Navigations: Tombstone White

Read Mark Jenkins’s previous “Navigations” essays.

We left the moraine and crossed onto the glacier. It was speckled with black stones that had plummeted down the Matterhorn’s east face. Some were small as fists, some big as barrels, but all had fallen thousands of feet at a fatal velocity. The glacier was gravity’s missile range, and we were moved across it as quickly as we could. Halfway through we spotted something strange on the ice. We didn’t know what it was at first—or didn’t want to know. From a distance it was a contorted blue lump with blonde hair. We approached holding our breath.

It was just a backpack. The impact of the fall had burst the nylon sack like a water balloon, strewing its contents across the glacier. A dented 35mm camera with a smashed lense. A down coat tied in a bundle with string. Wool socks. A woman’s wool sweater melted into the ice. The pack had crash-landed here days, maybe weeks, earlier. The blonde locks were loops of rope slumped out of the rucksack.

John knelt beside the shredded pack. I knew what he was thinking: And the person who was wearing the pack?

“Perhaps she took it off to rest,” I said, “and the pack just slipped over the edge.”

We continued up the Furgg glacier to the icefall, deciding to climb directly up the middle rather than hike the big loop around the end.

Foreshortening is the mother of all optimism, and shortcuts seldom are, but certain kinds of people—mountaineers in particular—have a tendency to choose the hope of the unknown over the reality of the well-trodden. We soon became lost in a labyrinth of widemouthed crevasses and leaning seracs, and had to rope up and slow down. We began to zigzag radically, searching for the firmest-looking snowbridges.

A chopper suddenly appeared overhead and made passes back and forth above the icefall. We were afraid the pilot thought we were in need of a rescue. Then the chopper arced backward and landed on the mountain far below us. Minutes later it flew over us again, this time with an orange-suited human harnessed to a cable swinging beneath the aircraft. The chopper gradually lowered the person onto the Matterhorn’s east face, right at the top of the icefall. We got out the monocular. The chopper backed away from the wall, the cable dangling like an empty fishing line. For the next few minutes the chopper circled, then dropped back in against the east face and hovered briefly. When it flew back into the blue sky, there was another human harnessed to the end of the line, a limp body with limbs hanging in unnatural positions.

The year before I had come to Zermatt to climb the north face of the Matterhorn and it had snowed ceaselessly for six days. Still, I thought I could cajol a local climber into making a quick trip up the Hornli Ridge, the mountain’s autobahn, the route climbed by unskilled hordes every summer. But not one climber was interested. I tracked down several guides, all of whom shook their heads. “No one. No one guide Matterhorn when it snows,” said one veteran bergfuhrer who had climbed the mountain over 200 times.

I hiked up beyond the Hornli hut alone and found over a foot of snow on the route and the rocks so slippery it was as if the mountain had been coated in grease. I descended, chastened.

Now, a year later, I was back with a partner, John Harlin. The north face was loaded with unconsolidated, avalanche-prone snow, and John had climbed the Hornli Ridge on a previous trip, so we decided to attempt a traverse: trek halfway around the mountain, crossing from Switzerland into Italy, ascend the Italian Ridge, cross over the 14,690-foot summit, and descend via the Hornli. The hike over to the south side of the massif would give us a chance to acclimatize and the weather a chance to shape up.

After the chopper disappeared with the body (we later learned it was that of a Polish climber who had fallen off the Hornli Ridge), John and I finished the icefall, topping out on the Furggen Ridge. We spent the night there, at 10,957 feet, in the Bossi refugio, a tiny, filthy, round-topped aluminum hut that is depressingly similar to a sheepherder’s trailer. We boiled soup and spoke softly, reassuring each other that the man we’d seen had died because he had made a mistake, a mistake we wouldn’t have made—this is the bedtime lie that consoles all climbers.

In the morning it was much colder, the barometer sinking, the mountain lost in mist. We dropped down onto the stone-speckled Cervino glacier, crossed below the south face, and started up the Italian Ridge just as it began to snow. The air filled with snowflakes as big as leaves, the wind roared in, and before long we found ourselves in a full-on blizzard. What was supposed to be a simple scramble up to the Carrel hut at 12,562 feet on the Italian Ridge turned into a half-desperate dance over slick rocks skidding out from under our feet. The thick chain hanging down the famous Whymper Chimney, placed there to aid in the ascent of the rock corner, was encased in ice. When we got to the hut our eyelids were frozen open and our jaws frozen shut.

There was an experienced Czech team inside. They showed us a personalized journal that documented all the ascents they’d done across Europe. You could feel the vertigo in the photos. They had been waiting out the weather for several days; periodically one of them would step outside, then come back in covered with snow and cussing flamboyantly, making his teammates laugh.

The blizzard continued through the afternoon and into the evening, as one team after another kept arriving at the Carrel hut. The door would burst open and a blast of snow would blow in a frost-covered climber, crampons on his feet, an ice axe in each hand, beard crusted white. Stabbing his crampons into the wooden floor, he would flip a glazed rope over his shoulder, brace himself, and begin reeling his partners—one by one, each an abominable snowman—into the hut. By nightfall there were 20 climbers crowding the shelter and the walls were covered with dripping jackets and wet wool sweaters. Outside, the storm intensified, furious that we had found someplace to hide.

