Solo-climbing the Matterhorn and finding a dead climber on the way. Reflections on the motivations to do dangerous things.
– The question whether to save your life or to live your life –
The Matterhorn is one of the most beautiful mountains of the world. This is of course a hopelessly subjective statement. But it is actually surprising how the shape of this particular mountain has become almost a universal synonym for a high rugged mountain as such.
This 14691-foot mountain has an incomparable posture. Extremely steep and sharp ridges that are not quite straight, like in a pyramid or in a crystal, but apparently slightly twisted, lend it a grand heroic pose that seems to touch us deep in our souls. It’s not a heap of broken rocks and not so much the obvious ruin of endless erosion like other mountains, but it stands like one piece, like a dagger, reaching out into the sky, boldly enduring the elements. Too steep to be heavily covered and painted over with snow, it is so steep that it seems impossible to be climbed.
The symbol of the Matterhorn can be found everywhere in our culture. Its unique message, so universally and reliably understood all over the world, is cleverly harnessed in countless company logos and similar emblems – often the mystique has little to do with mountains. At Disneyland, of course, it looms, next to Schloss Schwanenstein, and inspires millions of innocent souls as the ultimate abstraction to kitsch.
The Hörnli Hütte, at the NE foot of the Matterhorn, is the main access point for this mountain. It is a rustic red-white shuttered stone house – like so many in the European Alps – perched on the lower end of the Hörnli Grat, the spectacular NE-ridge. The Hörnli Grat is the cutting edge of the mountain. It reaches up all the way to the summit and gives it this distinct dramatic look, and it has all the stuff a real mountaineer’s dream is made of.
The first ascent of the Matterhorn took place in 1865, and, as it had been considered so utterly “unclimbable”, this single event may have changed the whole concept of mountaineering in general. But it was not only this spectacular accomplishment that made history, the success came with an equally spectacular accident that made history as well.
4 of the 7 British and Swiss “alpinists” fell to their death on the way down. The survivors came down as heroes, proving that even “unclimbable” mountains can be scaled, but that it is an extraordinary, dangerous business and takes super-human virtues to do so, and it may have laid the foundation of the image of mountaineering as we know it today.
We were in perfect shape when we arrived at the Matterhorn. We had been climbing all summer long. In France we had played on ice and explored the Mer de Glace above Chamonix. Then we had roamed the Alps of Northern Italy for weeks and trained our rock climbing skills in the Dolomiti.
On several long so-called “High Routes” we had crisscrossed that fairy tale land of red rock that looks like a gigantic city of colossal fortresses and monumental castles. From hut to hut, lighthearted and with minimal packs, we romped through mountain meadows, which made us drunk from the wild fragrance of flowers. We strolled along lofty ridges and feasted on the views, those blue mountain vistas that make ones heart grow wings. We had found endless delight in doing our gymnastics and acrobatics on the “Via Ferratas” of the Dolomiti. These are fantastic hair-raising climbing routes along fixed steel cables that give you all the thrill of vertical rock you can handle with not more hardware than 3 feet of rope and one carabiner.
Of course, there had been some nerve-wracking days as well, days with fear and tears of utter exhaustion. I had broken into a glacier crevasse on the Ortler and barely caught myself at my armpits, my feet dangling into the empty abyss below me. We had been caught in a terrible storm on the vast high plateau of the Sella Stock, electricity crackling in our hair, lightning crashing down left and right, so close that we felt the shock waves, and nowhere to go.
But it all had left us alive, in fact more alive than ever before. We had fluttered through that summer like two butterflies. Those endless blue summer days in the mountains, when you are not tired in the evening but drunk, intoxicated from too much loveliness, silly from almost unbearable sensual pleasure.
So, we were in top shape and high spirits when we arrived in the Hörnli Hütte. The weather was awful, but a short break was predicted. Parvin didn’t feel too good when we hiked up to the hut, and in the evening she declared that she wouldn’t go.
