Climbing the Matterhorn August 7, 1959
Climbing the Matterhorn August 7, 1959
By John Lear - posted Jan 13, 2018
My Mom and Dad were very thrifty. My brother, sisters and I didn't get an allowance because it was assumed we had everything we needed. Thats why I couldn't have a paper route which I wanted so bad I could taste it. I would go down after school to the corner of 9th and Montana were the Evening Outlook dropped their papers and the paper route guys packed them on their bike bags. I went there everyday because I hoped that Danny Moriarity my friend who had a route would either get sick or drop dead and I could take over his route. When a route became available I was first in line and went racing home to get the permission that was needed to get the route. Wings on my feet I was so happy I flew through the air, 10 blocks to 222 14h street where I lived. No, my Mom explained, there might be a kid that really needed that route and wasn't as fortunate as we were. Years later I was taught about living with integrity, without envy, hate or greed. But on that day, in 1952 I truly hated someone.
In January of 1956 Dad took us all to Zermatt to learn to ski. We had been living in Geneva, Switzerland and it was only a couple of hours by train to Brig and then another hour or so of cograil to Zermatt. There were no cars allowed and everyone either walked or took a horse drawn sleigh.
Dad had rented a chalet and the living room faced south and a gigantic window was filled with the magnificent Matterhorn. It was right there, just a few miles away and you could see every detail of the slopes. I knew that one day I would climb that mountain although I didn't then have the slightest experience in mountain climbing.
3 1/2 years later after a semester in Santa Monica High School in Santa Monica California I spent the summer with the rest of the family in Geneva where Dad had built a magnificent California ranch style home that was the talk of Geneva society. It had a beautiful patio and pool and out in the forest beyond the pool were huge speakers which blared out Les Baxters 'Tamboo'.
All we kids knew about money was that this house had cost so much that “we” all were going to have to pitch in and 'do our share' to make ends meet. My share was to mow the lawn. There was about 2 acres of lawn that surrounded the house.
I ignored the lawn and preferred to swim in our pool. But there was something odd about our pool. It was green and slimy. We used to joke that the creature from 20,000 leagues under the sea lived there. Dad had insisted that since Geneva got their water from glaciers that the water was exceptionally pure and would not need chlorine to combat algae. And anybody who suggested otherwise was an idiot. Later that summer when Dad went on one of his frequent trips back to Santa Monica, a couple of his pilots and engineers came over, drained the pool, scrubbed the sides clean, filled it back up, and kept the proper amount of chlorine in it. Dad never found out who did it and for all I know thought that the water had cleared up by itself.
But July turned into August and at the end of August I was going to be headed back to Santa Monica for my senior year in high school. I was 17. And the Matterhorn was still on my mind. I found a number for a climbing school in Zermatt, and got a number for a couple of guides. It was a standard fee: 120 Swiss francs (about $30) to take you to the top. I already had a student summer ride anywhere pass so all I in addition to the 120 Franks was money for food. Money for food is hard to justify when it is pointed out that the refrigerator is always full and we had 2 cooks on duty most of the time. So I thought that 20 Franks didn't sound outrageous. I asked Mom for 140 franks. I would regret lo-balling the cost of climbing the Matterhorn but I didn't want to screw up my chances. “Whats this for John?” “Climbing the Matterhorn.” “Oh.” She claims many weeks later she didn't understand what I was asking for money for. Not that it would have made any difference. I was hoping she would say something like “Climbing the Matterhorn? Here take 200!” But nothing like that happened and I set off for the train station.
I got to Brig and switched to a cograil to go up the valley to Zermatt. I got off the train at Zermatt and walked to the end of town where there was a ski-lift that took you near the base of the Matterhorn. At the top of the lift you get off and start hiking up this trail that takes you to the cabin about a quarter the way up the mountain. I think it was a 3 hour walk.
It was a large cabin and still there, you can see pictures of it on the web under “Matterhorn”. It had several rooms each with 4 to 6 bunks. And a large meeting room.
I checked in with my guide and paid him the 120 francs and he showed me to my bunk. He asked me what my climbing experience was. I hadn't thought to cook up a story because I thought you just paid him and he led you up. I stammered a little about climbing the Santa Monica mountains which was true. I had led some girl scouts up a shallow trail in Mandeville Canyon near Brentwood. I left out the part of climbing down the Pacific Palisades (where we had moved to) to the beach where we skim boarded on the wet sand. He told me he would wake me up at 3 am. It was already dark and there was no restaurant but there was a table with cheeses, different kinds of meat and bread.
