Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Matterhorn

This article/blog entry is a little special. It's more of a journal than a blog entry, and is entirely too long; I'm not trying to be a narcissistic idiot by posting this, I just want to put it down for people who care to read. For those reading on Facebook, I'd recommend going to the Blogspot source to see the pictures.

Two friends and I, Adam and Tian, went to Switzerland a couple of weeks ago with the intention of climbing the Matterhorn. The original impetus for this trip was Tian's motivation to take a vacation in Switzerland; I'm only guessing, but I think it had to do with his employment at a Swiss bank and his friendship with some Swiss co-workers. I think he first mentioned the idea in the summer of 2007. I said I liked the idea, but boy did it seem like a remote possibility.

Skip forward to February 2009. It was on February 14th at 2:28 pm that I sent a message to Adam mentioning this crazy Matterhorn idea I had with Tian. He was tepid at first, but like me, once he started thinking about it, he couldn't stop. After a few weeks, he was "fully" committed. Or at least, he hadn't backed out yet, like a couple of Tian's friends had.

During the proceeding months two opposing forces were at work. All of us thought this climb was an achievable endeavor. All descriptions of the climb indicated that it could be climbed by "normal" people who were fairly fit and could climb with some skill. This described us reasonably well, we thought. After all, Adam and I had been rock climbing since about 2004, and we were in reasonable shape; Tian seemed the most confident out of all of us. Just for reference, I was able to climb 5.10x's in rock shoes when I left for the trip, but I was by no means an expert climber.

But other things were working against such a ridiculous idea. The cost of such a trip would no doubt be high: airfare, equipment, and since we decided it was just too stupid to try this alone, we needed to hire guides. We were also totally inexperienced "alpinists" - none of us had ever really climbed rock longer than 30m or so at a time. The highest I'd even been was about 1800m above sea level. My ice climbing experience, and thus my experience climbing in crampons, was limited to one day in January 2005 (it was pretty sweet ice climbing, though). The people around me knew all of this, and being rational people, thought this whole idea was pretty outrageous.

All of these reasons not to do the trip were very real, yet I just couldn't let this opportunity slide away. Objectively, I knew I could do it. Financially, I had the means. Time-wise, I had the right time open for the trip. But however "committed" I was, I can remember thinking that I could probably back out before I paid for my airfare. The time came to book the flight, and I was still totally sure we could do it, so book it I did...

Meanwhile, I knew I had to get in shape. From the many, many descriptions of the climb on the internet, we agreed that above all, this was not a technical climb but an endurance one - about 8 hours of climbing 45-55 degree rock. So I began to train in May by doing various cardiovascular exercises, combined with some weight training (since I find lifting a little less tedious than cardio in a gym). A rather bizarre, still unexplained knee pain kept me from running outdoors more than about 30 minutes at a time, which sort of freaked me out. All other activities seemed to be fine, including walking and climbing, but it still worried me that halfway up the mountain I might get debilitating knee pain and have to be rescued. So I shut that out of my mind and did anything else that would raise my heart rate - biking, elliptical, rowing, etc.

Truth be told I didn't train enough. I probably exercised about an average of 2 times a week during May, increasing up to 3 times a week in July. But even in July, my cardio sessions didn't last for more than 30 or 40 minutes in a session, since I usually did weight lifting for part of the time. I convinced myself that the indoor rock climbing I was doing was helping with cardio, but realistically my heart rate wasn't that high while doing it, and the climbing wasn't nearly the same as on the Matterhorn. I was quite happy that I did do a lot of indoor climbing before the trip, though. It gave me absolute confidence on the rock. But more on that later!

When it came time to leave for the trip, I was still really worried I wouldn't be able to do it. I knew I had the right equipment, and I had been training fairly well, and that the climb was well within my technical ability to climb, but there were so many worries. Was I in good enough shape for a 8-hour climb? Would the guides work out? Would the weather be good? As Adam put it - "Also must learn how to mountaineer. That's definitely on the checklist.."

I arrived in Philadelphia on my way to Zurich. Adam was taking the exact same trans-atlantic flight over, so while heading over to my departure gate, I met up with him. This was to be one of the amazing, spontaneous events that combined to create a theme of this trip: everything gone right. I must again delay the full explanation of what I mean by this, but more convenient and coincidental events will help explain. After a little wait in the airport to allow for a chat and hello, we boarded our plane to Zurich.

