Tombstone White

The treacherous history of the Matterhorn can be read in books and snowy graveyards, but to write it you've got to survive it

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

When we left the moraine and crossed onto the glacier, we discovered 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 moving across it as quickly as we could when 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 appeared as a twisted blue lump with blond hair. I approached holding my 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 35mm camera with a smashed lens. A down coat tied in a bundle with string. Wool socks. A woman's wool sweater melted into the ice. The pack had crashed here days, maybe weeks, earlier. The blond locks were loops of rope that slumped half out of the pack.

John knelt beside the shredded pack. He was thinking what I 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 and decided to climb straight up the middle rather than hike the big loop around the end. Foreshortening is the mother of all optimism, and shortcuts seldom are (short, that is). 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. Halfway up we became lost in a labyrinth of widemouthed crevasses and leaning seracs, and had to rope up and slow down. We began to zigzag, 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 wanted to be rescued. 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 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, and then it 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.


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