Summer in France 2013 – Zermatterhorn
In 12 hours of train travel, with 4 connections from Carcassonne to Zermatt Switzerland, we arrive at our home base for the next 9 nights – The Hotel Bahnhof – and are shown to our room to freshen up before searching for dinner. I open the windows to our carved wood balcony and look squarely face to face with Joe’s objective…The Matterhorn. Wearing a skirt of fluffy, white clouds around its foothold in the Swiss Alps, the mountain showed us the rocky details of two of its faces; north and east. Their dark gray rock weathered by time and scarred by countless cramponed footfalls, and between them the ridge, the steep and impossibly narrow route that Joe will climb with his guide and friend Jonathon Spitzer. It takes my breath away – but I’m confident in their abilities and in Joe’s determination.
But for now, we walk the storybook streets flanked by ski chalet styled hotels, shops, and restaurants in search of famed melty Swiss cheese to fill our hungry bellies – Raclette. Mmmmm! Giant half-moons of pale yellow cheese bound in iron grips and slid, cut side up, under hot toasting elements to melt a molten, bubbling layer of goo, which is scraped onto a plate and garnished with boiled potatoes, pickles and jarred onions. Oh, the sinful calories be damned! We dive in with eager forks and wash down each bite with a frothy mouthful of local beer.
In the morning we meet up with Joe’s guide and friend, Jonathon Spitzer. We obtain lift passes at the Gornergrat Station and ride the cog-rail train up to the center of three mountain ski stations. Overhearing our conversations about climbing the Matterhorn, the guys quickly achieve superhero status with two pre-teen boys who sit in rapt attention as Joe & Jonathon tell stories about climbing the big mountains. We part ways near the top; them to work on techniques and to begin their acclimatization, and me to visit the 3883 meter observation deck and mountaintop shopping mall. Ugh!! Commercialization can really taint natural beauty – but we’re not all up here for the same reason…so let those who wish to buy trinkets do so with unbridled joy.
It was a beautiful, clear blue day with almost no humidity – a huge change from southern France…and from Florida for that matter. A paradise for sightseers, hikers, and climbers presented itself to hundreds of tourists and professionals. Being fully geared up with hiking boots and a day pack filled with 2 liters of cool water, I choose a route at the top of the Gornergrat to descend a few lift stations and catch a lower train back to Zermatt. But as I pass each station, the clean, fresh air invigorated my mind and body and I found myself passing station after station spurred on by wildflowers, delicate mosses and ever changing terrain. In four hours, I found myself back in the hubbub of Zermatt, legs aching and knees complaining after having descending all 3000 feet. I would pay for this ill-conceived notion over the next 2 days as my legs bemoaned every movement and solidly cursed each staircase. But I’m on vacation…so I took a couple ‘rest days’ to heal up.
Meanwhile, the guys went into the high mountains for 2 nights to get further acclimatized to the conditions and altitude by climbing Pullox and Castor near the Breithorn, and staying in an Italian climbers’ hut. Their goal was to get everything dialed in for the big climb on the Matterhorn. But on their third day bad weather moved in with winds over 50 mph, zero visibility, and rain…lots of rain…which translates to snow in the high mountains. They descended to the Klein (little) Matterhorn lift station to discover it abandoned due to the weather, leaving them with only one option; continue on foot down the mountain to the next lift station still operating.
Not exactly a great option after descending 3+ hours in full gear after 2 solid days of climbing and techniques, but staying at the deserted station was out of the question. Weary and hungry, I welcomed my mountain man back to Zermatt with a hot shower, a nap, and a filling home-cooked dinner. ‘Home-cooked’ you ask? Yes indeed! The Hotel Bahnhof has a fully equipped communal kitchen for guests in the lower level – and use it I did! What a fabulous cost saving measure in an extremely expensive tourist city. Thanks Bahnhof J
All through the night, and the entire next day, it rained and rained and rained. Guides were busily rebooking climbing huts and altering schedules with clients. Some left for other mountains like the Eiger and Mont Blanc, scrapping the Matterhorn altogether. Many were anxious as speculations circulated on the depth of new snow on the mountain. A foot or two quickly morphed into over a meter, with new ice…and hail on the east face…and, and, and. Nobody knew for sure because the hut was empty and communications were down. Visibility from the village was impossible. Everything had disappeared into the thick, gray mass of clouds.
