The Matterhorn – Part II

I had only been in Chamonix for 3 days and one could call it a time of intense activity all designed to push my body to adapt to a higher altitude each day. Day one was my trail run to Mont Buet at 3080m where I ran like a bat out of hell and slipped on the way down crashing and burning beautifully. Day two included some ice climbing aimed at jogging my memory for crampon technique, actually I think everything technique at 3900m. Day three was Mont Blanc du Tacul at 4200m and that was an epic 12 hour job which left me dead tired an exhausted. I had already told Ervin (my trusted guide) on the way back into Chamonix, that I would not participate in the another day of strenuous climbing as I had not even a day to recover my body since day one. You have to appreciate I dwell at sea level in a country that is as flat as a pan cake. Not that I am complaining about my acclimatization strategy, it was spot on. I am merely whining about my aching calves and thighs. “So, day off tomorrow” I said to myself. I was so excited about lounging around town, soaking up the atmosphere and the gorgeous weather.

We arrived back in town, well after the scheduled afternoon briefing sessions that Icicle Mountaineering hosts. Similar to the walking wounded, I hobbled to the supermarket right outside my accommodation to pick up some recovery aids and the evening dinner (pasta and pesto). Once all provisions were acquired, I proceeded to say my farewell to Ervin and Nabil so that I could rest up and shower. No sooner had the thought of tomorrow’s self-prescribed rest day nestled its ethereal voice into my mind – that sweet thought of waking up a tad later than usual, long cups of coffee with BBC news in the background for company, alas need I torture myself anymore? Sarah and Kingsley inform me that I am going to Zermatt tomorrow morning because the weather will be perfect. And there you have it. I ceased to let the disappointment trouble my thoughts. It was about just getting on with it. I was more concerned with time than anything else. Now I had very little time to make sure my kit was all ready and together. Tomorrow morning would mean an early rise and a run to the shops to get last-minute gear. I wasn’t at all worried about the climb by this point, I knew I wasn’t as fit as I could have been. I mean post Atacama Crossing my training was more like maintaining myself more than anything else. Had I been Atacama trained for this challenge I would have had stronger legs, I mean before the tapering period, at my peak I could run 30km with 9kg back to back to back (which means 3 days in a row). This is designed to simulate multi-stage effect on legs.  Its harder to find inspiration relating to mountains when you’re surrounded by 45-50 degrees C heat, sand and as I stated earlier, but I shall emphasize it further, a Pan cake couldn’t be flatter than Kuwait!

So I closed the door behind me, got my gear off, took a shower, started cooking and debating with my inner voice the long task of predicting how many batteries I might need for my filming gear, and so on. The lists are endless, people who don’t know might assume that one pair of boots would suit all mountains, or that one ice axe would suit all mountains or one pair of crampons might suit all mountains. The truth is, there are boots for ice climbing, there are plastic boots for really cold weather (and ice climbing) there are Gore Tex boots for alpine climbing, there are heavy boots, lightweight boots, boots for one type of crampon fitment and boots for another. It’s very technical to say the least. And the Matterhorn is predominantly a rock climb with the need for crampons right after the Solvay Hut (4000m). I bought some light-weight boots for this one, used an ultra running bag modified for climbing, and my usual Camp ice axe which I love. A shorter one would have been sufficient for this climb but it wasn’t worth the hassle of it all. I think the tricky thing this year was the heat!! and I really had a challenge deciding what clothing to take or more likely remove to reduce total weight of carrying a 1.2kg DSLR Canon to the summit, not to mention the helmet camera, recording device, batteries and memory cards. It would be nice to have someone take care of all that for me and just film me and all I have to do is just train, turn up and climb with a mind free of the extra responsibility. This isn’t the case with me, I’m very involved in every aspect of the things I do, I guess you could say I live every moment with my heart and mind in it. Before I knew it, I put myself to bed earlier than usual. I certainly needed my body to take over and heal itself as much as little time would permit.

