brother who hurt his knee in the last few days.

        Hey… that was an example of a walker impacting on his partner!

      • I am ALL ABOUT going around the glacier, CR! I will definitely do a longer alpine route one day, though it might take a few years till the fear subsides form the High Sierra last year.

        I don’t think I approve of fixed protection. I don’t think most of the big-name climbers whose books I’ve read do either…

  3. Hah! Having broken through a snow bridge and fallen into a crevasse (there were two other people on the rope thankfully), I can only concur.

    To be honest though, I do love travelling across glaciers; I just didn’t fancy lugging the axe, crampons and rope along for the rest of the trek.

    Crossing the Pin Parvatti pass in the Indian Himalayas last year involved a long day crossing glaciers totally unroped. I was worried in the run up to it, but thankfully it turned out to be a very dry glacier and quite compact, so little danger of crevasses. The river crossings were far scarier!

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