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
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, dirty, 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 had died because he had made a mistake, a mistake we wouldn't have made—the bedtime lie that consoles all climbers.

By morning it was colder, the barometer was 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. Soon we were in a full-on blizzard, wet snowflakes as big as leaves. 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 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 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 ax 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 wet clothes. 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 mountain was buried in snow. We all slept in, assuming the mountain was unassailable. One more check mark on the "failed" side of the ledger. It's a part of mountaineering; you have to get used to it, even though you never do because if you did you'd quit.

A French guide announced that the Matterhorn could not be climbed. 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 few 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 traître extremement!—extremely treacherous. Furthermore, the weather forecast called for another storm sometime 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 Czech father-and-son team that had arrived so late the night before they were spending the day in their sleeping bags.

John and I watched the retreat. Going down wasn't easy. The Carrel hut is perched high on a thin ridge of the mountain, 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. We stood on the airy steel veranda of the Carrel hut, staring down, watching the string of descending climbers, wondering why the hell we weren't following them.


More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!