Through the Mattertal - probably the most visited valley in Switzerland - we drive to Täsch in the southernmost part of the country. Here the road comes to a dead end and we have to leave our car behind on the enormous parking lot. By train we travel the remaining five kilometers to Zermatt. We are near the border with Italy; a border formed by an almost inpenetrable wall of mountains.
A quick look at the village and changing money is all we do in Zermatt. The village lies at a height of 1620 meter and there is quite an excentric atmosphere... Here you can find a wide range of tourists: from rich Japanese – the women on high heels and in fur coats – to poor backpackers. Electric carts carry heavy suitcases from the station to the hotel, and gracious coaches offer the tourists a ride through town. Zermatt has grown into a first class tourist resort; the authentic village feel has long gone. At set times cattle-drivers in medieval clothes shoo their sheep and goats through the pedestrian streets; an idea of the municipality that strongly believes that tourists like such things. And maybe they are right...
Zermatt is surrounded by 36 peaks with a height of over 4000 meter; nine of which are among the ten highest moutain tops of Europe. Matterhorn with its 4478 meter is not the highest, but it stands so isolated that it is certainly the most prominent of the peaks. The fantastically steep pyramid shape of the Matterhorn attracts visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately today the peak remains invisible to us due to low hanging clouds. We take the lift to Schwarzsee, which involves changing twice: in Furi and in Furgg. Just names, as at these stations there is absolutely nothing to see. A walk from Zermatt to Schwarzsee would have taken us about three hours, but it is late and we want to get to our destination before dark.
When we arrive in Schwarzsee at a height of 2582 meter it is already 5 PM. Here we will have to wait for two travel companions and their dog Grisi to join us. We keep in touch with the mobile phone; they have just arrived in Zermatt. It is cloudy and cold, and the mountain tops remain hidden.
After an hour of waiting we see our fellow walkers step out of the lift and we immediately begin the ascend. Our goal for today is the Hörnlihütte on the slopes of the Matterhorn, about 1200 meter below the summit. The walk up to the hut takes two and a half hours. The path, consisting mainly of slate, goes up steep and winding. Every now and then the hut - high above us - comes in sight, seemingly inaccessible. But what looks like quite a climb, turns out to be much easier than expected, and at half past eight we arrive at the Hörnlihütte. We are now at a height of 3260 meter and in the hut we receive a stamp in our passports as proof of this achievement!
Four mountain-ridges lead to the top of the Matterhorn: Hörnligrat (north east), Liongrat (south west), Zmuttgrat and Furggengrat. The climb to the top is easiest via the Hörnligrat; from the Hörnlihütte this undertaking takes about six hours. But we are not planning to go any higher than this! Even so, this is no doubt the best place to sit down and think back on the events concerning the first ascent...
... In 1860 20 year old Edward Whymper from England was sent to Switzerland on assignment to make drawings of the highest peaks in the Alps. A local English Alpinist Club had the intension to ascend all peaks higher than 4000 meter. Most peaks surrounding the Matterhorn had already been "done" in the years 1830-50, and a competition among climbers to conquer the Matterhorn had emerged. Even though many people thought the Matterhorn to be inaccessible. Soon Whymper did not only want to sketch the peaks, but started to climb himself as well. Seven times he tried in vain to conquer the Matterhorn.
In July 1865 he agreed with Jean-Antoine Carrel to ascend the Matterhorn from the Italian side, but the weather was very bad. While Whymper was still asleep, Carrel secretly left with an Italian group of climbers. Whymper was furious, and upon meeting Francis Douglas and Peter Taugwalder, he suggested trying the ascend from the Swiss side. Having arrived in Switzerland they met mountain guide Michel Croz who had already made similar plans with two other climbers, Charles Hudson and Robert Douglas Hadow. They decided to go together.
At 04.30 AM on a cloudless 13 July eight men started the ascend: Peter Taugwalder and his two sons Joseph and Peter jr., Michel Croz, Edward Whymper, Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, and the young inexperienced Robert Douglas Hadow (four Englishmen and four Swiss). Via Schwarzsee they walked up to a flat part slightly higher up from where the Hörnlihütte stands today, and here they put up their tents. At that moment the Italian group under the leadership of Carrel had almost reached a height of 4000 meter, having climbed via the Liongrat on the Italian side, and had also put up their camp.
The next morning, on the 14th of July, Joseph Taugwalder decided to leave the group and returned to Zermatt. The rest of the party arrived at about 2 PM at the hundred meter long Gipfelgrat: the mountain-ridge that leads to the summit. Worried at first about having been beaten by the Italians, they reached the summit successfully. They looked around to see if there were any traces of possible predecessors, but then they discovered the Italian group a few hundred meters below the summit.
After a long stay up on the mountain, they made agreements on the formation of the group during the descend. They left a written message in a bottle with their names on it...
