10 days in August: Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Click to Enlarge: Sunrise from Monte Rosa

August 7

I arrive in Zurich and waddle out to the train station. Waiting for the post office to open so that I can purchase phone service, I look in the Starbucks for my brother-in-law Devin. He is supposed to be around here on his way back to Seattle from Nairobi. Can't seem to find him, but do manage to miss a train and miss out on any kind of coffee at all. Ride the train through Bern to Visp, where a taxi driver named Michel picks me up. Michel is from France, and his wife is a German who has just procured Swiss citizenship. Michel is from St. Etienne and is currently unemployed, and we have a great conversation about european economics as he takes me up the endless switchbacks up to the trailhead. I hike quickly up to the hut to meet Martin and our guests. After some cowering in the hut as a thunderstorm passes through, we head out to climb the west ridge of the Wiwannihorn. It's a good first day in Switzerland.

August 8

It's pouring rain in Zermatt, and there is nothing to do but walk around town and drink coffee. Even the via ferrata in the Gorner Gorge is dangerous today, with the river raging through and random debris posing a serious threat of trauma. We wander the streets and talk about mountains. Martin tells me that today a square meter of commercial land in this valley is worth 4,000 euros. It was these meadows that brought people up to these harsh, remote valleys--for when the winters snows melted away, there was a chance to graze sheep and cows, and to grow a little hay to put away against the winter. Before their modern, sophisticated tourist economy, the Swiss alps were a difficult, impoverished place. The Matterhorn was the Zermatterhorn;  "matte" was meadow, and "zermatte" was "by the meadow." The Matterhorn, the alpenstock of god, was once just the mountain by the meadow. 

 

Heading down from the summit of the Monte Rosa

August 9 

Ride the lift to the Kleine Matterhorn and stroll up to the summit of the Breithorn--"the wide horn." In and out of the clouds we follow the snow arete east and visit the middle summit. In vain we wait for visibility and then turn back. Our bodies reach out for oxygen that isn't there, and hopefully produce the red blood cells we will need later in the week. Everyone is growing tan, and at our various ages we are each building the creases and wrinkles that come from smiling and laughing in the mountain sun. 

August 10  

Rather than scrape fruitlessly at an icy Matterhorn, we head toward Monte Rosa--the Pink Mountain. On the way we climb the Riffelhorn with some of the group, winding our way through deceptively easy overhangs on the south face. The mountains are clearing off to a new and brilliant white splendor after the storm. We hustle to get over the dry, cracked glacier and up to the opulent Monte Rosa hut before dinner time. We gaze into the mountains reflected perfectly in the windows of the modernist hut, order beers, and wait for the pink  alpenglow to bathe the high peaks. 

Approaching the Monte Rosa hut

Approaching the Monte Rosa hut

August 11

Rise at 2am, wander up boulders and slabs to the glacier. A brief passage of thin bridges gives way to smooth going, a testament to a big snow year. We climb by headlamp and watch the day begin on the 4000 meter peaks around the valley: the Matterhorn, the Weisshorn, the Zinalrothorn, and half a dozen others. The ridge steepens, narrows, becomes a comb of ice-plastered rock. The mountain falls away, and soon we are on the summit with the madonne and a crowd of fellow pilgrims.

 

August 13

An unexpected fall on a section of knife-edge ridge has me, well, on edge. The Breithorn Half-traverse is good training for the Matterhorn, in part because of the real exposure it offers. We follow the crampon marks over the reddish schist, looking down at the icy walls of the north side from time to time. The fall, when it comes, is another piece of the landscape, a sharp intake of air. A crampon catches, and bodies lurch, and then we all stop, held in place by friction. What remains is still a fine climb, an enjoyable stroll along the crest, an encounter with a real mountain--maybe more real for the surprises it holds. 

Martin Volken, the consummate mountain guide

August 14

Easy walk to the Hornlihutte. The hut is under construction and running at half capacity. The usual hustle and bustle is cut in half, but only for those of us who have been here before. It's a squeeze at the table, but the pork chops, potatoes and green beans are worth it. The guides jaw over climbs past and future, and the stars slowly begin to wheel across the window outside. 

August 15

On the Breithorn Half-Traverse

The Hornli ridge is in fine shape, and we reach the summit with no problem. The hours of rock and ice are a blur, a feast for the senses, a wild dream that will spill out of the container of this day and flood other, emptier days. Each of my hands, in turn, gets trampled by a cramponed foot on the fixed lines. I watch the blood mark each snowy belay on the upper mountain, and think of Urs--Bear--the Zermatt guide who punctured my little finger. In the afternoon I meet my guest for the following day.

August 16

A second day on the Hornli ridge, and almost finer than the first. My fingers have plugged up their leaks, and we move seamless to the summit and back. On the way down, as I photograph him with one hand and hold the rope with the other, he dangles and calls up to me: "Can you imagine how much I trust you at this moment?" I think about it, and I can. My guest tells me of sitting and watching the Matterhorn from the restaurant at Schwarzsee last year, of longing to visit its flanks. When we return to this restaurant, he is delighted to find that the same band is playing. Two Brits with a drum machine, bass and guitar, with Credence Clearwater in heavy rotation. He gazes up at the Matterhorn, disbelieving that we were on top this morning. We order big plates of rosti and enjoy the music. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heading back to the valley