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|Click below to read Jim's three part article in the Herzo Monitor in 1969 about the adventure Jim and Dick Lucy had in climbing the Matterhorn, Zermatt area Web Cam and 360 degree panorama of the Matterhorn area:|
|Part 1—The Way to Zermatt||Part 2—To the Hörnli Hut||Part 3—A five–hour climb (one way!)|
|Zermatt and area Web Cam||A variety of 360 degree Panorama views of the Zermatt and Matterhorn area|
A Touch of Magic—One Man’s Matterhorn
by Jim Rooks (Det J TDY 1968)
[Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article written for the Herzo Monitor (the biweekly Herzo Base newspaper). It was serialized in three issues in 1969, and it describes a Matterhorn climb by Jim Rooks and Dick Lucy on September 25, 1969. At the time of the climb, Rooks was a SP6 Czech linguist at Field Station Herzogenaurach, and Lucy was a 1LT and the commander of Co. A at the Field Station. In civilian life the two had been fraternity brothers at Dartmouth College, and in the army they were both assigned to Herzo Base at the same time. Small world. Jim is now a lawyer, and Dick is an accountant.
Much of the progress of Jim and Dick’s climb, and the landmarks and views along the way, can be followed through a series of 24 great pictures of a typical Matterhorn climb that appear on a Zermatt website: http://ski‑zermatt.com/mattnet/features/matterhorn_climb/index.htm ]
All twelve year old boys have dreams sparked by adventure books. The most common heroes (or villains) are soldiers and sailors and pirates, but there is an occasional appearance by a mountain climber. To some, this latter creature is a much more interesting character. The springs of his actions may be insanity or love of glory, but they seldom include greed or coercion; and his better qualities usually show among them at least a dash of perseverance and self–control.
Nowadays the average American twelve year old boy will most likely never become a pirate. He will almost certainly become a soldier or sailor, at least for awhile, but a uniform confers no certain heroism or even excitement. If he wants that excitement, and that self–control, a better–than–average way to develop it is to go to the mountains.
I was once a twelve year old, and starting about that time three things began to nudge me toward a Matterhorn climb. The first was a kids’ book called The Real Book of Mountain Climbing. Its stories of self–sufficiency and resourcefulness in the face of objective danger inspired me to take up hiking. I hiked hundreds of miles in New England, California, and Texas. Later, when I was a Czech student in Monterey, I took up rock–climbing in a minor sort of way. In all modesty, I would like to say that there is nothing like clinging to the side of a rock face to develop calmness and confidence in one’s own strength and will. When the alternative to clinging is a twenty–foot drop to a broken ankle, one learns to muddle through somehow.
There were two other influences that pointed me toward the Matterhorn specifically. One was the 1959 Disney movie “Third Man on the Mountain,” which I saw when I was fourteen. It featured American actor James MacArthur (later the star of “Hawaii Five–O”) and the British actor Michael Rennie. The movie was actually filmed on and around the Matterhorn, and seeing it helped to solidify my ambition to climb the mountain one day. The second influence came from a fascinating article in The Saturday Evening Post magazine about a Swiss guide who coached MacArthur on how to rock climb for his role in the movie. But I digress . . . .
One of the stories in The Real Book of Mountain Climbing was about the first climb of the Matterhorn, a spectacular peak that sits on the Swiss–Italian border at 14,692 feet in altitude (just a little higher than Mount Whitney in California, the highest peak in the Lower Forty–Eight States). Its conquest was the exclamation point that concluded the “Golden Age of Mountaineering” in the Alps, which began with the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786. It was the result of five years of that perseverance mentioned above, as embodied in the personality of an English painter named Edward Whymper.
After spending four summers exploring the Matterhorn from the Italian, or south, side of the mountain, Whymper moved around to the Swiss East Face (the one that overhangs at the top, and looks so terrifying in all the photographs). The appearance of that face had apparently deterred climbers from the village of Zermatt, over 9,000 feet below it, from trying to climb it. Whymper and six other men climbed it in comparative ease, reaching the top on July 14, 1865. They stayed close to the Hörnli Ridge between the East and North Faces, then crossed to the North Face to get around the overhang at the top. With a few variations, Whymper’s route is still followed today.
But the first ascent of the Matterhorn ended in folly. During the descent one of the members of the hastily–chosen party, an inexperienced Englishman named Hadow, lost his footing and dragged three other climbers off the face. Whymper and the remaining two guides (a father and son named Taugwalder) tried to hold the other four, but the rope parted between the third and fourth men from the top and the bottom four fell down the North Face to their deaths on the glacier below.
Like Edward Whymper, Dick Lucy and I have gone to the top of the Matterhorn. You could, too, and with adequate preparation could even avoid the single ill effect of altitude sickness that we experienced. There are easier and cheaper ways to spend a day, but watching the sun rise out of Italy over the Plateau Rosa isn’t a dollars–and–cents matter. The essential expenditure is energy. The basic requirement is initiative. Drive out the gate with your leave form in hand and you’re halfway to the top.
You can reach Zermatt by driving around the east end of Bodensee, up the Rhein Valley through Chur, and over the Oberalppass. Then there is a short drive through Andermatt to the Furkapass. On the west side of the Furkapass you can see the Rhongletscher, the glacier out of which flows the stream that becomes the Rhone River. Then go west through Brigue to Visp and turn south and drive to St. Niklaus. Until 1970, the road ends here. A round trip, second class railroad ticket to Zermatt costs a little over four dollars.
Zermatt sits at an elevation of 5,315 feet. Camping there costs about 35 cents a night [in 1969], and the camp–platz is only a couple of hundred meters downhill from the train station. Camping will save you from paying jet–set prices in town (seriously!). Bring your own food and you can save even more money for the guide—who is absolutely necessary for a safe climb. You will probably have to get one guide for each person in your party, and they charge a whopping 250 Swiss Francs per climber to take you up the “simple route” on the Hörnli Ridge. That’s about $60 [in 1969], barring any international monetary crisis by next June, the earliest you’ll be able to climb.
The weather is likely to be your biggest problem, with finding a guide running a close second. If the weather is bad, you just wait. To find a guide, the best thing to do is to write to the Zermatt Guides Office, 3920 Zermatt, Switzerland and ask to reserve a guide for the day you expect to be ready to climb. Should you not want to be tied down to one day and take a chance with the weather, you could wait until you arrive and then try to find the guide. If you get to Zermatt after the Guides Office is closed, that will probably require a phone book and lots of change. While telephoning everyone from Erwin Aufdenblatten to Heinrich Taugwalder, you will understand what I said about perseverance.
In German a mountain guide is called a “Bergführer,” and a ski instructor is a “Skilehrer.” Every other male in the Zermatt directory seems to have “Bergführer und Skilehrer” after his name. Zermatt guides are a very tightly knit, nepotistic group (the same family names pop up all over town), and they will usually recommend someone who will climb if they can’t make it. (When we arrived on September 23, the climbing season was almost at its end.) If the first twenty guides all seem to be making excuses about legs in casts, or having to do their reserve time in the army, or not being able to get away from their restaurants, press on! The twenty–first may not have a restaurant . . . yet. Calling around is how we found our guide, Eddy Petrig. Luckily, Eddy doesn’t own a restaurant. He owns an apartment house instead. That leaves him lots of time for climbing.
And then there’s the climb . . . .
There is a touch of magic that pervades the Matterhorn climb. It has little to do with the technical aspects of the climb, which just aren’t impressive. It is something built into the way the mountain looks. It looks the way a mountain should look. In other words, it looks very big, and it looks impossible. It isn’t impossible, but it is dangerous, and climbers die on it every year. And it is big enough for climbers to get lost on, sometimes permanently. Yet there are days in the summer when 150 people climb it, forcing the guides to ration time at the summit. It is open to the public, and yet is hard enough to limit its climbers to an energetic few. The classic American problem of roads built to the top and hot dog stands and souvenir shops won’t, I think, emerge—not until the road builders take on superhuman characteristics.