So close now to this dream-mountain and in perfect form myself, should I let this chance really go by? Going alone could be a lot more difficult, but I knew I would be so much faster too. And speed would be important in this unstable weather. A fierce thunderstorm was rumbling outside and echoing in the invisible walls above. Rain was pelting the windowpanes.
“Mora wird z’ Wätter güet,” (it’ll be nice tomorrow) said a white-bearded guide in his funny Swiss accent, eying me over his beer from a distance and winking toward Parvin.
So the decision was made, I packed my stuff and lay down for the night. I never can sleep much before a climb like this, but that’s just my way and doesn’t bother me much. I listened to the rain subsiding and heard excited voices outside and wondered what was going on.
At 4 o’clock in the night I heard the clinking of climbing gear outside, many people apparently getting ready to go. I couldn’t wait any longer. I kissed Parvin good-bye, shouldered my pack, and stepped out into the dark.
A group of 4 or 5 people was just ahead of me, their headlamps dancing in the dark. “Great to have some route-finders ahead of me,” I thought, “I’ll pass them when I can see enough.”
The air was like champagne after the rain, some clouds lay in the valleys, but the sky was clear. The stars sparkled all around, leaving only the enormous shape of the “Horn” pitch black, silently towering over me. An old moon had just appeared somewhere behind Monte Rosa and made the icy snow peaks around begin to shine.
I soon caught up with the group climbing ahead of me and followed them for a while. I could tell that they were experienced, careful climbers and did everything by the book. I was itching to pass them when I saw two more lights departing down from the hut.
The moonlight had spread out over the mountain, I didn’t really need my lamp anymore; and when they set up a belay at a not too difficult wall I started to pass them. They spoke to me in their crazy Swiss language, which I didn’t understand. I detected the pretty rude tone though, but wasn’t really surprised because unroped solo-climbers are often frowned upon. I also noticed that they pointed upward several times and shook their heads, but I was eager to just leave them behind and didn’t think much of it. I didn’t really feel confident enough to endure their justified critique, so I just nodded and concentrated on my moves and was soon in front all by myself.
There is nothing like climbing alone. There is no distraction, no clutter with all the rope business, no endless waiting, no shouting and communication stress. One on one, only the mountain and me. And I am just what I happen to be then, no need to do my part in some hopelessly complex play of social persona. I’m nobody, I’m no husband, no friend, no daredevil, no sissy. Sometimes, in moments of ultimate bliss, I’m not even “I” anymore, and there is just the experience, taking place, and I could cry for joy. The mere act of experiencing, that’s all that remains, and nothing is missing. There is placing my foot, feeling the rock under my hands, there is moving my leg, there is seeing and thinking and feeling, all in a ceaseless flow of autonomous, fleeting moments. It’s all just taking place. That I interpret these events as “belonging” to me, as “my” experience is only one, perhaps inessential aspect of the whole show.
I hear my breath – my breath, this ever-present gateway to myself, this mysterious messenger of incorruptible truth. How often has it guided me to what ultimately really matters? I hear my breath, and gradually I become aware of the peaceful stillness within my experience.
As I climbed on I looked around, I heard the little scratching noises of my boots on the rock, the sounds of my clothing when I moved. There was not the slightest breeze, empty echoless silence, no sounds other than from myself.
Probably two hours had passed, the glow of dawn had spread out over the snow peaks, I had just labored up a steep chimney and was panting and sweating, when I suddenly saw the soles of two boots, only inches in front of my face. I was just heaving up my body, resting on my elbows, and feeling with my toes for a foothold, when I saw these boots, almost touching them with my nose. The sight is forever printed into my memory – the hardly worn-out profile of the soles, the yellow tags between the heel and the sole, I clearly remember the word VIBRAM printed on them. One boot was pointing upward, the other lay strangely inwardly tilted. I immediately knew that something awful must be connected to these boots, something that called for all the attention I had, but I also knew that my precarious body position needed total attention first. So I carefully completed my move, burning the image of these boots into my brain, and then, when my fingers felt the reliable shape of the next handhold and my knee found rest on a ledge, I let my vision quickly sweep beyond the boots and see the body connected to them.