I arose after a peaceful nights sleep but unfortunately feeling as stiff as I had felt every morning that week. I brewed some coffee, made a couple of calls on Skype to let my family know that I’d be going earlier than expected and not to worry too much if I wasn’t in contact because I was going to be away for a day and a half. I toyed with the idea of taking 5mg of  Valium but wasn’t sure of the effects it would have on me with altitude. After careful research and with no literature linking side effects with altitude I decided to bite the bullet and just reach into my emergency med kit. Valium is prescribed for many ailments, in my case I needed a muscle relaxant. After a couple of hours I was feeling a lot more comfortable, and my thoughts now turned to the job at hand and not so much my legs which had been working very hard for me. At 10am, I met Ervin, Kingsley was there to wish us a safe journey and climb. After watching Ervin applying duct tape to his rear brake light housing with impeccable precision for 45 minutes, we were finally off and on our way to Tasch where we would leave the car and take a train to car-free Zermatt. The car ride to Tasch was through some of the most beautiful winding roads through the Alps. It’s no wonder that 5 out of 7 Summers I have spent returning to this part of the World. I love everything about life in this region.

Once we were in Zermatt, It was a quick stop at the supermarket for me to get some sandwiches to eat on the way up to Shwarzee via cable car. From there on it is a 2 hour walk from the lift station to the Hornli Hut; which would be our temporary rest stop for a few hours before the climb starts at 3am. The walk up to the Hornli Hut was quite pleasant and all the way I found myself trying to catch a  glimpse of the summit through her banner clouds which seem to prolong the eternal mystery I have with this mountain. The hike up is a decent trail which gradually zigzags its way up. It’s very nice to have good company on such trips. I’ve known Ervin a few years now, and he was there when I first tried Mont Blanc in 2010 but was a bit unwell and I decided to call it a day at the Gouter Hut. Ervin was with me in 2011 when I again attempted to reach the top of Mont Blanc, that year I was much fitter and Ervin and myself plodded along at 4200m like a well oiled machine passing groups of climbers like there was no tomorrow. We had reached the Vallot Refuge in some serious winds that most likely would have us blown off the summit ridge no question. Alas, denied again. So this year (2013) I skipped Mont Blanc as I felt I could reach it no problem, and therefore the Matterhorn was the next natural step for any Alpinist. Matterhorn certainly is a different mountain altogether, less distance to climb but more technical with some serious exposure.

IMG_7015

IMG_7022IMG_7030 IMG_7043 IMG_7051

We eventually reached the Hornli hut in good time. It’s a pleasant hut nestled pretty much at the foot of the Matterhorn. The mountain itself doesn’t look as spectacular from here, but let that not deceive her grandeur. It’s a good 1000m uphill climb which requires a lot of fitness, I knew that already. After we had checked in and purchased our water for the night and the morning, we set about locating our rooms. Ervin obviously with other guides and myself in one of the dorms for clients. I was assigned a top bunk with no clue who would be spending the night either side of me. The thing with mountain huts is there are rows of mattresses with blankets and pillows provided. It’s a lottery whether you will get a person who snores or a person who fidgets. I’ve done this many times over the years so I knew to bring my ear plugs. After a short time I met up with Ervin, no packs or tools just a helmet. We went off to do a recon and walk up some of the early parts of the Matterhorn before dinner at 6:30pm. I do believe the recon trip is highly beneficial for someone to get a feel for the terrain and to memorize the early stages because the next time I do this will be in the dark.

During dinner we talked about the climb, what to expect, the speed at which we must climb, the time limits and so on. I also spent some time looking at a notice board which had pictures and names of climbers dating back to long before I was born. These were tributes to all the many hundreds of climbers that had died  on the Matterhorn. So what are the dangers on this mountain? it’s not really that high so altitude related illness probably isn’t a huge cause but I would say rockfall and slipping would be the main causes of death on this mountain. It’s a very unstable mountain. The postcard view of it from Zermatt is nothing like what you’d expect when you’re actually walking on it. Loose rock everywhere and huge slabs of rock that could come loose and gain momentum and smash into a person with no remorse. It’s very hazardous in this regard. I would also say that due to its exposure, being short-roped all the way up and down with only a few places with safe protection nearer the summit (where the ice begins), it’s very dangerous to say the least. At one point I remember walking up what seemed to be like a natural staircase, and the cloud level was at my feet, it could be a stairway to heaven it felt that exposed. A truly beautiful feeling. At 9pm I prepared my gear for the morning in systematic order, brushed my teeth, donned my earplugs and laid down  and drifted off to entertaining thoughts of what to expect and what not to expect on the Matterhorn.

I arose around 2:30 to 3:00am I can’t honestly recall. It’s a different kind of morning. I usually wake up with my game face on in these situations. No giggles or friendly banter. Its a deadly serious business this mountain climbing. I ate a decent breakfast with Ervin, had a nice cup of coffee or two, and discussed once more the initial part of the climb as its gets quite crowded. After breakfast it was a quick trip to the toilet to expel any nervous fluids, yeah you know the ones, reminds me of being in high school right before my final exams and your just about to go into the examination hall and you gotta go to the loo just one last time. Suited up, harness on, carabiners checked, couple of slings, maybe a prussic loop, batteries, memory cards, hat, gloves, warmer gloves, the list goes on. We head off to the door where we collect our ice axes. The door opens and you leave the light of the hut to the darkness of a new World. You can see a snake of head torches already meandering up the face. It was surprisingly warmer than I had expected for 4am in the Alps at 3200m. It wouldn’t take long to feel the blood flowing through the veins and the engine starting to get into full cycle.5

It must be around 4:00am and the temperature is definitely above zero. It took a few minutes for the eyes to adjust to the dark but we navigated across the small plateau which is only minutes out from the hut. The first obstacle is a very steep climb up a sheer face which is a good few feet taller than myself. There is a large fixed rope to assist and some foot holds to the left. Once this obstacle is crossed you know you have stepped foot onto the Matterhorn, and have now entered her World. From this point we walk for about 15 – 20 minutes of slight uphill climbing before we reach the first of 3 couloirs. All around us there are strange rock formations and in the dark with the dim light of head torches their shadows almost feel like guardians of the mountain. These huge couloirs can be seen in and amongst them, and boy are they steep and vast. These would be the perfect place to be hit my falling rock as they would accelerate down the chutes unhindered.  4

From the hut to the Solvoy Hut it is estimated to take 2 hours for a guided group working at a good speed. We did exactly that give or take a few minutes. The 90 minutes of the climb was in the dark, I took no pictures but I had video. I can’t recall too much what the view was like. I can of course tell you how I was feeling. I do remember starting to feel quite fatigued early on. Much earlier than I had hoped. I do believe that my legs were just really tired. Because there wasnt much conversation between Ervin and I, Ervin being some metres in front route finding, I was left to converse with my inner voice. Sadly, I was telling myself that I wasn’t going to make it up at this pace.  We literally did not stop at all. I never thought that I would feel this way but I can tell you that catching up with a slower group was always a relief for me, and that I was able to grab 20 or 30 second rest while they would navigate an obstacle. for a long time I lived for these little moments of rest. I was really hard on myself with this climb, I truly felt that I was unfit and that I had blown it doing so much running and hard climbing the previous days. As sunrise came up, things began to get a bit more interesting. I say this in the sense that the views opened up, the full-scale of the exposure was now revealed. It is a huge confidence boost to be able to walk calmly, with speed and precision, footwork and hard work in unison,  all the while keeping quality points of contact. Even though I have a guide, he is there to route find for me on this dangerous mountain and he is there to look after me should something happen. Remember this though, he is short roping me, which means he has a rope in his hand that is coiled a few times and the end of that rope is locked into my harness. Him nor I are  attached to this mountain in the early stages. On the stairway to heaven part, there is no fixed belay, no running belay. if I slip, I believe he will not be able to hold my weight and most likely bring us both down 1000m to our quick death. So I as a client, as an amateur mountaineer have a huge responsibility for my life and also for his. Any lack of concentration on the Matterhorn could end badly and in a split second.climbing

All they way up there are plaques in the rocks for people who have died. Sadly I didn’t pay much attention to these. I wish I had done but there was no time to even sit and have a breather. Certainly not until we get to the Moseley slabs and where the Solvoy hut is situated. The Solvoy hut is 2 hours from the Hornli Hut and a further 2 hours from the summit. Here we were able to take a quick official rest and a snack. I wasnt feeling to hungry actually but I had fluids. I am more of a fluids man than a food man when I am in the thick of it. I remember looking around and feeling slightly better in that we had made it to the halfway pointy and that I was not going to be turned away. I think by this time I had stopped arguing with my awful inner voice which kept trying to dominate my thoughts by telling myself that I cannot do this climb, that I am a failure, and I am useless and not fit at all. Just because I can run pretty well in Kuwait and on the flat, just because I ran 76km after 5 days in the Atacama Desert and so on that I think I can do this? I wasnt as fit as when I was at Atacama and even when I thought I was fit I knew I wasnt fit enough. It’s an awful thing the mind in strenuous times but I am quite stubborn and eventually I blocked it out and stopped listening to my own complaints. I did a similar thing in Atacama, when I blogged I did nothing but complain! I think its my release and that I underestimate myself a lot (which is a good thing) because it keeps that fire burning to push myself further.

The Moseley Slab in named after the American William Moseley. There was a 14 year gap between the tragedy of the first ascent of Whymper’s Party and that of William Moseley. Mosleley refused to tie in, and attempted to climb this part without rope, and relying only on those old fashioned leather boots with nails in the soles. Im sure they didn’t help much on this section. Halfway up the slab he fell to his death.  This mountain can catch anyone off guard, and its consequences are unforgiving. After the Solvoy hut the terrain changes dramatically. I now have to deal with ice on rock, and the gradient is much steeper. The Moseley slab and beyond are where the most infamous stories of tragedy happened. All the way up you can see climbers with their brightly coloured helmets and you just when you think you’re getting somewhere, you feel like the summit just doesn’t get any closer. The higher up we climbed, the more the wind howled.  I do recall however, imagining Edward Whymper and his team climbing this back in 1865 with equipment that was so heavy and quite unreliable. Its awe-inspiring. 3 IMG_7098 IMG_7099 IMG_7094 IMG_7093

I read a story about a guide lowering a client down 15 metres from the Upper Moseley Slab. The client lands on their feet and safe. Meanwhile a cry is heard and nobody saw it they just heard the thump and the guide was killed and that was just from a fall that you might expect to survive. The Italian guide in question was experienced and had climbed the Matterhorn at least 20 times previous. At the fixed ropes, some way above the Upper Mosleley slab, there are climbers already descending while we are on the last 3rd of the mountain. The point at which ascenders and descenders meet all fighting for one fixed rope is where the potential for human error can really unfold. Imagine trying to climb over other people, trying to make sure your rope doesn’t get caught in and amongst there’s, and ice flakes are flying off their boots and crampons into your eyes as they down climb. Every now and then a larger chunk of ice bounces down towards you and you prepare yourself to anticipate which way it might dodge. It’s truly a situation where there are numerous variables and each one of those variables potentially have a very bad ending for you. There are sections on these high fixed ropes which allow the guide to have you belayed which is pretty safe so that is a positive thing.

The fixed ropes are as big as a fist and are bolted into the rock via some rather large iron hoops some 30 meters apart. The gradient steepens to near vertical the higher up we climb. It was steady-going up this section, pretty long actually,  the fixed ropes just seem to go on farther than the eye can see. I was tired, I can tell you that openly. I kept waiting for the adrenaline rush that I know would come if the summit came in sight. However the climb just seemed to go on forever until the fixed ropes ceased to offer their protection, slippery rocky ice suddenly turned to snow and the views were simply breath-taking, beautiful enough to bring tears to your eyes. I remember looking to my left, and I saw the whole of the valley open up as if I were on a much higher mountain. It felt aloft like the pictures you see with climbers on top of Everest where you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. To me this was my Everest and my God its a beautiful site. You have to earn the right to witness this view. The snow slope rose gradually and we took out our ice axes for stability and protection. We were now on what was to be the last few meters to the summit ridge. When I saw the summit ridge I felt a rush of emotion flow deep within me, a cocktail of adrenalin and disbelief with a sprinkling of pride. We plodded along carefully passing climbers that had their fill on the summit and were no realistically half way. They were making the descent back down. Passing other climbers on a ridge that is not even a metre wide with at least 1000m drop either side is a sight to be seen. It is truly spectacular and not for those who are afraid of heights!IMG_7066 summit5 summit4 summit2 summit1 summit 2

