My middle finger on my right hand is lifeless. The finger inside the glove is more like a piece of wood than part of my body. We are on 4,200 m, just below the shoulder on the 4,478 m high Matterhorn in Switzerland. I can’t hear Thomas over the howling wind and he can’t hear me complain about my finger or how tired I am, or that I am cold. He just pushes on. “Jawohl”. I think of you sitting snug below in the village, maybe looking up through the window towards the pyramid shaped peak towering above the valley. Are you thinking of me like I am of you? Are the boys chasing each other around the flat or are you walking down towards the center of town, over the glacial torrent tearing its way down from the snow capped peaks above.
My thoughts drift and I think of the summit. Or I try not to think of the summit. Small steps. Just breathe. Crampons scratch over rock, then bite into ice, step into snow patches and balance on rock edges, keeping me safe from a fall of over 1,000 m to the glacier below. We are nearing the location of an event that shook mountaineering to its core and has been etched into climbing history. Seven climbers set out from the same village below the peaks more than 150 years ago. Their aim to be the first to climb the most beautiful mountain on the planet. Seven left Zermatt mid July 1865. Only three returned. They summited on 14 July 1865, but on the descent the weakest member fell and pulled all down. In a flash the rope broke, sending the lower four climbers to their death.
The thin strand of rope is on display in a corner of the small Museum in Zermatt. Its ends are frail and worn out. The climbers all conceded that it was a tragic accident. Various fragments of the story surface later, but the mountain kept its secret to this day, with the other end of the rope tied to a climber never found, lost in the sea of ice below.
I snap back to reality with Thomas urging me on. We have passed the Solvay refuge about an hour ago. The hut with one of the most beautiful views in the Alps. Built 100 years ago to harbour climbers in distress and protect them from the storms that sweep the mountain continuously. It serves as a beacon for many, more than half way up the peak. To me it marks my high point two years ago. When I tried to summit on a beautiful summers day. But it was not to be. However hard I tried, I could not gather the strength to go past that hut knowing that I still had to come down the same way. And within a moment of clarity I then decided to turn around. It was a decision that would plague me for many months (if not years) afterwards. But a decision I stand by to this day.
I climbed other peaks since that first attempt on the Matterhorn and had many beautiful adventures, but this mountain always lingered in my thoughts. Obviously I had to go back. “Jawhol” Thomas’s Swiss German brings me back to reality and echoes around the steep snow slope. My breathing is hard and the cold envelopes my every thought. But then in a moment of emotion, St Bernard appears out of the white. The patron saint of alpinism, gazes out over the snow capped peaks and valleys below near the summit of the Matterhorn. I swallow my tears and know we are close, just a few more steps and we should be on the ridge and the summit. I look over to Thomas who has stopped in front of me. There is no more mountain to climb. We are on the summit ridge. Utter elation and emotion is subdued. I remind myself that we are merely halfway, we still have to go down. Nevertheless I try to take it all in best I can. I recall the cold on my face, the magnificent peaks around me and the thin knife edge summit ridge. Suppressed elation. Soon after we start our descent down the steep snow slopes and the summit disappears out of sight.
Down-climbing the peak is as tricky as going up, although we abseil sections, climbing down is harder than it sounds. But we urge onwards towards the speck of the Hornli Hut at 3,100 m, which marks the end of the climb.
At long last we descend the last section of the route and suddenly we are off the peak. With concentration levels at zero since early in the morning, emotions overwhelm me and I kneel down at the base of the mountain. As the tears roll down my face I look back up towards the peak that so many have climbed before me and more than 500 have died trying. My thoughts go out to the previously stricken climbers, their families and of my own waiting patiently down in the valley below.
To this day both our boys immediately recognize the “Matterhom” from photos or drawings. They will remember it as the Mountain towering above the village where the long-haired goats roam freely, where the cars are noiseless (only electric allowed) and the stairs leading to our Airbnb flat are many and steep. But most importantly they will remember the Mountain as it’s impossible to forget.