But morning came. And Joe and Jonathon donned their gear and headed up to the reopened lift station to climb to the Hörnli Hut, to make their stab at the big mass of gray rock, now coated in a thick meringue of snow and ice the next morning. We all prayed for sunshine to melt as much snow as possible that day to improve conditions for their climb. They’d stay the night at the hut, wake at 3:30 am, be in queue to begin their climb by 3:50, and hope to be down at the lower Schwarzsee Hotel by dinner time.
I wished them a safe climb, and went the opposite direction to meet my paragliding pilot at the Sunnegga Paradise lift station. Paragliding?? Oh Yes! I had reserved a morning jump off the 3100 meter Rothorn Mountain to float on the air thermals above Zermatt. Strapped securely to my experienced pilot Danny, we awaited the perfect breeze to run down the launching area (yes…that would be running off the edge of a mountain) and be lifted into the crystal clear, post-storm blue sky. Oh What A Thrill – floating like a bird 10,800 feet above the village, feet dangling with nothing but a thin sheet of fabric holding us aloft. We dipped and swirled (perhaps a little too much swirling for me) over waterfalls and grassy fields and rocky outcrops. Over snow covered ledges and back up into the higher air.
After a seemingly endless 25-30 minutes, he handed me the stick camera which had been recording our entire journey, and we slid toboggan-style onto a grassy patch near the train station. My laughter was uncontained with this thrilling sensation!! We returned to his office to view photos and videos from our flight, settled my account, and parted ways with my sincerest thanks for a wonderful adventure. Feeling an adrenaline high, I picked up a sandwich and packed my day pack for one more hike on the Gornergrat…but only hiking down part way this time to save my legs another 2 day recovery. Back at the hotel, I fell into a deeply extended nap as my tired body shut out the busy street sounds and sleep overtook me for 3 solid hours.
The next morning as I engaged in conversation with a group of American Mountain Guides in their ‘Command Center’ of the lower level of the Bahnhof, they updated me on Joe & Jonathon through word of mouth and blog post updates from others at the Hörnli Hut. “They’re off to a good start. You should go up there to the Schwarzsee to surprise them and celebrate their victory tonight.” they encouraged with nods and smiles. “Joe would really be surprised – it would be great – you’d love the views up there.” they continued to encourage. So I called, made room arrangements, and packed an overnight backpack. Why not? After all, it was the day before our 26th wedding anniversary. Wouldn’t it be romantic to sleep in the grandeur of the high Swiss Alps, and to wake on our anniversary to bask in the alpen glow surrounding the gigantic mountain Joe prepared so long to conquer?
And that’s just how it happened. Our room was decorated like a ski chalet from a 007 James Bond film – and the view of the entire mountain range from our balcony was mind boggling in its beauty! Sheep roamed the grounds, their bells providing a pastoral accompaniment as marmots darted about nibbling grasses and flowers. I settled on the terrace with a big beer and faced the Matterhorn to watch for their return while listening to the afternoon guitar duo sing another chorus of “Proud Mary” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” – Really!! All day the sky was a cloudless, brilliant blue with no humidity; just like that first day we’d arrived and looked at the mountain from our balcony in Zermatt. – No – This was clearer, bluer, cleaner, more brilliant. I knew they’d succeeded. I felt it. And about 5:30 pm two tired, smiling, deeply tanned American climbers mounted the terrace in their boots and gear; coiled ropes slung over their shoulders – and said, “Michelle!!” At that moment I knew they had achieved their goal.
Of the 100+ guides, clients, and climbers who set out at 3:50 am that morning, only 22 summited. My amazingly determined, singularly focused, goal oriented husband was among that elite group of Mountaineers. I’m extremely proud of him and all of his accomplishments, and I’m constantly encouraged by his example to try harder, to not quit when it gets a little tough, and to always choose adventure on the road of life.
So…what’s next? Well, we have two more weeks in Axat among our friends and neighbors from many countries, and then we return to the palm trees, mega stores, multi-car highways, and air conditioning of our Florida home. Schedules, rehearsals, concerts, and the busy American lifestyle will once again consume us….but we’ll always have Axat and ‘Zermatterhorn’.