During the summer I turned 50, I stood with my husband, Gene, and our thirteen-year-old daughter, Karin, in front of the Bergfűhrerbűreau (mountain-guide office) in Zermatt, Switzerland, collecting enough courage to go inside and sign up for guides to accompany us on our climb of the Matterhorn. When I went to the movies as a teenager, every Paramount picture had a replica of this mountain as its logo, and I'd always wanted to climb it.
Gene was willing to go with me after we read the following commentary in William E. Reifsnyder’s Footloose in the Swiss Alps (2nd ed., 1974):
It is tempting to recommend that the hiker avoid Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Prices in Zermatt are high; it is touristy and crowded. Nevertheless, there is only one Matterhorn--it is incomparable--and no mountain lovers can fail to feel shivers down their backs when the clouds finally part and the grand peak stands revealed in its piercing majesty. It is an extraordinary sight, and no postcard or movie or word description can do it justice. It must be seen. If you really do want to climb the Matterhorn, that can be arranged if you have lots of money, no acrophobia, and at least a modicum of ability.
The "lots of money" part was accomplished from the sale of my mother's piano nobody had played since she died. It netted enough money to hire a guide each for Gene and me, plus a bunk in the Matterhorn's dormitory the night before the climb. Neither of us has acrophobia.
As to the "modicum of ability" part, I had climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington, Long's Peak in Colorado, Half Dome in Yosemite, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and was a life-long hiker.
The night before we set off, we instructed our daughter on what to do should we fall off the mountain. We gave her our passports, the plane tickets home, and the phone numbers of her grandmother, her aunt, and our attorney. "She'll be okay," I thought to myself, "she's almost grown up and has a good head on her shoulders. She's probably got the values she most needs by this time."
The next afternoon, as instructed, we took the ski lift as far up the mountain as it goes, and hiked about two hours to the dormitory. That evening over supper we met our guides to whom we were to be tethered for the 12-16 hours it would take to climb to the summit and back.
Gene was assigned to Pierre, a tall, slim, good-looking French Swiss who spoke fluent English. He and Gene got along right away and chatted easily on the climb. I was assigned to Ferrari, an Italian Swiss whose body might have been used in an ad for a weightlifting clinic and who was a man of few (but, as I was soon to know, consequential) words. The other guides had nicknamed him Ferrari because he liked to climb fast. He looked at me and, I imagined, thought "not fast THIS time."
We slept restlessly in our separate bunks, thinking of slipping, of loose rocks, the cold, the wind, and the altitude. In the dark we whispered: "You awake?" "Yeah." "Want to back out?" "No way.” Before dawn, we were awakened from these thoughts by the sounds of the guides on the wooden floor above us as they got dressed and put on their boots. We were already putting on our clothes when we heard: "Time to get up." Bowls of oatmeal and coffee were quickly eaten and we assembled in the dining room. Ferrari looked at my hiking boots and said, "Those look better for dancing in Las Vegas than for the Matterhorn." Then he roped us together.
With Pierre and Gene leading the party and with Zermatt far below, we started climbing the ridge that forms one of the triangular sides of the mountain. "Flat the foot!" commanded Ferrari, seeing me insert a toe onto a small ledge. "Flat the foot" I thought, "commit yourself. Face the fear and do it." As the ridge got steeper, I concentrated on following Ferrari. His massive calves at my eye level give some idea of the verticality. Often he had to wait while my fingers searched for some knob or indentation to hold on to as I flat footed it to the next little ledge. "Look for the handholds -- you'll find them" was Ferrari's only help. I searched beyond what I could see; I looked sideways, then up, and found them.
Many hours later, we reached the mountain hut where we were allowed to rest. After a while, I looked up toward the summit, now surrounded by clouds, and said to no one in particular, "The eye sure travels faster than the foot." Fastening his crampons onto his boots, Ferrari said, "Yes, and the foot travels faster than the behind -- let's go!"
My mind was on climbing, with snow, ice, freezing hands, wind, fear, and crampons making my boots distant from the rock. We had little time to enjoy the top because a storm was rapidly moving in. We turned around and started down. I wanted to cling to the rock. "Face out going down," commanded Ferrari, and I realized that if I didn't face out, my center of gravity would be hanging out in space. I turned around and faced out and looked down at safe, summertime Zermatt.
After the descent, we walked away from the ski lift onto the main street of Zermatt where we were met with the welcome sight of our curly-haired daughter walking toward us. Needing an emblem that verified our climb, we went together into a jewelry store where Gene bought me a silver Matterhorn pendant that I wear around my neck to remember our climb. I remember also Ferrari and try to follow his advice: With a project I've started, I try to "flat the foot” and to fully commit myself. I “look for the handholds” and expect I'll find help when I need it, and I recognize that "the foot travels faster than the behind" and I must concentrate on the moment. I'm trying to "look out on the way down" on the last half of my hike through life, facing old age without pretending I'm not closer to the end.