An essential part of every climb is an overnight stop at the Hörnli Hütte. The Hörnli Hut isn’t really what Americans think of as a hut. It is a small mountain hotel, operated by the Swiss Alpine Club (Club Alpin Suisse or CAS). It sits on a small shoulder at the base of the Hörnli Ridge, at 10,758 feet altitude—over 5,000 feet above Zermatt, but still nearly 4,000 feet below the Matterhorn summit. Next to the hut is a real (i.e. much more expensive) hotel, the Belvedere. The only way to get to either building is by hiking four hours steadily uphill from Zermatt or by taking a cable car from Zermatt to its top end at a small mountain lake called Schwarzsee and hiking two hours from there.
The afternoon of the day before our scheduled climb we take the cable car. When we reach the hut two sweaty hours later the air is already noticeably thinner.
To the first–timer, the atmosphere inside the hut seems charged with expectation. About fifteen climbers sit around in the dining room of the hut, smoking pipes and looking extremely professional. We enter and meet our guide, Eddy, who has just come down from the Matterhorn with a client.
“What have you climbed so far this year?” Eddy asks, reasonably enough.
“Well, . . . uh . . . we’ve climbed up to here.”
Eddy scowls, also pretty reasonably. We have dinner and talk about the next day’s climb. I try on a pair of crampons (a metal framework with spikes to bite into snow and ice, which is strapped to the bottom of the boot) that Eddy has brought with him. For some reason they fit perfectly. Dick, who has climbed on ice before in Europe, has his own.
“So. How many times have you worn crampons before?” Eddy asks me. This is getting just a tad embarrassing, but Eddy will be putting his life on the line for us the next day.
“Once,” I say.
“Yes, just once.”
“In New Hampshire.”
“Ach! They have no glaciers in New Hampshire!”
“Yes, but they have lots of ice.”
The three of us go outside to look at the moonrise. There is not a cloud in the sky, and the full moon has risen over the Plateau Rosa below. It is so brilliant it almost makes the eyes ache. It rises to the left of the Breithorn and illuminates several glaciers and small lakes well below us. Far down in the valley to the northeast, Zermatt’s lights twinkle in the shadow of the town’s surrounding hills. A man with a Hasselblad camera is making a minute–long exposure. His wife strolls around on the open shoulder. Dick and Eddy and I look at the mountain. Several hundred feet above us, near the Hörnli Ridge, we see a light blinking in the dark. Eddy tells us that two Czech climbers have climbed that day but have not returned yet. They have no guide, and they have gotten off the correct route. Eddy signals to them with his flashlight, trying to show them where to go. High up in the shadow of the Matterhorn the Czech climbers’ light begins to move downward.
Bedtime before a climb is eight–thirty. Ten climbers pad into the hut’s bunk room in their socks. By candlelight they unfold thick blankets monogrammed “CAS.” The window is opened a crack. The candle is blown out. I don’t feel as tired as I should, and I am thinking about the prospect of realizing my dream tomorrow. I shiver half from the cold, half from I–don’t–know–what. The door is closed. I must sleep, so I do.
At three–thirty in the morning Eddy whispers loudly, “Dick! Jim!” I throw off the blanket and am immediately caught by a biting chill. Someone has opened the window wide during the night. I close it and start to get dressed. I pick up my rucksack and go down to the dining room, feeling my way along the dark stairs with cold feet. We all drink tea and for breakfast Dick and I eat—of all things—peanut–butter–and–jelly sandwiches.
“Did the Czech climbers get in last night?” I ask.