In the morning the storm was gone, the sun was up and the Matterhorn was buried in snow. We all slept in, assuming the mountain would be unassailable. One more checkmark on the “failed” side of the ledger. It’s a part of mountaineering you have to get used to, even though you never do because if you did you’d quit climbing.

A French guide proclaimed that the Matterhorn unclimbable. He was taking his two clients down immediately. I asked him what he thought about the chances of the mountain coming back into condition in a fews days, and he replied that in a few days the sun would turn the snow to ice and the mountain would become coated in sheets of verglas and thus traitre extremement!—extremely treacherous. Furthermore, the weather forecast called for another storm in the next two days.

A snow-plastered mountain, a French guide’s knowing opinion, and a bad forecast. That was it. That was enough.

The French guide and his clients went down. The Czech team went down. Two Spanish teams and two other Czech teams that had arrived the evening before went down. Everybody went down but John and me and a father-and-son team that had arrived so late the night before they were spending the day in their sleeping bags.

John and I stood on the airy steel veranda and watched the retreat. Going down wasn’t easy. The Carrel hut is perched high on a thin arete, the emptiness of the west face dropping off to one side, the blankness of the south face to the other. The climbers rappelled right off the hut stanchions, sliding into space.

Jean-Antoine Carrel is the climber who was forgotten when Edward Whymper successfully climbed the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865. Carrel, born in 1829 in Breuil, the Italian hamlet below the south face of the Matterhorn, was one of the Alps’ founding mountain guides and the first man possessed with the vision and the will to try to scale the Matterhorn. His first attempt was in 1857; he tried again in 1858 and 1861. He made three more attempts in 1862, two of them with Whymper. Whymper and Carrel were friends and rivals. Carrel the tough, grizzled chamois hunter; versus Whymper, the twenty-five year old English artist, a climbing rookie burning with the desire to summit the stone dagger that had been pronounced unclimbable.

There were 17 attempts made on the Matterhorn, eight of them by Whymper himself, before the Englishman pulled it off. It was a battle of egos and shifting loyalties. Carrel considered the Matterhorn his mountain, jealously coveted the summit, and viewed Whymper as an interloper. Whymper believed Carrel to be the best climber in the Alps and had actually arranged to hire him for what turned out to be his successful ascent. But during the week of Whymper’s planned attempt, bad weather intervened, and Carrel secretly agreed to guide a four-man, all-Italian team, leaving Whymper out in the cold. When the Englishman discovered that Carrel was attempting the mountain from the Italian side, he hurriedly put cobbled together a seven-man team in Zermatt to make an attempt from the Swiss side.

On the summit day, Whymper’s party ascended the Hornli Ridge, while the Carrel team climbed the Italian Ridge on the opposite side of the mountain. Carrel had gotten a late start, and the Italian Ridge is the more difficult route, but Whymper won the race by only 600 feet. When he stood on the summit, Whymper could see Carrel and his companions below him. He trundled off a few stones to get their attention. Carrel looked up and was crestfalled. He turned back, only to return three days later, with a new team, to successfully complete the first ascent of the Italian Ridge and the second ascent of the Matterhorn.

Whymper’s victory, however, exacted a grievous cost. During the descent, four members of his group fell to their deaths. One man, Douglas Hadow, slipped, pulling off three others. Whymper and his two guides, Peter Taugwalder Sr. and Peter Taugwalder Jr. caught the fall, but the rope snapped and Michel Croz, a Chamonix guide, and the English climbers Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow, and Francis Douglas fell 4,000 feet.

In Zermatt, Taugwalder Sr. and Whymper were accused of cutting the rope. The Swiss authorities conducted an inquest. After three days, Whymper and Taugwalder were exonerated, but the controversy continued. The Times of London denounced the ascent and deplored the utter uselessness of the sport of mountaineering. Queen Victoria considered outlawing the climbing of mountains. European newspapers published denunciatory editorials by writers who had never set foot on any mountain, let alone the Matterhorn. England was in an uproar over the disaster and everyone had an opinion. (Sound familiar?)

In 1871, Whymper gave his account of the story in a bestselling book titled Scrambles Amongst the Alps. Whymper would be famous for the rest of his life, although he hardly climbed in the Alps again. He went to Greenland, then to the Andes with Carrel, then to the Canadian Rockies.

Deaths of a putatively heroic nature seem to have a bizarre magnetism, particularly for those who have never witnessed the horror of dying. In Whymper’s wake, everybody wanted to climb the Matterhorn. (Sound familiar?) In 1871 an English adventuress named Lucy Walker became the first woman to summit the mountain. The Zmutt Ridge was climbed by the famous English alpinist Albert Frederick Mummery in 1879. In 1881, 23-year-old Teddy Roosevelt climbed the mountain. In 1911, the Matterhorn’s last remaining unconquered ridge, the Furggen, was ascended. The north and south faces fell in 1931.