I hadn't given much thought to clothes or climbing gear. For he climbing gear I planned on using my hands. For the clothes I had my jeans, a shirt, a sweater and a watch cap.
At 3 am sharp my guide woke my up. I put on my sweater and laced up my hiking boots and met the guide by the front door of the cabin.
It was pitch black outside and a few lights sprinkled Zermatt. Its been 59 years so I don't remember too much. I remember my eyes getting accumulated to the dark and it being easy to follow the guide.
If you look at the standard photo of the Matterhorn the edge that is facing you is what we used for the climb. The first third of the climb was simply a walk up a well defined trail in and out of large boulders. After that it was actually climbing up the boulders and still a well defined trail.
I don't remember anybody else making the climb. I guess I should have made more preparation for he climb but I wouldn't have known how to and where to prepare. I just assumed that I would have enough energy to make it to the top and back down which is all I wanted to accomplish. Having under estimated how much food I would need to have between leaving Geneva getting to Zermatt climbing up to the cabin, staying overnight, climbing to the top of the Matterhorn and back down, and since I had no money to stay another night in the cabin, walking back down to the ski-lift, taking the lift down to Zermatt, getting on the rain to Brig, changing trains to go back to Geneva 20 franks ($5) was a serious under estimation.
But I wasn't thinking about all that. I was concentrating on putting my feet where the guide told me to put them and boosting myself up. Higher and higher we climbed. Just a tad of light began to show on the horizon. The view was nothing short of spectacular. It was a clear day, no clouds anywhere and you could easily see well into Italy and most of Switzerland.
The Matterhorn stands 14,692 feet. About two thirds the way up or about 12,000 feet I started to notice that I was breathing faster. You can't see the top during the climb, but I was told it was 6 hours up and 5 hours down. As dawn broke I figured I had another two and a half or three hours to go. The slightest little teeniest voice inside of my head said. “Do you think you can make it asshole?” But there was no way I was going to turn around. I just kept thinking about getting to the top
Now the climbing began to get more difficult. Towards the top of the climb there are fixed ropes you can use for the steep parts. About an hour from the top I was getting seriously out of breath. I asked the guide for a rest and he allowed about 5 minutes. It was not the slightest help. I was breathing faster and faster, harder and harder. Trying to get more air into my lungs, which was impossible because there was no more air to breathe.
At 15,000 feet I was running out of air, out of strength and out of ideas. This is when I first stated to consider abandoning the climb. I didn't mention this thought to the guide. He wasn't the slight bit tired. He looked like this was a walk in the park on Sunday afternoon. About 500 feet from the top I was taking more rests and I was unable to catch my breath. But the guide kept yanking at the rope that held us together. He would let me rest 10 minutes and then yank the rope. I still couldn't see the top from where we were. It took a monumental effort to just put one foot in front of the other. About 30 minutes from the top I decided I couldn't make it. I was gasping for air, my body was racking with pain. But each time I was about to quit, the guide would yank the rope and I would stumble on.
I remember getting a glimpse of the little flag that marked the very top. I used all of my will power to make the last few feet to the top. The top of the Matterhorn is a ridge 15 or 20 feet long. I reached down a grabbed a little rock which now sits on a pen holder on one of my book cases.
The view was magnificent. For 360 degrees were Swiss Alps, Italian Alps, French Alps, lakes and villages. 3 Swiss Vampire jets flew up the valley, well below us and performed a slow roll. I asked the guide to take my picture. And without further notice he yanked on the rope between us and we started down.
It is much tougher to climb down than up. I was pretty tired by this time and going down was a slip and slide exercise. For about 5 hours. There is a little hut near the cabin and in it is a table with a large book. When you have completed the climb you get to sign the book verifying that you have completed the ascension of the Matterhorn. I signed the book, thanked my guide and set off down the trail to the ski lift that would take me to Zermatt.
I noticed that I was hungry and I also noticed I didn't have very much money left. It was my own fault. I didn't have any credit cards or anything I could sell. I got on the ski lift and on the way down I passed out. I woke up and some people around me were very concerned. I told them I had just climbed the Matterhorn and they seemed to understand why I had passed out. At the bottom of the lift I got out and started walking over to the train station.
I got on the train and slept all the way to Brig. I got on the train to Geneva and had just enough to buy a ham sandwich off of the little food cart that was being rolled up and down the aisle. I slept the rest of the way to Geneva.
I got home and made my self some dinner.
Only after I was fed and had a little sleep was I able to appreciate what I had just accomplished. Other than drastically underestimating the amount of money I would need for food and maybe one night lodging in the cabin to rest a little, I had completed my mission: to climb the Matterhorn.
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