Arriving in Zurich at 8am on Friday, August 7th, Adam had already chatted with a girl in the plane about the upcoming Zurich street festival that was going to happen the following day. We got her number while making our way out of the airport, but beyond some texting, we didn't have a chance to meet up with this mysterious American nurse from San Diego.

So now we had a day to kill in Zurich. Later we were supposed to meet up with our Swiss hosts for the next couple of nights, as well as Tian. However, there was adventure to be had in the mean time! Immediately after getting out of the train at Zurich HG, we locked our big packs up at the station and headed out into the world. Adam said, "we should rent bikes," and so after hearing this, Fate seemed to decide it was time for another wonderful thing to happen: right outside the train station there was a bike shop/rental area. But that wasn't the best part. Apparently to promote commuting by bike, you can rent bikes in Zurich for free so long as you put down a deposit. You get a brand new, perfectly maintained, city-style bike for the whole day until 9pm. The bike even had a lock built into the back wheel!
We explored the city on bike, which isn't hard considering its compactness and abundance of bike lanes. We visited some churches, had some lunch, and filled out camel-backs at one of the many fountains scattered throughout the city.So after cruising around Zurich for the day, we ended it all by meeting up with Tian and our Swiss hosts, Christian and Anya.

The next day was the Zurich street parade. Being from North America and not having much to do with raver/techno culture myself, this was by far the most 'euro' experience I had in Europe. It is basically a day spent dancing on the street with mobile dance clubs (i.e. large trucks/floats with people dancing on them) passing by. When this ends, you can head over to various stages set up throughout the city to continue... dancing, which we ended up doing.

Ironically, all this dancing was probably good for us; or at least, that's what we told ourselves as our legs began to hurt - "it's good Matterhorn training!"

Sunday morning we left for Zermatt. Zermatt is this little tourist town in the Valais region of Switzerland, known for its especially goofy-sounding German. For anyone who's been to Banff, that's sort of what it's like - wonderful scenery, small expensive shops, and a ton of Japanese tourists. On our train ride there, Adam and I got to talk to a young New Zealand couple who were in Switzerland on their belated honeymoon. They were quite active, so it wasn't your typical honeymoon: mountain biking and hiking in the alps. It made me a little uneasy when after hearing we were going to Zermatt to climb the Matterhorn, they mentioned how the woman's grandfather had died on the Matterhorn by getting struck by lightning. Ugh.. not what you want to hear. Lightning, by the way, is an extreme and very real hazard when mountain climbing, and is a big part of why bad weather is especially bad for the mountaineer.

After getting settled in at our campsite, we decided to travel up the cog railway to Gornergrat, an altitude of 3089m. I talked later to the owner and operator of the campsite we stayed at and learned that not only is he a mountain guide, he is actually the 2nd-place holder of the Matterhorn ascent record - something like 450 summits I seem to remember.

You can tell the Gornergrat cog railway is a touristy thing to do since the stops are all announced in 5 different languages: German, French, English, Italian, and Japanese. Once at the top we went a short distance along a hiking trail that led to the Monte Rosa hut. After we found some snow, we decided to have some fun and try out our gear a little.

We originally had a training climb of Pollux booked for the day after, so the idea of going up to Gornergrat was to acclimatise as much as we could. It turned out the weather was really bad the next morning, so our guide called us to reschedule for the next day (Tuesday). I asked him if we should go up to altitude to prepare some more, but he didn't think it was necessary. Well, we were entirely too eager to climb, so we went up to the Klein Matterhorn by cable car anyway. Once we got to the top, we roped up and started following the well-trodden snow trail heading east towards the Breithorn. It's funny looking at the Wikipedia article now, because we ended up more or less summitting in pretty bad visibility. I was a little too worried walking along the final ridge, and convinced Adam and Tian to head back when my watch read 4150m. In retrospect I was being a little too cautious, but we would have had absolutely no view, and the final ridge is (dangerously) corniced, so I'm pretty happy with what we accomplished by ourselves.

The next day was our climb of Pollux with a really great young guide from Zermatt named Michael. He had spent a year or two in Vancouver, so his English was great, and he was very willing to chat. The typical climb of Pollux starts with a snow hike from the Klein Matterhorn starting with the same route we took the day before. This day, however, was gorgeous and the visibility was perfect. It was easy to spot Mont Blanc to the west, and for the first time we got the see the Matterhorn completely free of cloud cover. All along the snow hike I was torn between looking down to keep from losing my footing, and looking up to take in the view. Needless to say I slipped a few times from turning my head a little too much.

I should make a point about my appearance in several photos: yes, I look like a goof in those sunglasses, and my helmet looks like it isn't on right. Well, my helmet is on just fine, and the sunglasses were an unfortunate choice to sacrifice all looks for practicality.

On Pollux we got to experience the infamous 'fixed ropes' put up in many of the climbs in the area, including the Matterhorn. When the climbing gets 'tough' (i.e. above a 5.5 or so in YDS) the local climbing authorities have affixed really fat ropes to the rock for people to balance and climb with. It sort of cheapens the experience in my opinion, but they're clearly a good idea on popular routes since they probably save many hours and dozens of lives. There were only a few other groups climbing Pollux that day, so we really didn't have to make (or take) way much of the time. At one of two fixed rope sections, we did need to share the ropes, but all that entailed was waiting for the team ahead to finish. This was a little less frantic than on the Matterhorn.

One interesting part of the Pollux climb was that it was the first time I had used crampons on pure rock. Part of the Pollux climb is pretty much pure rock with some snow tucked into cracks, so you're climbing on just the rock. The only other time I had used crampons was on ice, walking across a frozen lake, then climbing a frozen spring. This was with the Queen's Climbing Club, and I recall the rule being something like, "don't touch the rock," but I think this was mainly meant for the ice tools. So it took some getting used to jumping down and whacking crampons into platforms of rock, or frontpointing on the itty-bitty tips of the frontpoints; on ice you usually get to jam the points into something, so your point of leverage is closer to your foot.

The three of us had taken a trip to Mt Washington in New Hampshire a month before we took this trip. We over-dressed during this climb (hike, really) since we read that it can get quite windy and cold at the top. This description was wrong. Although there was still snow on the mountain even in July, it was still really hot. Ironically, this overdressing prepared me quite well for the walk home from Pollux, since I knew how to keep cool in the clothes I was wearing.

The snow walk back was quite enjoyable, but holy man was it hot! Even with my Mt Washington tricks, I was sweating at 4000m with the 11:00 sun beating down, and the snow amplifying it. With the sun out and *no* clouds in the sky, even more than on the way to the mountain, I was stumbling due to my excessive rubber-necking-due-to-mountains. I was saved any embarrassment, since I was the last person on our rope team.

Now we had done our training climb, we had acclimatized ourselves, and we had the right equipment (I felt confident since Michael had the identical boots as mine). Things were looking good. After we descended to Zermatt, we checked in with the alpine center to see if the weather would be good for our Matterhorn climb scheduled on Thursday (two days after our Pollux day). Indeed it was. The lady showed us some nifty graphs we didn't understand, and were told the conditions looked superb. No clouds, no precipitation, and much due *evaporation* of snow and water from the mountain, I seem to remember.

All that was left was to eat and train. Michael suggested we practice rock climbing with our crampons on at Riffelalp, so that's where we went the next morning. In reality, we hiked up to where the signs *said* Riffelalp was supposed to be, but ended up picking some random bit of rock to climb on since we were running out of time. Adam named the peak "Mt Friendship."

The way we decided to climb the Matterhorn is decidedly the 'punter' method. From Zermatt, all punters take the gondola to Schwarzee, hike about 2 hours to the Hornli Hut, meet their guides, sleep, climb the mountain (via Hornli ridge) really, really early then head back down to catch the Schwarzee lift to Zermatt, the latest being at about 4:00pm. The whole process starts at about 2:00pm in Zermatt, and ends at about 5:00pm the next day. There are many other methods, though. You can camp near the Hornli hut. You can start from the Italian hut, and climb the "Lion Ridge" (i.e. the Italian ridge). You can climb the Zmutt ridge. You can climb the north face, the east face, the south face... But for the first time climbing a 'real' mountain, I was happy with our choice.

We carefully checked we had everything for the big climb after we got back from Mt Friendship and set out. We had lunch at a decent hotel, but I was too nervous to finish mine. It was funny; knowing that I wasn't going to finish the meal made me even more nervous because I figured I was going to be somehow less nourished for the climb and therefore make it harder on myself, which made me more nervous, making me eat less. Short story: the nerves were getting to me.

The hike up to the Hornli Hut is no joke. It's above 3000m most of the way, which means there's basically no vegetation and very little air. It doesn't help that the Matterhorn is staring you in the face, looking massive and far away. Or maybe it does?

The hut is a beefed-up version of the other huts of the Swiss hut network. It still gets all of the supplies helicoptered in, so a bottle of powerade cost 7 Swiss francs (about $7 CDN at the time) to give you an idea of the cost of things. Dinner was provided: a nice big pile of (real) mashed potatoes, some beef (we think) with tons of gravy, and some veggies. Soup was also served, as well as pudding for dessert. Like other adventures I've been on, the food tasted 1000 times better than most things I've had because I was exhausted from the hike, and knew I'd need the energy for tomorrow.

After dinner I got to meet my guide: Hannes Valser. He was a young Austrian guide, and I learned later (from him, once we were done) it was his first season doing the Matterhorn, and my guiding was his 7th overall, 4th successful climb. He had one phrase for all things positive: "Soopa-good!"
For example, "Michael, how are you feeling?,"

"I'm good Hannes!"

"Soopa-good. How is your mind, Michael?"

"My mind is well."


The climb starts at 4:00. I probably didn't start to sleep until about 11:30 because I was so excited and full of nerves. However, I was pretty energetic the entire day, so the lack of sleep didn't seem to matter. Breakfast was much like a breakfast at a hostel: bread and tea. I snuck some tea into my small thermos for later - usually you have to pay 7 francs to fill up a thermos. After several heavily buttered and jammed slices of bread, I looked around for Hannes.

I wouldn't call the climb anti-climactic, because it wasn't. It was really, really fun, even though I didn't stop breathing heavily the entire time. The rock is really easy to climb due to its geology, and at no time did I feel like my feet or hands were going to slip. There is very little loose rock where the (proper) route is, so that wasn't much of a problem.

I would call my emotional state something close to anti-climactic, because I never let myself think of anything but the next objective. During the climbing in the dark, all I kept on hoping for was that we'd make it to the Solvay Hut by the standard deadline: 6:30am. I think when we arrived at the hut in time was when I was most excited. I thought, "Yes! Just don't fall and the summit is yours!" Getting to the summit was pretty sweet, but I now wish I had been with Adam and Tian. They arrived at the summit within anout 10 minutes of each other, and got to take some pictures together. Hannes, himself probably worried about time to some degree (being a bit of a noob), had kept up a pretty wicked pace. We finished the climb in about 7 hours, one hour under the normal 8. I recall looking at my watch in the morning at 4:15 or so just before setting foot on the first pitch. When finally back down at the hut, I remember distinctly that it was 11:18.

The climb itself, when with a guide, basically consists of following the guide. From time to time, you secure him from a fall by using one of the many, many permanent anchors scattered along the climb. However, I was a little curious what would actually happen if the guide fell on several occasions. If you see in the picture above I'm holding the rope going through a quick-draw. As far as I could see, if the guide fell, I'd be trying to stop a factor-2 fall of about 20 to 30 feet. But in the interest of speed, this is an acceptable risk, I suppose. Of all the guides climbing the mountain, I get the feeling none of them really fall. Right around "the shoulder" is where you put on your crampons. This slows things down, but it is obviously necessary. After passing the shoulder, the route then goes long the north face of the ridge, and since it's north facing, there's a decent layer of snow.

Climbing down was pretty boring. You can't really look up too much, since you really, really need to concentrate on down climbing. The down climbing is out-facing with an occasional rappel. But the rappels are simply in the interest of time. The guide would almost always rappel me down, then down climb himself, proving that you can pretty much down climb the entire route (not counting the fixed ropes).

And that's pretty much it. I was tired, hungry, and a little sunburned, but I had climbed the Matterhorn to my slight surprise. Six months of obsessing had actually led to success, which felt pretty good. But to my two friends Adam and Tian, who's companionship was a hundred times more rewarding than the summit itself, I thank you both. It was a really funny path to the summit, but team Bad Idea Switzerland actually did it. I'm still amazed the plan worked!

We continued our trip elsewhere: Silvaplana, Luzern, and with Tian, Como and Venice. We had some other wacky adventures worth mentioning, but I think this blog post is long enough.

1 comment:

kona said...

Great story! Thanks for writing it. Having been in Zurich this morning (and Toronto tonight), it was especially interesting. We thought our hikes around the hills of Rigi Kaltbad and Interlaken required a bit of energy, but this is different league. Congratulations!!