As we come to the end of this long journey, my most vivid impression of many remains the little English church on its hill with the plaques set into the walls, and the nearby cemetery that holds the graves and monuments to climbers killed attempting the Alps.
The Matterhorn, that looming, dark and curiously female highest alp that can be seen from all parts of the town of Zermott, Switzerland, has claimed its share of the bold and the reckless. Its peak, at fourteen thousand feet, was first ascended by a man, without oxygen, in the 1860’s. The Matterhorn Museum in Zermott displays the primitive equipment used in those early climbs: fragile leather shoes, nearly slippers, with crampons attached, ropes that in one tragic incident frayed and broke, hurling four men to their deaths.
The guide in the museum recounted the stories of some early efforts, which seem almost superhuman; how one man who knew he couldn’t make the climb to the top and back in one day devised a sort of hammock to sling from a rock in which he spent a freezing night.
The mad determination required for these attempts fascinates me, but even more the clear insight that these climbers were not victims.
Two thousand people from many countries make the attempt these days, with knowledgeable guides like Peter, who took us on the lower paths, and with modern equipment as well as information about the fast-melting glaciers that are perilous to climbers because of the crevasses hidden under the unstable surface. Four people die in the attempt every year.
Lucy Walker, the first woman, ascended to the peak in 1886, a few years after the first man; there’s a photo of her in the museum, wearing the requisite long skirt of the Victorian woman, with laced-up leather boots that looked designed for London streets, and a wool jacket. How she managed the ascent in that attire I can’t imagine.
She then applied for membership in the Alpine Club, an exclusive organization for alpinists, but was refused because she was a woman. The Club however conferred membership on her dog, who had climbed with her.
She like all the others made a conscious decision to take the risk. As one tomb in the churchyard proclaims, “I CHOSE TO CLIMB”—an Englishman who died trying when he was in his early twenties.
Other plaques and tombs with the names of climbers killed in falls or by cascading rocks are all around in the cemetery, their number uncounted. A battered icepick hangs from a grave, an Alpenstock from one further along, a coil of rope next, even a nearly new looking pair of hiking boots (no slippers now). And now there is always the possibility of rescue. Four recent women climbers, trapped by an unexpected snow storm on a ledge, called for helicopter rescue by cellphone, then spent the night huddled while waiting for rescue to arrive.
Which it did, eventually. This is the age of communication, after all.
Now the climbing gear is extraordinary: heavy jackets with yellow sleeves so a climber is more visible on the face of the Matterhorn, now a sheer black rock thousands of feet high, the snow and ice stripped off by climate change, boots as hard as concrete, goggles to prevent what happened to the early climbers, who knew nothing about the effect of sun on snow and came down from the Matterhorn with faces scorched black and eyes swollen shut, looking “like another race,” according to our guide.
And perhaps they were, and are. I might consider them heroic, or only wasteful: of lives, resources, opportunities. And what of those left behind? But as we curb to some degree (in many if not most) our adventurous spirit, something essential may be lost. “One form of life cannot be simply abandoned unless it is exchanged for another,” the psychologist/psychologist-seer C.G. Jung writes in Memories, Dreams and Reflections.
The heroic in some form is essential to our souls. Perhaps we only find it now in childbirth, or in the frightful risks and ravages of war.
[For more, please read “Climate Change Makes Mountaineering Riskier” by the Worldwatch Institute.]