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High Times in the Swiss Alps : Hanging On for Dear Life Up the Matterhorn

February 14, 1993|Benjamin Epstein | Epstein is a free-lance writer based in Newport Beach.

ZERMATT, Switzerland — Two Matterhorns in two weeks?

The inspiration came at Disneyland on the occasion of the fifth birthday of a small friend, and just prior to a summer vacation in Europe with his mother. It was my first trip on Disney's version of the peak since the days when it was an "E-ticket" ride; it was the little boy's first trip ever on the ride, and he was understandably apprehensive.

As the "bobsleds" chugged up the cograil before taking the first fun plunge downward, it occurred to me that we'd have the opportunity to see the real thing a scant two weeks hence.

As our car went over the top, so did the type-A personality seated within. I'd done my share of fair-weather rock climbing, I thought, but nothing remotely resembling Alpine climbing. As far as I knew at that point, crampons were something meant to ease stomach pain.

Calls to the Swiss Tourist Office the next morning revealed that experience with crampons was required to climb the Matterhorn in Zermatt.

The Disney ride was the child's favorite of the night. Ironically, he's referred to it ever since as "magic mountain." How right he was.

The Matterhorn is the idealized majestic peak, the most recognizable and perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing mountain in the world.

The tourist board forwarded a Matterhorn fact sheet. "You need to be in TOP PHYSICAL CONDITION," it proclaimed in capital letters. It is necessary to undergo several days of training in the Zermatt area, scaling between 3,000 and 5,000 feet daily, it went on, "or roughly 1,300 feet hourly including rest stops." As guides are in high demand, preference would be given to those who first climb other peaks in the area.

Other materials suggested ability to run a 10K.

I hate jogging. But I had been going to the gym fairly regularly. Anyway, I told myself, we'd be doing a lot of walking on our vacation.

The 14,692-foot Matterhorn is not your proverbial walk in the park. It is in fact considered one of the hardest routes in that classic height range. Yet, so seductive is it to would-be mountaineers that more than 3,000 make the attempt each summer; 65% are successful. Of the rest, Air Zermatt makes more than 100 rescues, and a dozen aspirants are killed annually.

Uh, whoa! Suddenly I was a tad apprehensive.

But those feelings of ill-boding were offset the day my guide, Cristoph Petrig, whose family has been guiding in Zermatt for more than half a century, took me up the nearby 9,603-foot Riffelhorn. There we saw several ibex, the creature thought by many to be the inspiration for the unicorn, bounding about the rocks. It seemed a good omen.

We had arrived in Zermatt from Venice, planning to spend only about five days there. Petrig's guiding me up the Matterhorn two days later was contingent on my successful ascent of the Riffelhorn as a test of technical proficiency.

The Riffelhorn went swimmingly, up-climb and down-climb. The only question remaining was one of endurance.

The feeling of doom and gloom returned the next afternoon, however, when the two-hour hike from the Schwarzsee cable car terminal to the Hornli hut, at the base of the Matterhorn, seemed like the hike from Hades. If I could hardly do the hike, I reasoned, how the heck was I going to do the climb? I collapsed before being awakened half an hour later for dinner.

When I first arrived at the hut--which looked like a bare-bones mid-mountain chalet restaurant--there had been much commotion outside due to helicopter activity, which I'd assumed to be delivery of provisions. I found out at dinner that the helicopter was retrieving the bodies of a guide and his client who had fallen 2,000 feet to their deaths that afternoon.

Decidedly not a good omen.

As we ate our soup, spaghetti and a piece of fresh fruit, the guides at the guide table were silent. Many climbs were canceled. My mood further blackened as my table mates discussed the various peaks they'd climbed that week in preparation for the Matterhorn. Everybody had climbed several, and spent a great deal of time at altitude becoming acclimatized. I had done none save the Riffelhorn, and the hut was higher than that!

The guide seated next to me said that technical capability had infinitely less to do with success on the Matterhorn than conditioning, and acclimatization to altitude was absolutely key. Looking at me like the grim reaper, he expressed serious doubts as to my ability to complete the climb.

His client, whose name was Peter, offered me an aspirin to deal with the headaches that he said would inevitably arise from climbing without benefit of acclimatization. I wrestled with the idea of taking it then and there to deal with the stress headache developing without any climbing at all.

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