Scottsdale Magazine

magazine_tomOn September 1, 2002 I began my attempt to scale the famous Matterhorn with my climbing partner Tom Conner, and our climbing friend Jeff Widen. We are all very experienced climbers. Jeff has an incredible climbing experience and had already spent a month climbing in the French and Swiss Alps when we arrived in Zermatt, the picturesque village in Switzerland that lies below the majestic, cloud shrouded peak of the Matterhorn. Tom and I had climbed together for years. All of us had climbed every type of climb in every type of weather. Tom, our partner Scott Boylan and I had summitted Mt. Cotopaxi in Ecuador in December 1998, at 5897 meters (19,348 feet), the highest volcano climb in the world. We were as mentally and physically prepared as we could be. Our outcome would be up to the mountain.

We trained for months to prepare for the Matterhorn, as we do for all climbs. In dangerous sports, training saves lives. In extreme climbing a life is easily lost to weak skills, insufficient training, poor planning and weather—the one factor you cannot control.

Our training involved skill training, endurance training and mental training. Skill training means learning how to climb snow, rock and ice. It means developing an instinctive knowledge of the equipment for each type of situation, so well, that it becomes part of you. It means reacting to emergencies before you even have time to think about them.

Endurance training requires a complete commitment to your goal. For extreme climbing, the best endurance training is twofold. First, hiking for hours at a time over a variety of terrain with a pack that weighs up to 80 pounds. This hardens your legs and feet to the pounding they will take getting up the mountain. The intent of this exercise is to increase your strength and build stamina so that you can carry a heavy pack up to base camp, then hoist a lighter pack for the summit day climb. Overall, it mentally prepares you to stay focused during periods of extreme exhaustion and pain.

The second part of endurance training is climbing up and down, and up and down, and then up and down, again with a weighted pack strapped to your back that simulates the one you will be carrying on your climb, while wearing heavy mountain boots that weigh almost seven pounds. These same boots weigh almost ten pounds when you attach your crampons —the steel apparatus that strap onto the boot for snow and ice climbing.

I have two types of training days for extreme climbing. Day One I spend the day at Echo Canyon climbing with my mountain boots and carrying my 50pound pack loaded with all my climbing equipment for summit day—ice axes, crampons, food, water, emergency gear, harness, rope and other things. I will climb up and down Echo Canyon three times. Day Two: Loaded down with my heavy pack, I will hike Trail-100 from Tatum to Squaw Peak, climb Squaw Peak and then return to Tatum. Both provide valuable endurance training.

Mental training is a combination of experience and exposure. Experience is gained surviving and thriving in risky, difficult and exhilarating adventures. Exposure is looking down, seeing a 3,000foot drop right under you and not letting it affect your climbing success. Neither one you can accomplish from the comfort of an armchair or the safety of a classroom. The mountain is your classroom.

“Climbing the Matterhorn is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart”

switzerland-matterhorn-croppedAt 14,690 feet, the Matterhorn is one of the highest mountains in Europe. Not high by climbing standards, but deemed extremely dangerous. The most shocking thing about the Matterhorn is how deadly it is. Since Edward Whymper first conquered the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865, after seventeen unsuccessful attempts, eight by Whymper, it has claimed the lives of more than 450 climbers—far more than have died on Everest. In 2002 alone, the Matterhorn took the lives of 13 climbers. It is truly one of the most beautiful and the most deadly mountains on earth.

It is not the height of the mountain that makes it so difficult. At 14,690 feet it is a low altitude climb, removing most of the altitude sickness problems faced by climbers scaling big mountains like Denali, K2 and Everest. Technically, it is difficult and requires the skills of a trained and experienced mountaineer. In addition, the weather changes quickly and can move from sunny and safe to snowy, icy and deadly in moments. Finally, the route up the mountain is sometimes difficult to find—especially after a snowfall. If you stray off course it is easy to get lost in a labyrinth of crevasses, caves and seracs.

“Weather Can Make The Mountain Deadly”

tom-faranda-adventurerWeather can make the mountain deadly for even the most experienced climbers. After a snowfall, which can happen in any month of the year, and often does, the sun turns the snow into ice and the mountain becomes coated in sheets of “verglas.” Another dangerous scenario is a storm which can arrive at any time with a blast of freezing cold air, bringing zero visibility and winds that can knock you off the mountain. Only those with a death wish will venture up the mountain under these conditions.

Some routes up the mountain, like the Hornli Ridge route, which is the most frequently climbed route up the mountain, are less technically difficult. The Italian Ridge route on the opposite side of the mountain is, for example, a longer, more technically challenging route.

No route up the Matterhorn is to be assumed safe or easy. The required time factor alone is daunting. Three hours under good conditions are required to make it to base camp at the Hornli Hut, then you face a 4 00 a.m. start on a 14hour day to the summit and back to Hornli. The Matterhorn takes your time, skills, and complete dedication.

The most terrifying thing about the Matterhorn is how many climbers attempt to climb it. Since Teddy Roosevelt successfully conquered it in 1881, at age 23, the mountain has reveled in an aura of success shared only by a few famous mountains like Mount Everest.

Every climber of every level wants to say they climbed and summitted the Matterhorn. In July and August, the mountain is inundated with experienced climbers trying to avoid being killed by the actions of inexperienced climbers who do not belong on the mountain.

The Swiss, who serve as experienced Matterhorn guides, have learned the danger of guiding inexperienced mountaineers up the Matterhorn. Enough guides have been killed that a new policy has been instituted that requires all climbers who wish to be guided to undergo a short, one-day climb with a certified guide so that the guide can assess the would-be climbers’ technical, emotional and physical skills. No professional guide will attempt a climb when it snows on the Matterhorn.

One overwhelming experience is to visit the Zermatt graveyard. In effect, it is the graveyard of the Matterhorn. Tombstones with ice axes sculpted into the markers or actual crampons and ropes bolted to the markers are common. These are the graves of many who attempted an assault on the Matterhorn and paid the ultimate price.

Extreme mountaineering is still one of the world’s most fascinating sports. It is impossible to explain the fulfilling exhilaration that comes with a view at the top, and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment in completing a climb and safe return, to those who have never taken the first step toward this goal.

Extreme climbers are optimistic relists. Failing to make a summit is part of mountaineering. Getting used to the exposure of thousands of feet of drop-off below you is part of mountaineering. Blizzards, freezing cold and biting winds are a part of mountaineering, just as beautiful, peaceful, sunny day are a part of the sport. You accept these things or you stop climbing. Once you have passed these rituals of climbing, you know that your life would never be the same without it and you thank God for every attempt – successful, or not – that awards you the thrill of a safe victory or defeat.

The storm that knocked us off the Matterhorn last fall was just like so many other storms that typically hit the mountain. A storm like this one creates glaze ice and if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can kill you. I feel very fulfilled with my failed attempt on the Matterhorn. It is a beautiful climb in any weather, and for any climber over the age of 40, ti is an honor to een be on this mountain. Age and experience teach you haw to fail with your pride intact annd how to go forward to succeed another day. Life is an adventure. Live it or regret not doing so.  •••