… One night in the Hörnlihütte is pretty expensive for a very basic place in a dormitory: in your own sleepingbag above and next to one another on two enormous wooden planks with room for about ten persons to each plank. We have to eat what's on today's menu: spaghetti. The hut is only occupied during the climbing season from mid June to mid September. First built in 1880, restored in 1915 and destroyed in 1964. This new and bigger hut was built in 1965. Most people intending to climb the summit overnight here. They tell us about the rocky, steep and narrow route to the top. In fact, the Matterhorn is só steep that snow usually falls off. Only the last part of the ascend follows a kind of "shoulder" on which lies ice and snow. Ropes have been placed along the steepest parts. Climbing the Matterhorn (Mont Cervin in French, Monte Cervino in Italian) is such a popular thing to do in summer, that congestion on the route can occur, especially in the first half of August. The summit is spectacularly narrow. The Swiss top lies at a height of 4478 meter, but strangely the Italian top right beside it but one meter lower, carries the cross.
At night we hear thunder and the wind blows around the hut. Next morning the summit is still invisible. The clouds are hanging just as low as the Hörnlihütte stands high. But the view downwards is impressive, we see vast glaciers all around us. We decide to walk down a bit, up to Schwarzsee. There we will stay and hope to at least get a glimpse of the summit as soon as the clouds move away. The descend to Schwarzsee, which actually only consists of a hotel, goes fast. The rest of the afternoon we hang around in the hotel and observe the coming and going of many tourists – especially Japanese – that take the lift up for the same reason as us: to see the spectacular Matterhorn. They stay for an hour or two, eat something in the now very crowded restaurant, and go back down (disappointed?).
In Hotel Schwarzsee we rent two very beautiful rooms; on the beds we find wonderfully warm eiderdowns. In the evening nothing is left of the tourist invasion. Instead, the atmosphere is cozy. We dine, and while drinking lots of warm cups of chocolatemilk, we play cards until long after midnight. The Swiss are celebrating some national holiday and outside we see fireworks being let off…
... For the descent Croz took the lead, followed by Hudson, Hadow, Douglas, and behind them Peter Taugwalder sr., his son Peter Taugwalder jr. and Whymper. It was hard to go down, so they decided to descend one by one. When Croz, just below the summit, wanted to help young Hadow, Hadow slipped, the rope broke and he dragged Croz, Hudson and Douglas with him into the depth below them, towards the ice of the Matterhorn glacier. Whymper and the two Taugwalders just stood there watching, totally bewildered.
They stood there for a long while, before daring to attempt the remaining of the descent. It was getting dark and they spent the night at a height of about 4000 meter. After a long night they continued their way down to Zermatt, with the prospect of having to tell the horrible news.
The next day, on 16 July, Whymper returned to the spot with a couple of mountain guides to look for the bodies of the dead climbers. On the Matterhorn glacier they found the bodies of Croz, Hudson and Hadow. Of Douglas they only found some of his belongings. Three days later, twenty-one mountains guides brought the three bodies down. They were buried in the cemetery of Zermatt, and 46 years later Hudson was transferred to the cemetery of the English church in Zermatt.
After the unfortunate accident, things were not laid to rest. There was a rumour of Whymper or Taugwalder sr. having cut the rope. A research committee was founded and the examinations took three days. But there was no proof of a criminal deed and the climbers were acquitted. Even so, the villagers remained suspicious. Taugwalder sr.'s reputation was destroyed for good and he immediately left for the USA, only to return home a couple of years later. The accident caused a wave of excitement in the newspapers, in Switzerland as well as in other countries. All over the world newspapers reported on the triumph and the tradegy on the Matterhorn. No other event in the Alps had ever caused this much commotion. In England emotions got quite out of hand. After consultation, Queen Victoria of England finally decided against forbidding climbing for English citizens in the future. Zermatt became world-famous, and this was only the start of its development into a tourist site.
Waking up in Hotel Schwarzsee the summit of the Matterhorn is still invisible, but we have no more time to hang around and wait. We will have to be satisfied with this imperfect meeting: we felt the Matterhorn beneath our feet but what the mount looks like we shall just have to find out from the numerous postcards.
On our way back down to Zermatt we see many walkers, mainly - oh yes! - the ever present Japanese. The walk goes through an incredibly fake little village, built in the romantic style of the old Switzerland; an attraction to please the tourists in the midst of their hike, but also to provide them with drinks. Just about everyone takes a break here and a serious jam has been formed. In the surrounding fields large groups of picknicking people have sat down. We quickly walk on.
Back in Zermatt we buy a couple of postcards of the Matterhorn, as we have no pictures of our own. We hurry to the trainstation, because there we see the next goat-driver coming towards us. Tourists with their cameras ready hurry to not having to miss anything of this spectacle. Softly but urging they push their elbows against each other. They at least wíll come home with the best photos.
The Dutch version of this story has been published in Backpackers Magazine, spring 2003.
©2002 Monique van Gaal