He lay there in a way that left not the slightest doubt that he was dead. His head and his face were badly damaged, the rain had washed off most of the blood but it looked terrible. One arm lay awkwardly twisted and his rain jacket was torn; one leg was obviously broken and lay like a separate thing in his pants.
I knelt down beside him. My heart was chilled to ice. I looked around and up; he was lying on a fairly wide ledge, directly under an 80-foot narrow vertical chimney; it all looked like he had fallen down from there. A figure-eight rappelling device was clipped to his harness. Had he fallen while trying to rappel down this chimney? He must have been moved from where he had actually fallen. There was no rope or other equipment.
I sat for a few minutes, my heart racing and my mouth dry, and then it all started to make sense: This poor fellow had fallen sometime the evening before when his party came down the mountain in this awful weather. Something must have gone terribly wrong when they rappelled in this storm. His partners must have left him because he was dead and descended on down to the hut to notify the mountain rescue. That was all the noise I heard in the night. And the party behind me was the rescue team on their way to recover the body. – Now it all fell into place – That’s why they didn’t want me to pass!
I put on my rain gear because I started to shiver, and I sat there in silence and let my mind gradually calm down. I felt my panicked aversion to look at him closely. Then I touched him, and through my tears I finally was able to really see him, his mangled face with meaningless expression, his half-closed eyes, his unshaved cheeks. I felt sick with grief.
It didn’t take long for the rescue guys to arrive. Some made obvious smirking remarks when they saw me sitting there, miserable and sick, but one touched my shoulder in a compassionate gesture when he stepped around me.
They put the man into a body bag. Only now did I notice, in a quick last glance, how young he was, not more than 20, with black curly hair. And I remember seeing his name – Claudio – written with felt-pen on his harness. They talked on the radio for a while and prepared a rope system to lower him down the cliff to a larger ledge.
I remember sitting there and weighing the option to turn around. Such drastic demonstration of what can happen up there in the mountains at any time has to be processed.
The old friend fear cast his black shadow over my mind. This dark force that permeates the whole body like a fever and pulls it down like gravity. This friend, with whom I can never argue, who has saved my life many times over, but who has also made it miserable so many times. Did this horrible demonstration really change anything? Did I get any new information? Or did I only confuse information with reaction to information?
I looked at the shapeless bundle and thought: He has done it, his troubles are over. It’s his parents, maybe his girl who are suffering now. I didn’t know him, but I know him now. Or do I really? What I see is his empty shell, but I know what it represents. What I feel is grief and horror because I see myself in him. For him it is over, but we, the survivors carry the flame. We do the living, we enjoy and evolve, and we suffer and worry. We worry, and by worrying for our own individual life we contribute to the continuation of Life as such. Why should I return, why should I go?
What is the message? Is it: ‘Save your life before it’s too late! Watch out, turn back!‘ Or is the message quite different? ‘See the impermanence! Go on, live your life before it’s over!‘ Hey friend, you think we never met? Are you sure you didn’t know me? I’m not really the broken wreck you see in front of you. Don’t be concerned with individual death. What really matters doesn’t end when this happens. I am not what you see and what you think. I am what moves your breath, I am rolling in your veins, I am the taste on your tongue. – Turning around doesn’t change anything, this is what Life is, pay attention, it’s not for ever!
The fog in the valleys was rising, and thick tufts of clouds started to float upward. If I wanted this adventure to continue I could not afford to wait any longer. So I got up, took a few deep breaths, and started moving again.
Only 15 minutes later I heard a helicopter approaching, and soon after I saw it flying away with a dark bag dangling under it.
