When Manny first told me he was planning to climb a mountain in the Swiss Alps, I had to smile. After all, he is a stuffed toy.
But soon he was the one laughing, all the way to the top of not one, but two Swiss peaks.
His tour operator, Teddy to the Top, has been organising mountaineering expeditions for stuffed toys for the past three years. Three teddies, a cow and a sheep have already conquered the iconic Matterhorn while other creatures have settled for lesser known summits across the country.
The fledging business was started by Alexander Issler and Karen Wagner, a couple who moonlight as a high-flying engineer and bio-tech consultant by day and cuddly toy conspirators by night.
Both are experienced mountain climbers and guides.
Back in 2006, Issler heard about a city tour for stuffed toys in Germany and it started him thinking.
“I came up with the idea with a friend. We were joking about what else we could do to earn money and make people happy. And we had this idea of the teddies,” he told swissinfo.ch at the couple’s home in Pfäffikon on Lake Zurich.
“I thought it would be a much better idea if you could take teddies up a mountain because anybody can go to a city and take pictures with a teddy, but going up the Matterhorn or other mountains is not for everybody - or for every teddy.”
Depending on the peak, the cost of a climb ranges from SFr69 ($64) for the summit of the month to SFr299 for a trip to Nepal. The package includes travel documents, photos and a diary as told to the mountain guide.
Manny the mammoth had signed up for the Schwarzhorn which, at 2,929 metres, is the highest peak in the Bernese pre-Alps. Joining him on the January trip was Tora, a snow leopard and soon-to-be gift for a child. Expert mountaineer Yvonne led the climb.
“We reached the East Couloir a little late," Manny recalled in his diary.
"The sun had already disappeared behind the Gemschberg. The couloir was steep and filled with almost untouched powdery snow. What would happen to us if there was an avalanche? I didn’t want to think about it.”
“After a climb along the ridge, we reached the top of Schwarzhorn. Tora and I were proud to be up there. I doubt any other leopard or mammoth have climbed this mountain. A moment of mountaineering history!”
Their second peak, the Bächenstock in central Switzerland, was 3,000 metres high and included a trek through a “mysterious” glacier unmarked on maps. “That mountain is unbelievable … a never-ending powder buzz,” Manny wrote.
Manny’s anxious owner, eight-year-old Nadia, was happy to see him return home in one piece, and recounted: “He said he went on skis and had a lot of fun. I’d like to go up the same mountain that Manny did.”
Calling all fantasists
Teddy to the Top say owners often send their toys on the climbs because they can’t go themselves.
“The ones that we get sent are usually by somebody who sees their soul in their teddy. There are people who would like to climb the Matterhorn but cannot, so at least part of their soul goes up there. It is a piece of yourself experiencing something you cannot do,” explained Wagner.
“For other people it is a gift they give to kids, because it is something that is alive.”
Issler and Wagner recognise that their tours will always remain a niche product and so they are tailoring their publicity towards their target market - children and readers of specialist stuffed toy magazines (typically 40-year-old women).
“It is always going to be something that most people laugh at as we are supposed to be adults and we are not supposed to be attached to these things anymore. And then there’s this rational approach about where money should be spent."
“It is going to remain something for people who like a little more fantasy, which is fine,” said Wagner.
Jessica Dacey in Pfäffikon, swissinfo.ch
Manny’s diary – some extracts
Climbers have to be early birds. The alarm clock rang at 5am. We had to take the 6am train to Lucerne. From Lucerne we continued by car. After passing the Brünig Pass we came out of the fog and closer and closer to Schwarzwaldalp, the starting point of our climb.
We started our climb at 9am at Schwarzalp at 1,456m. First we had to walk in the cold, windy and shadowy valley of the Rychenbach for about an hour and a half. I was so happy when we finally reached the sun. Suddenly it was warm…Looking uphill from our picnic spot at about 2,000m we could see the Schwarzhorn already in reach.
I was eager to get to the ridge. What would the panorama look like? Woah! Even more exciting than I expected! A little less great: the sun disappeared behind thick, dark clouds. We decided to hurry up.
After a climb along the ridge we reached the top of the Schwarzhorn. Great views of the high fog. Tora and I were proud to be up there. I am sure we had done some kind of first ascent. I doubt that any other leopard or mammoth climbed this mountain before us. Unfortunately the light conditions for the downhill were not very good. You could hardly see the great tracks we left in the powder. I had never been skiing before. You can get really high on powder.
Back home in Zurich. After a nice substantial dinner we huddled under the duvet. In the candlelight Tora and I recalled the highlights of our mountain experience…