“Yes,” says Eddy. “They went on down to Zermatt, though.” I try to imagine their all–day climb on the mountain and the four hour hike back down to Zermatt in the dark without the cable car running. Eddy has strong feelings about such things. “They didn’t have enough money, so they went without a guide, and they got lost. Then they had to walk all the way back down, because they didn’t have enough money to stay here. It isn’t good to come to the mountains without money, don’t you agree?”
We agree heartily.
Outside, the moon has gone behind the Matterhorn. Eddy doesn’t use a flashlight, so the only light comes from the stars. We walk several hundred feet from the hut to the base of the ridge and rope up. Eddy ties his rope around his waist with a bowline knot. He makes a loop in the middle of it for me and tightens it around my middle. Dick, who is bigger than me, is a perfect anchor for the bottom end. The diffused light makes it just possible to see the outline of rocks on the ground. Eddy asks if we can see well enough. As at the beginning of all hikes, I feel bloated. There is a slight tightening in my stomach. We start very slowly, at an almost boring pace “just to get going and loosen up,” as Eddy says. In the dim light, we start up the ridge using both hands and feet. Eddy keeps up a constant monologue.
“We go straight up here. Now watch me. Here is a handhold here. Here is one for the left. Climb with the legs and feet. Let them do the work. Use the hands just for balance. Keep a couple of coils of rope in your free hand, each of you. Now go left. There is ice on this ledge, so watch it.”
I can barely see Eddy’s back and head in front of me, but I am aware of his attention. He listens to our feet on the rocks. Do they slip? Do they stumble? Do they go too fast or too slowly? He waits for any tension on the rope that will tell him we are not finding the holds, then he goes up again. It seems that he always goes straight up.
Eddy Petrig can guide in several languages in addition to his native Schweizerdeutch. He is fifty–two years old and wiry. There is no visible fat on him. Whether going up or down the mountain, he stops only out of deference to hunger and meteorological conditions. When he comes to ice or deep snow, he stops and puts on his crampons. When he gets to the top, he stops to let his clients take pictures. And once each way, up and down, he stops for a short break at a very small Swiss Alpine Club emergency shelter called the Solvay Refuge. Other than that, during the entire ten hours it takes to ascend the nearly 4,000 feet to the summit and return to the Hörnli Hut, he doesn’t stop at all.
Below the Solvay shelter is a pitch that must be belayed. Eddy climbs it free, then wraps the rope below him around an iron rod driven into the rock to keep us safe while we climb up behind him. The rod makes it unnecessary to hammer pitons into the mountain. Pitons would slow the trip, and several thousand of them a year would tear up the rock along the route and loosen handholds. The wall we are on is about twenty feet high and ends right at the door of the shelter.
The shelter perches at 13,150 feet on a ledge only slightly bigger than itself. When we get there the sun is rising, but it is not yet over the plateau. I take a picture. We do not eat or drink anything. We just stand on the ledge and breath heavily. We have climbed steadily for several hours and have gained nearly 3,000 feet of elevation, and the air has gotten ever thinner along the way. We leave the shelter as we got to it, climbing straight up another pitch called the Moseley Slab.
Just below the “shoulder” of the mountain, where climbers must leave the Hörnli Ridge and move out onto the top of the North Wall, there is a large area of snow and ice. We stop at the bottom of it to put on our crampons. “Take advantage of the snow,” Eddy orders. “The crampons are good. They will hold you. Use them always on snow, never on rock if you can help it.” We start up again. At intervals there are more metal rods for belaying. We climb up the snow slope and reach the shoulder at eight in the morning.
Above the shoulder, parts of the route get nearly vertical, and, even worse, it goes up some overhanging areas. This is where the climb most deserves a rope, and in fact heavy fixed ropes have been put in to speed climbs that could otherwise hang up here for hours. For an unroped climber, a fall would not result in the classic peeling right off the wall (Hollywood style) and dropping a thousand screaming feet to solid rock below. Rather, it would lead to an uncontrollable slide down the North Face, along 4,000 thousand feet of very steep rock and ice. The part of the North Wall we are on may not be extreme enough to be in a  Canadian Club ad, but neither are Dick and I. We struggle to pull ourselves up the ropes over several overhangs. Even though I have a fixed rope to cling to, and am belayed by Eddy above, my heart is in my mouth the whole way. I seize the opportunity to not look down. And the higher we go, the harder the climbing is, because the air feels even thinner now.
