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Ulrich Inderbinen, 103; Led Alps Climbers for 70 Years

June 19, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Ulrich Inderbinen, a noted Swiss mountain guide who made his last ascent of the storied Matterhorn at the age of 90 and led hikers until he was 95, has died. He was 103.

Inderbinen died in his sleep Monday at his home in the southern Swiss resort of Zermatt.

The "King of the Alps," as Inderbinen was known to admirers around the world, spent 70 years leading mountaineers up Switzerland's most forbidding peaks.

Even in his 90s, he regularly climbed peaks of more than 13,000 feet and estimated that he had stood on the summit of the Matterhorn -- "the most beautiful mountain in the world" -- at least 370 times.

Although he had given up hiking the 14,700-foot Matterhorn after 1982, Inderbinen wanted to make one last climb on the storied mountain, Switzerland's most famous landmark -- on July 14, 1990 -- to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the first ascent of the mountain and mark his 90th year.

"It's simply a fascinating mountain, which was as appealing to me on my last climb as it was on my first," he said.

One of nine children, Inderbinen was born Dec. 3, 1900, and spent most of his childhood tending animals in the mountains above Zermatt, at that time still an impoverished farming community.

Inderbinen made his first ascent of the Matterhorn in September 1921 with his younger sister. The two wore the boots studded with nails customary at the time for gripping snow and ice.

He was licensed as a mountain guide four years later.

"Mr. Inderbinen showed himself thoroughly safe and reliable, so I hope to climb with him more frequently," wrote his first customer, a German doctor.

Of all the thousands of hikers he guided up mountains, only one was ever injured. That hiker suffered a broken arm from falling rocks.

Inderbinen was extraordinarily healthy, taking time off just once -- when he was grounded for 10 days with a dislocated shoulder after slipping on ice. He made his first trip to a dentist at 74 and never needed glasses.

"My good health I attribute to my positive attitude to life, my enjoyment of nature and my profession. As a child I learned to be satisfied with little, to make no demands on life and always to work," he said in the 1996 biography "As Old as the Century."

"Stress and haste are unknown to me. I live as I climb mountains: at a pace that is slow and deliberate but also purposeful and regular. Among my colleagues I am known for not liking to stop before I reach my destination," he said.

Inderbinen said one of the best periods of his life came after his 80th birthday, when he took up competition skiing. He always won because he was the only competitor in his age category.

A devout Roman Catholic, he fulfilled a lifelong dream by traveling to Rome to receive Pope John Paul II's blessing when he was 96.

Once asked why he continued climbing at such an advanced age, Inderbinen replied, "If you want to see almighty God, you must go to the mountains."

A modest man, he rarely took vacations and never saw the sea. He never owned a car or bicycle.

"I am the only person in Zermatt without a telephone," he would say proudly. His clients knew they could find him in the town's church square in the early evening.

"I've no special wishes, and I don't want for anything," he said in 2000 when the resort town celebrated his 100th birthday. "A happy, healthy life is all you need."

His only regret in life, he always said, was that his family vetoed his plans to climb Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro at the age of 92.

"I've really no idea why they were all against it," he sighed.

A journalist once asked him if he was afraid of dying.

"Not really," he replied. "When I look at the death notices in the paper, I scarcely see anyone of my own age."

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