Ascent of the Matterhorn via the Hornli Ridge. July 1994.
The shout carried through the still night air, bringing me to the edge of wakefulness, it's reply woke me and I looked down at the little green pyramid of Buffalo, insulation from the cold night air. Raising my head, my rough bed of stones sloped sharply out of sight and my eyes refocused on the starlit glacier, 2000 feet below.
On the far side, the border with Italy curved in a long arc high above the glistening ice stream and a billion stars burned in the clear air. The Milky Way arched overhead, a celestial vapour trail that led my eye to the summit rocks of the Matterhorn and the source of the shouts. Two headtorches descending from high up on the ridge. It was one am. A deep silence pressed at my ears, the passing shouts unable to break it, only bending it slightly before calm rushed back and all was still.
I thought back the barney up at the hut, when the Belvedere's patio was almost stained red with Swiss blood and the air was blue with restrained swearing - we only stuck to the insults we thought the warden would understand! I snuggled down with a chuckle, rearranged my stony bed and fell asleep as a huge rockfall roared down the east face. Sunset from the Hornli Ridge
"Half pas' two?", I moaned as we all got up and cooked a hasty breakfast before piling all the gear into two bivvy bags and quitted out penthouse suite some, no exactly, 200 metres below the Hornli Hut. I almost trod on a sleeping body on the faint path up to the hut and we all assembled there, the yellow lights of Zermatt twinkling far below in the dark valley.
Gordon and Jools had recced the route the day before and they led us across iron hard snow, clinging to the cold rock for dear life before grabbing a large fixed rope and scrambling up into darkness. Another delicate traverse on very polished rock led to another fixed rope and we popped out onto the ridge, big jugs creaming "use me, use me!". A veritable jug metropolis although now and again we strayed out in the the less densely packed suburbs, cuticle country, before regaining the route. By now a long line of head torches were pouring out of the hut and heading up the hill and we realised that they were all following us!
Eventually we were so off route that return to it proper necessitated a hairy traverse and while I was halfway across the dreaded shout came down. "BELOW!!!" in seven languages and giant boulder came crashing down through the still black night, chasing the warnings at the speed of sound. Gradually the dawn caught up with us, dropping a faint veil of pink light over the snowy mountains on it's way to stir more northerly souls from their slumbers and with the light came the hordes. By the time we reached the Solvay Hut there was a bottleneck developing on the lower Moseley Slab, an easy angled skating rink of polished rock and intertwining ropes. A Japanese client took a picture of me soloing the route but his large grin instantly disappeared as his guide started dropping coils in an effort to reach the rope of the slab and he, thinking he was being untied started screaming in panic! The Solvay Hut was full of rubbish and the place smelled of shit. A portrait of Mr. Solvay hung inside, the rich Dutch benefactor of early 1920's quantum physics congresses, attended by the likes of Einstein, Fermi and Dirac. Now terrified Japanese climbers dropped their breeks and keeched in full view of his steely gaze. "Quantum what? Pass us the shit paper mate!".
The upper Moseley slab was incredibly polished, as was the rock all the way to the shoulder, though the climbing was trivial on large holds. I pulled over the last jug, along a narrow and exposed ledge above the north face and there was the shoulder. Talk about having chip on one's. The kitchen of the Great Eastern on giro day could rival this many! A long line of fixed ropes led up the vertical rock steps and ice, people clinging to them as if the mountain was about to blow over, all heaving and straining and all of them fighting like blazes! We put our crampons on and roped up. Sherpa Tentpeg and Sweeney Todd going together and I joined Monsieur Morreece on his pink rope. Hand over hand we struggled up the thick ropes, "Hoist the main brace, shiver me timbers, etc. etc.". Oops, I almost forgot I was on a mountain, all I lacked was a parrot and a wooden leg!
Flying crampons threatened to gouge our our eyes as descending guides bundled their clients down the fixed ropes, into a sea of angry ascending climbers who promptly dropped onto the nearest ledge. Dante must have been a Matterhornee, inspiration coming to him as he descended into the swaying, growling pack of maniacs on the ledge, eyes rolling under their helmets and axes flailing. Screams from the client on the rope as it swayed about, signaling their intention to ascend but no, the guide descends too and the pack bay for blood, pieces of flesh and Goretex tm fly out over the north face as the client is dismembered and the guide hacks at the clawing tendrils as the lunatics merge into a single insane entity. This whole scenario was enacted on every belay ledge. It was as if the Leverndale Parachute Club outing had gone disastrously wrong, showering the mountain with airborne crazies and someone told them Mr. Blobby was handing out fivers on the summit! No wonder Whymper cut the rope.
Through the mayhem, Jools and I fought our way to the top of the fixed ropes and the final snow and ice at a reasonable angle, past an Italian guide belaying his client on on one of those karabiners you use as a keyring, and on up to the summit ridge. Gary was there, waving to a helicopter full to bursting with Japanese tourists. The machine resembled a large insect, it's eye a vast matrix of camera lenses - The Cannon Bug!
I felt dismayed that such a beautiful mountain had been reduced to such a circus and after "waving" at the helicopter wandered over to the small summit perched on top of the north face. Cloud came in and obscured the view but not before I saw the massive drops on all sides, the low hills of Italy and black storm clouds coming in over the Breithorn. A thunderstorm was forecast so we hurriedly left and scuttled down the now quiet fixed ropes back to the shoulder, where we took off ropes and crampons and walked down the long, long ridge, abseiling the Moseley slabs and finally reached the hut four hours after leaving the summit. Got the gear and a cup of coffee in the hut and we headed down just as the heavens opened and a massive storm broke over us. Lightning flashed directly above me as I hurried down to Stafelalp and on down the quiet touristless valley, past old cableways leading up to the Untergabelhorn, echoing giant thunderclaps as lighting raced across the sky. I arrived back in Zermatt soaked, caught the train back to Tasch and fell asleep for two days!