The last couple of hundred meters at the top are discouraging. The peak seems to recede as we get higher. Eddy keeps shouting. “Pay attention to the ground, not to the peak! The peak will not come to you! You must get there yourself! Now keep in rhythm! Watch what you are doing! Can’t you stand on your own feet? I would like to fight any ten of you soldiers! Conserve your energy! Don’t move in fits and starts!”
And Eddy is absolutely right. At fourteen thousand feet, we are still breathing air, but it doesn’t seem to fill the lungs. It dries the throat, and we are too busy gasping to swallow. The key to the situation is the slow, steady plodding rhythm that Eddy has followed for five hours. It almost never varies. We step upward and shove our crampons into the snow. We wait. We breathe. Dick takes seven breaths for each step. I must be taking more. The rhythm becomes everything in the world. With it, the climb is almost pleasant, the air almost good. Try three fast steps and you are miserable again.
Just before nine–thirty, Eddy shouts, “Jimmy Boy! You look at that rock up there now! You know what that is?” The comb of rock he is pointing to is a hundred feet above us. There is no receding peak now, only that rock comb and blue, blue sky. I look down at Dick and we exchange weak grins. We move on up. To the right we see the Italian summit, a meter lower than the Swiss one, on the other side of a small saddle. Just below it stands a very large metal cross, hauled up there on the backs of faithful guides from Breuil–Cervinia, the town at the bottom of the Italian side of the mountain. We would crawl to the top now if we had to.
Eddy sits on the top and exclaims about the weather. We stand above a broad sea of clouds that covers northern Italy. I get out my camera and tripod to take a group picture of the three of us. When Eddy sees the tripod he launches into a tirade about what complicated fellows we are, with tripods and all. We are slow. We are clumsy. We are weak. He thinks our officers should be more severe with us. I am tired out and slightly irritated.
“Eddy, does anybody ever quit and not make it to the top?” I ask.
“Yes. Many people quit. Why?”
“Well, you’ll notice we didn’t say anything about quitting.”
Eddy is silent for a while. I set the camera for an automatic exposure, and sit down heavily on a snow bank next to Eddy and Dick. Suddenly, Eddy yells.
“Hey! Don’t you know you are on a cornice? You want to go to Italy this morning?” It seems we are near the edge of an overhanging shelf of wind–packed snow and ice. There may or may not be anything under us but air. I move back onto more solid ground. Gingerly. The Nikon clicks off the picture by itself. We move off the Swiss summit and give it to the only other party climbing that day, a middle–aged Swede and a guide who have politely observed climbing etiquette by not passing us without permission as we (the two young ones, that is) gasped our way to the top. We sit down in the snow about 20 feet away and drink tea. Eddy points out Monte Rosa to the east and Mont Blanc to the west. I try to bite into a ham sandwich but I gag. The altitude has affected my stomach and I feel sick. I put the sandwich back into my rucksack and feel better immediately. The tea is half gone. We begin to descend. We have been on and around the summit only about forty minutes, but we must start down now if we are to make the last cable car from Schwarzsee, which leaves for Zermatt in only seven hours.
The route down is the worst part of the day. We are tired and thirsty. The entries in the Solvay Refuge log book all seem to bear the remark “DURST!” in the comments section. The Swede sits next to us and chews chocolate. We eat oranges. The Swede tells us about what wonderful musical artists we have in the United States (“Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, do I have right?”); how he, almost alone in his country, understands our war in Vietnam (“We must stop Communism somewhere!”); and how Sweden must be in NATO (“We cannot defend ourselves without atomic weapons!”). I tell him it’s expensive. We go down.
Our knees ache, and our feet are clammy from melted snow inside our boots. As we descend, Eddy casts an occasional glance down a gully or over a ledge. He is looking for any trace of an Englishman who left the Hörnli Hut two weeks ago to climb in questionable weather with no guide, taking his eight year old son with him. They haven’t been seen since, and Eddy is angry at the father.
“That guy was crazy, you know? But I feel so bad about the boy. I would never take my boys this high—never above 3500 meters until they are fifteen or sixteen.”
Finally we reach the very bottom of the ridge where we first roped up in the starlight. Eddy tells us to look behind us. A large crucifix is fixed to a nearby rock wall. Starting up in the dark, we never saw it.
Back at the Hörnli Hut we pay Eddy and chat for awhile. “Do you have to stay here again tonight?” we ask.
“You have another climb tomorrow?”
“The Matterhorn again?”
“Yes, “ Eddy sighs.
“Three Matterhorn climbs in three days?”
“I know everyone must ask you this, but how many times have you climbed the Matterhorn?”
“Today was . . . uh . . . three hundred seventy–six.”
“And you don’t like the Matterhorn?”
“It’s no mountain for climbers. There are so many good mountains!”
“Maybe we can come back some day and do one of the good ones, okay?”
“Sure! We do the Rothorn and the Gabelhorn, and then the Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn. Those are good climbs. Rock climbs. You just drop me a line at Sun Valley Lodge.”
“No. That’s the name of my place in Zermatt.”
We get packed up. The cable car leaves in two hours, and the station at Schwarzsee is two thousand feet below, down a hiking path that is partially covered with ice. We shake hands and start down. Eddy calls after us.
“Hey! Jimmy Boy! Not so clumsy next time, eh?”
“Right, Eddy. Not so clumsy.” We smile. Eddy waves.
Clumsy or not, we have been to the peak of the classic mountain, the one that looks impossible, as a real mountain should. Eddy doesn’t like the Matterhorn, and there were times when we didn’t, either. There are parts of it I don’t even remember.
But the climb in the starlight stands out, and the sunrise, and the view of Mont Blanc, which was where European mountain climbing started. Dick and I have a beer at the Schwarzsee café while we wait for the cable car. Once back in Zermatt we head for the post office and send telegrams to tell our wives we’re safe. At eight o’clock we are eating our only restaurant dinner of the entire trip, investing some extra money to celebrate with Pilsner Urquell. We stare at our fondue, look at each other, grin, and shake our heads. There isn’t much we can say about it now. It was just a touch of magic.
Toward the beginning of this article I mentioned the movie “Third Man on the Mountain” and the Saturday Evening Post article about the Swiss guide who trained the actors how to rock climb. Remember the Post?
After our climb I wanted to reread the Post article, so when I returned to the U.S. and was back in college I did a little research and found it at the library. The issue was dated August 29, 1959, and the article was titled “Master of the Mountains.” The lead–in said, “Among the greatest of the Alpine guides is Eddy Petrig. With skill and patience he leads timid tourists up Switzerland’s dizziest heights.”
Then, when the age of videotape dawned, I rented “Third Man on the Mountain.” I saw again what a great movie it is—for fourteen–year–olds.
A current web page listing Zermatt lodgings ( http://zermatt.ch/d/unterkunft/apartments.html ) shows “Sun Valley Lodge,” Eddy’s apartment house, as owned by “Geschwister Petrig.” Ed Railsback tells me that means “Brothers and Sisters of the Petrig family.” There’s also a Zermatt restaurant named “La Taverne” with an owner named Eddy Petrig. If Eddy still lives, he would be about 85 now. Maybe those are his children.
So. Back in 1969 was I really just a “timid tourist?” With the benefit of over thirty years of hindsight, and recalling Eddy’s many admonishments along the Hörnli Ridge, I think that just might be accurate.
I don’t care.