Thousands have attempted the Matterhorn, and more than 450 have died—more than on Everest or McKinley, Rainier or the Grand Teton. Technically, both the Italian Ridge and the Hornli Ridge are far more difficult than the trade routes up these other peaks. Whymper and Carrel’s achievements are a testament to the skill and determination of mountaineering’s earliest pioneers.

After turning tail on the Matterhorn the first time, I took a walk through the Zermatt cemetery, the graveyard of the Matterhorn. There are tombstones with ice axes and ropes sculpted into the rock, tombstones with actual axes and crampons bolted onto the stone, even a tombstone in which a crucified Christ is adorned as a climber, axe and rope hanging from his body. These are the graves of too many who attempted the Matterhorn and paid for it with their lives. But the arrogant and the unprepared lie side-by-side with great guides who also died on the mountain—Alois Graven, Johann Biner, Isidor Perren, Hermann Perren. The Matterhorn is indiscriminate. (Jean-Antoine Carrel, who perished in a blizzard on the Matterhorn in 1890, is notably absent; his final resting place is Valtournanche, in the shadow of the mountain’s Italian side.)

Whymper ends Scrambles Amongst the Alps with this admonition: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Walking past those tombstones at dusk, with their hats of fresh powder, I understood why they don’t guide when it snows on the Matterhorn.

John and I shoveled the snow off the bench outside the Carrel hut and took turns staring up at the Italian Ridge with the monocular. It didn’t look that bad. It really didn’t. There was a lot of new snow, but it was melting fast. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to think too much; other times thinking will save your life. It’s case by case. The hard part is knowing what is reality and what is just the confusion of opinion, hearsay, and the constant three-way battle in your head between Mr. Ego, Mr. Fear, and Mr. Rational. If you can’t sort it out, you can get killed. You can get killed even if you do sort it out.

By noon we couldn’t stand it anymore.

“We could just run up a few pitches and see how it goes,” John blurted.

“Right,” I chimed, “If it’s bad, we can rap right back down.”

To forestall an imprudent attempt on the summit, neither of us took food or water. John even left his headlamp behind. We were going for a little reconnaissance, nothing more.

With all the snow and us not knowing the route, we moved cautiously, but steadily, and in three hours found ourselves atop Tyndal Point with only the last rock tower between us and the summit. We were standing right where Carrel had stood—only a few hours from the top—when Whymper had summitted. We cursed our own late start. We cursed the unwarranted foreboding we had allowed into our hearts. We cursed our prudence for tricking ourselves into leaving behind food and water.

What’s done is done. We descended to the Carrel hut.

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

The next morning we were up at four, cruising the lower portions of the Italian Ridge at six, attacking the icy summit block at eight, snapping pictures on the hanging ladder at ten, standing on the summit at noon.

Then, with perfect timing, the storm hit.

It was colder than the storm two days before. Winds that could knock us off our feet, bullets of snow, zero visibility. The mountain was instantly sheeted with ice, making it impossible to downclimb. We started to rappel, one anchor down to the next. The first rap off the summit we ran into a three-man Italian team who had also summited. The day before, one of their teammates had turned around, taking their second rope with him. Their one rope, doubled, didn’t reach between the rappel anchors, so they were each rapping off the end of the rope and then soloing down to the next anchor—absurdly dangerous behavior, given the conditions.

Sometimes your own random good fortune can be another man’s salvation. Someone had left a climbing rope in the Carrel hut and John and I had taken it with us, just in case we needed an extra. The Italians would have hugged us if we hadn’t all been clinging to the side of the mountain.

It took John and me almost five hours to make it down to the Solvay emergency hut at 13,133 feet on the Hornli Ridge. We were soaking wet and shivering. It wasn’t a true emergency, but we didn’t want it to become one.

“Well John,” I said, plucking the icicles from my eyebrows, “should we stay or should we go?”

“Tomorrow it could be storming even harder.”

“Tomorrow the sun could come out.”

“Mark, we can make it down tonight.”

“If we get off-route it’ll be a cold bivy.”

In the end, we decided to humbly stay the night, our fourth on a mountain that is supposed to be climbed in one day. The Italians came stumbling in an hour later.

In the morning it was clear and sunny. We descended to the Hornli hut, a comfortingly huge hostel-cum-restaurant. The Italians bought us beers and we all sat in awe of the gleaming gothic cathedral of the Alps.

Other teams had been going up the mountain as we were coming down. A speedy Austrian team. A somber, silent German team. An American talking to his wife on a cell phone, maintaining he was doing just fine. (She was saying he was way behind schedule for the little distance he’d ascended, and should turn around. She was right.) And a Japanese team. The Japanese were all bunched together except for one guy in silly nylon boots and ill-fitting clothes, climbing clumsily and unroped, apparently trying to stay ahead of his teammates.
Several hours later he died falling off the Matterhorn.

Read This Next

Did this mysterious human relative bury its dead?
This new birth control for cats doesn't require surgery
How the Zoot Suit Riots changed America

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet