The Matterhorn remains a fatal attraction

Sunrise over the Matterhorn: The beauty allures hundreds of climbers each year. Matterhornbahnen

Electric vehicles and horse-drawn cabs rumble down the main road. It's a street of hotels and shops, peopled by hikers or weathered climbers. Further on lie the cobbled paths of Zermatt's old town. From here, all eyes are raised to the Matterhorn.

This content was published on August 11, 2000 - 14:49

"It's the mountain of mountains," says Bruno Jelk, head of Zermatt's rescue service as he stares at the huge, hooked pyramid of the Matterhorn.

"Everyone wants to get up it even if they're not proper climbers. It's not really a difficult climb but if you're inexperienced, it can be tricky.

"There's the danger of losing your way and in summer, after storms, the rock is covered in snow and then it's very dangerous. People who are already struggling when the rock's dry are really out of their depth.

"But if they insist on climbing the Matterhorn, they've got to reckon with such conditions and they've got to behave appropriately."

More than 500 people have died attempting to climb the Matterhorn. The last victim fell 600 metres to his death earlier this month.

Looking at the twist of snowy rock, blinding in the sun, it's easy to see what drives climbers from around the world to try to reach its summit.

The most common route is the northeast or Hörnli ridge. It's the classic view of the Matterhorn that you see from Zermatt and it's how the mountain was first climbed.

From the hut, where you stay the night before the ascent, it's a 1,200 metre rock climb to the top. "Climbers will get up at half past three and probably leave the hut by four o'clock in the morning, having had a brief breakfast," explains British mountain guide, Jonathan Preston.

He says the first hour of the climb is undertaken either by the light of the moon or in pitch dark using headtorches.

"And the first part is a series of fairly scrappy tracks which zigzag a little bit across the east face. Most of the route is actually on the east side of the ridge. It's not on the crest of the ridge proper."

The Matterhorn was once part of Africa. About 90 million years ago as Africa drifted towards Europe, tectonic plates collided and masses of rock, several kilometres deep, thrust into and over one another.

The process continues today with Switzerland increasingly squashed and the Alps rising by almost a millimetre a year. In about ten million years time, Lugano in the south and Schaffhausen in the north will be some 30 kilometres closer.

As for the Matterhorn, Preston says it's being constantly eroded by wind and weather and has been described as a pile of rubble.

"When you're right on the mountain, there's a tremendous amount of loose rock. The Hörnli ridge itself if you stick to the correct route is actually pretty solid. So many people have climbed up and down it, that they've kicked off all the loose rock and it's actually quite a good indicator as to whether you're on the correct route or not."

It was the first ascent of the Matterhorn which secured Zermatt's place in history. In the 1860s Edward Whymper, a young British illustrator, thrilled by the mountains that his publisher had asked him to draw, wandered over the Alps looking for unconquered peaks.

He notched up some notable first ascents but it was the Matterhorn that lured him back again and again.

The conquest and catastrophe of the July 14, 1865, is one of the best known stories in mountaineering history. Four of his party fell to their deaths on the descent. The rope broke, saving Whymper and his two Swiss guides.

Today, a guide on the Matterhorn will only work with one client and the pair move together on a short rope.

"The guide will have shoulder coils so there will only be a few metres of rope between guide and client," Preston explains. "When the pair reach a steeper section and the guide does need to take an anchor point, then he can take a few shoulder coils off, climb the more difficult pitch and then bring the client up."

They'll certainly pitch just above and below the Solvay Hut at 4,000 metres. The Lower Moseley Slab and the Upper Moseley Slab, named after a dead climber, are the hardest sections. Moseley's flask and shoe are on view in Zermatt's Alpine museum alongside relics from other fatal accidents; frayed ropes, smashed waterbottles, fragments of clothing.

As for the Solvay hut, museum director, Willy Hofstetter, says the emergency shelter has a controversial history but plays a vital role.

"The guides aren't too keen on it because it's misused and people sleep up there. There are no beds in the hut anymore but people still go and sleep on the floor and they're the first ones on the summit which is dangerous for climbers below because of falling rocks.

"But the hut's got to be there. It's saved the lives of dozens of climbers over the years. There's enough room for 12 people but four years ago after a weekend of storms 51 people emerged from it.

"They had to stand packed together like sardines but at least they were dry and relatively warm and no-one was hypothermic as could easily have been the case."

When disaster occurs, the helicopters of Air Zermatt are on constant stand-by. They fly some 1,200 rescue missions a year.

Pilot Gerold Biner says Matterhorn operations are always complicated. "Of the 50 incidents a year, between ten and 20 are fatal and that means in more than 20 per cent of cases on the Matterhorn, we're recovering bodies.

"What's particularly hard is we're always trying to carry out rescues in places where other people are climbing so there's always a danger of rock fall. And then the Matterhorn has its own weather pattern, for example the clouds on the east face or the strong winds. It's always a special case."

The four ridges and four faces of the Matterhorn emerge to a horizontal crest, 85 metres long with the Swiss summit, 4,478 metres, at the west end and the Italian summit, a metre lower at the east, adorned with a large metal cross.

At the height of the season, 120 people a day climb the Matterhorn. "It is very rare to have the summit to yourself and the actual summit is quite a small area," says Preston. "There's probably space for half a dozen people so it can become quite congested."

Take a walk down Zermatt's high street and Matterhorn images assault on all sides - on postcards, t-shirts, calendars and sweet wrappers, on tea towels, biscuit tins, hats and tablemats.

Museum director, Willy Hofstetter, says the Matterhorn has come to represent the natural attractions of Switzerland all over the world: "You'd almost imagine it was a work of art, a sculpture, it's so beautiful. Even the French admit it's the most beautiful mountain in the Alps although they've got the highest, Mont Blanc.

We're not just a country of watches and chocolate but a land of mountains and in this respect," Hofstetter continues "it's interesting that the Swiss astronaut, Claude Nicollier, decided to take two stones from the Matterhorn with him when he flew on the space shuttle, Endeavour, in 1993.

"When he got back, one of the stones was put on display in the museum and the other put back on the summit. Choosing a stone from the Matterhorn really sums up just how symbolic the Matterhorn is for us Swiss."

by Vincent Landon

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