I don’t really remember what made me decide to continue, but I remember the questions, I remember the asking. Today, with still a little more life under my belt, I sometimes ask these questions again. Why do we do things? Why do I climb mountains? They hardly ever occur to me at the time when I do it. But there are times when the asking takes place, when the big WHY rings through the mind like an obedient faithful echo, when “the trial” is on and a verdict expected. Why do you do this? Is it ok, does it make sense? Today I find myself more often in the audience of such hearings, not under indictment, not really fearing the sentence or hoping for acquittal, just an observer from a distance of the endless pursuit of sense,.
Why do we climb mountains?
It sounds as if there must be a reason. Every why assumes there must be a because. Every question assumes that there must be an answer.
But how can we stick to such an assumption when we see ourselves happily cruising through life with more questions than we can ever count persistently unanswered, particularly the burning big ones entirely open? What is it about questions that seem to lead us not to where we wanted to go but often back to ourselves? What is the secret of those wise men we met in our lives who never answered our questions but replied with wonderful counter questions that left us not only speechless but questionless?
The very act of asking conditions any reply. By asking a question we demonstrate our disagreement with the entirely normal state of not knowing. A question is more a statement about us than a tool to find the truth, it excludes and rejects more than it seeks. A question contains information about what we expect and thereby, indirectly, about what we don’t want to know. I’m sure the compulsion to ask questions is rooted in the innate structure of our minds. For certain the answers are too. When we really want to know, we have to quit asking and listen instead.
The sun was well up now; thick clouds were building, but there was still no wind. A lot higher up now there was fresh snow on the ledges, but it was melting.
I was crystal clear in my mind; the whole shock had actually cleaned up my system. I moved with relaxed awareness. Every now and then I stopped and took in the fantastic view. The glaciers around Monte Rosa started to gleam in the sun but clouds more and more obstructed the view. At times I climbed directly along the edge of the incredibly steep North face and felt the icy chill radiating from this gigantic wall. Above, the route seemed fairly clear; sometimes I misjudged the rock, got stuck on too difficult passages, and retreated to find easier ways.
There was one wall, pretty high up, that made me stop for a while. I spent a long time looking for ways around it before I finally took it on. Then I got up almost elegantly, my heart was pumping like mad, and I knew I would never be able to down-climb this, but I had my rope for rappelling.
By now, the mountain was completely wrapped in fog. The bitter cold of a breeze that was gentle but wet cut into my face and my bare fingers. I labored on; it was too cold for any comfortable rest. The wet snow started to freeze now and my boots made crunching sounds on the ice. Half buried under snow, I found some steel ropes that helped the climbing. On occasion I stopped, and when my breath slowed down, I listened into the stillness, and the silence was lurking in the fog.
It was still well before noon when I reached the summit. There are actually two equally high summits close together, one in Switzerland, and one in Italy. I stayed on the Swiss one.
I was full of emotions; this was, after all, one dream of my life. But then, like so many summits before, it was merely the place where it doesn’t go up anymore. The fog was thick, I couldn’t see much more than 50 feet. I was aware of the wonderful story I had carried with me all the way up, of what it would be like when I stood here, of all the glory and happiness that would surely imbue me. But I stayed for less than 10 minutes, and what I really felt were my ice-cold fingers, my weary bones, my empty stomach, and, overriding it all, a burning desire to be down again.
Isn’t it crazy to struggle up a mountain, the higher and harder the better, only to struggle down again? It sure is great to stand on a summit, but you cannot stay there forever, you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place?
This is a question that only arises before the climb. Once you’ve reached a summit you don’t really come down with an answer, but you may come down, knowing more about why you asked. It is a question that applies by no means only to climbers.
In order to understand the illusive ambivalent nature not only of summits but of goals as such, perhaps you have to reach them first. Only after you’ve reached a goal can you really see that it was nothing but an idea. The mind may have a watertight concept of a goal but the body instructs what it really is. And then knowing the mysterious pleasure of reaching a goal is like knowing the simple mechanism of the optical illusion in a mirage.
By reaching the summit, we don’t really get anywhere. Isn’t climbing indeed a symbolic act, a metaphoric expression of desire, of our tragically hopeless dream of fulfillment?
Desire (to reach the summit) is the key for our suffering. By fulfilling it, we reach a momentary sensation of satisfaction. However, due to a strange but absolutely irrefutable law of nature, it doesn’t last. – Our whole life is a continuous grieving because of this single fact. Did one ever count the few seconds it takes until a fulfilled desire is tainted – by finding flaws, by the advent of a new desire or a follow-up desire, tainted simply by doubt: was this all there is? We suffer because the sensation of satisfaction never lasts. But we also suffer when the sensation is not reached.
So the point is not the difficulty to fulfill our desires but our tragic innate tendency to let our happiness depend upon it.
I felt shaky and put my crampons on, but, as scratching on the bare rock most of the time didn’t make things any safer, I soon removed them again. And, going down, there is always the danger of getting snagged in the bindings. It helped a lot to see my own tracks in the snow, but route finding was actually a lot more difficult down than up. After a while I took shortcuts and used the rope to rappel certain difficult passages I had bypassed, coming up.
I was weary to my bones and looked for a place to take a break. I’m known for postponing breaks until there is either an “appropriate” place or until the body simply demands it without consulting the mind anymore. I continuously expected other parties to come up. I had seen at least two lights behind me but never saw them again.
Finally, after two long rappels, I took my break and hid in something like a cave. After eating and drinking, I even fell asleep for a while. I woke up with a start and was cold to the bones.
Further down, a gusty wind came up and the clouds were drifting. Soon even some blue sky peeked through the rolling fog a few times. It was late in the afternoon when I saw the foot of the mountain for the first time.
At the site of the accident, I found a few traces of bloody hair on the rock but other than that, nothing was left to tell the gruesome story. I took my last candy bar and put it on the ledge where he had lain. When I leaned out to rappel from this ledge, committing myself to the rope, and felt the assuring pull in my harness I looked at the gift, lying exactly where I had seen his boots. I thought for a moment, “the next person, coming up will eat it and enjoy it, he will know nothing about all this. Perfect – may you be the taste on his tongue, too, Claudio. May your spirit climb mountains again and again.”
I took another long break at the Solvay shelter and then slowly hauled my aching body down that last part of the ridge. All this I hadn’t even seen in daylight yet.
There is a final step, maybe 200 yards from the hut, where one can climb elegantly down to a snowfield. A number of people were standing there and watching me come down. I was so groggy, I chose to jump the last 6 feet into the soft snow and fell of course and hardly could get up again. It felt very strange when someone gave me a hand. They spoke English, but I pretended not to understand their predictable questions.
I trudged on. And I turned around, looked at the mountain, and briefly it occurred to me that I might have to explain this – why did I decide to go on and why did I go at all? And then I felt a touch of shame – only for an unguarded moment – for having again so quickly abandoned my preciously acquired freedom from questions.
A wonderful state of peace came over me. I had done it. But that’s not how I felt. It was that feeling before the idea of accomplishment arises. This fullness, when there is no wish to add anything to it, the unshakable certainty that nothing was missing.
I reached the hut – the light was fading already – and I saw Parvin exactly the moment when she saw me. A smell from the kitchen drifted my way, and I saw huge foam crowned beer glasses sitting on the tables. I threw my pack off, sat down beside Parvin, and lay my head on her shoulder. I buried my face in her wonderful hair, I felt her warmth, I drank her smell, I listened to her voice, and for a brief moment there was not the slightest desire that was not completely fulfilled.
Of course, not more than a few eye blinks later I mumbled – my lips kissing her neck – “I wish it hadn’t been cloudy”.
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010