Reaching the summit of this magnificent mountain has been a dream of mine for quite some time. It was a spur of the moment thing when I had initially contacted Icicle Chamonix. There was not a great deal of time to prepare and I was unable to run outside because it was terribly hot. I had not climbed for a couple of years and I had lost my mountain legs which was evident in the Atacama Crossing in March 2013. The feeling I had within was uncontainable. I’d be concealing something very important to me if I was deliberately hiding the fact that I had tears in my eyes as I approached the summit. The joy, the disbelief, the pride, it was all so emotional. The satisfaction that brewed inside me to counter attack the annoying voice inside that was harassing me all the way up this mountain. Wearing away at me. There is something that I have learned from hardships and that I never turn away from and that is the struggle to battle with that inner voice that you talk to when you are undertaking these huge challenges. This is all part of mental strength and development. With every climb, or every adventure race that I do, I learn something new about myself. I quite often find that I grow stronger and wiser. The summit of the Matterhorn is absolutely breath-taking, you have a 360 degree panorama and you can see all the high peaks of the Alps including Mont Blanc which is featured in one of the photos. You have to be there to believe it. The drop on either side is truly immense. It excites me and I live for these moments. Reaching a summit is only 50% of the job done, the other half is descending safely. Most accidents happen on the way down. However for those minutes that we were up there, I would say no more than 20 minutes, I was like a kid in a toy store, pointing and shooting my camera in all directions, standing on top of the head of the mighty Matterhorn. I felt like I had conquered something so immensely terrifying to some, so difficult for others. To stand on top of her the way I did, I felt that I was finally in control of all the variables. I felt like I was where I was meant to be. Many people sit on a summit and rest. I cannot do such things. I feel more at home up there than I do when I am at sea level. I feel so alive in these moments and its like the high that I have always dreamed of. It’s a drug that flows through my veins, feeds every inch of my body, fuels the fire in my soul. In these moments I have no fear, I feel part of the mountain, as if she connects to me through my boots, and I am the bridge between her and the heavens. This is a magical feeling that I wish all of you could at some stage feel. I remember a very amusing comment that I shared with Ervin.

Me: “Ervin, let me take a few more pictures just to be safe”

Ervin: “This is Matterhorn, It’s not safe!”

On that note, I packed away my camera, followed orders and straightened up my face, checked my gear and we proceeded to descend as safely as possible. I shall refrain from continuing to document the descent because it follows exactly the same route as the ascent. The only difference was that I was lowered down a lot of the steep sections with feet dangling in the air which is fun, and that my legs were buggered after a long, intensive 8 hour summit and return. Upon reaching the bottom, and finally off the mountain. I looked back, took some last photos. I stared back at her and thanked her for allowing us to climb her up and down safely. The Matterhorn makes her own weather; she throws down rocks whenever she feels like it. Im so thankful to have done it and it shall forever be one of my greatest days so far. I also give many thanks to my friend and international mountain guide Ervin, the legendary Slovak who is a mechanical warrior that will push you hard and will not let you have the climb easy. He knows exactly what needs to be done and he is superb at it. I also give many thanks to Kinglsey and Sarah of Icicle Mountaineering who have provided many years of excellent service and hospitality to me. They are my friends, yet I always follow their orders when it comes to these climbs. Their decision to send me up early was spot on and I am forever grateful to their expertise. After all I trust them all with my Life!

Icicle Mountaineering: http://www.icicle-mountaineering.ltd.uk/

Ervin Velic: http://www.horskyvodca.sk/en/

Advertisements
Comments
2 Responses to “The Matterhorn – Part II”
  1. Dra Martha Castro Médico WMA says:

    Reblogged this on CYCLING LEARNING AND HEALING THE WORLD.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: