How I Climbed the Matterhorn and Came Back Alive — Last Chance

Evening in the High Sierra. After a surprisingly delicious dinner of gluten-free pasta, smoked salmon and steamed green beans, Dar and I lay on a boulder by the lake and watched the sun paint the Matterhorn in pink hues.

“We’ll go to sleep,” Dar said, “and you can make up your mind about climbing in the morning.”

“Cliff will be disappointed if I don’t climb,” I said, tracing in my mind the line of the north arete on the Matterhorn, certain that I will never set foot up there.

My head hurt with the heat of the day, not enough water, and the effect of the elevation. I took two advil and got into my sleeping bag, falling into a restless sleep from which I awoke frequently. The wind howled, shaking our tent and the trees outside as though trying to uproot and carry us back down to the Twin Lakes valley. All through the night, whenever I awoke, I could feel the soreness and exhaustion of my body and my mind, and I knew with certainty that I would not be climbing.

Heading out. Find my shadow

The morning dawned bright and sunny. Cliff woke us with a steaming cup of green tea and crackers and hummus for breakfast. I stretched, checking my body for signs of fatigue, but my tiredness had flown away with the night’s wind. My headache gone, I realized I wanted my adventure. The Matterhorn had been my dream for over three years, and here it stood, at my tent’s doorstep, beckoning.

“I might only walk as far as the beginning of the climb and decide to walk back,” I warned Cliff.

Cliff smiled.

The lake reflected back to me the faces of the mountains as we set out. Watching us from the lake, Dar grew smaller as we hiked farther up the steep uphill. There was no trail, just the rocks and the trees and the ridge top, and the two of us making our way through. I could feel no trace of the previous day’s exhaustion. I was strong and fit and ready for anything.

My only moment of joy

At the bottom of the glacier we strapped on our crampons and headed out. I loved every minute of it, the feeling of the snow crunching under my feet, the glow of it around me. Up and up and up we walked, making a staircase in the snow, till we reached the bottom of the Matterhorn and another slippery scree slope. There, we took off our crampons and hiked farther up, gaining more elevation, heading toward the beginning of the climb.

I looked back, searching for Tarn Lake, and wondered how we would ever get down. The glacier and the scree seemed so steep, the ridge so far. Tarn lake had disappeared as though it had never existed, and my heart quacked at the thought of all that ground.

High Sierra Climbing described the route as “not too difficult,” and rated the climb well within my abilities. I turned my attention up instead of down, tied on my climbing shoes, double-backed my harness, put Cliff on belay, and got ready for a few hours of fun.

The terror of the way down

I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.

To be continued….

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