It’s not the severed end itself, although it makes me shudder. Rather, the rope just looks so, well, insubstantial, coiled up in its glass case in the Zermatlantis Museum. How, I wonder, could you trust it to secure you while ascending such a steep-sided mountain as the Matterhorn, 4,478 metres high?
I’ve been up there. Strictly speaking it was only virtual, but still. The path up is sheer, the tumbling rocky terrain giving way on all sides. Around you there is nothing but thin air, while the view opens onto distant snowy pillows. I know this thanks to Swiss outdoor equipment brand Mammut’s Project360 software that allows computer users to “climb” the Hörnligrat ridge – the gnarled spine that leads to the summit – from the comfort of home.
Mammut’s software, using 360-degree photography, has been designed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the day man first stood atop the Matterhorn (or Mont Cervin in French) – aided by the rope that now sits on display. At the heart of Valais mountain resort village Zermatt, which nestles beneath the Matterhorn, that rope is a perpetual reminder of tragedy and triumph.
A mountain of a marketing tool
An intrepid Victorian climber, Englishman Edward Whymper ascended the distinctive Matterhorn 150 years ago, on 14th July 1865. It was one of the last major Alpine peaks to be conquered. Alongside him were three British climbing partners and three Zermatt guides.
Having successfully reached the summit, the climbing party began their descent. On the way down, novice climber Douglas Hadow slipped, dragging three members of the roped-up team with him. Whymper, Zermatt guide Peter Taugwalder and Taugwalder’s son clung to the mountain, but the rope wasn’t strong enough to hold those left dangling. It snapped, and the trio looked on helplessly as their companions fell to their deaths.
It was a pivotal tragedy: the disaster gripped the world, and the Matterhorn went on to lure climbers in their droves. Nowadays some 3,000 people attempt the summit each year. In fact, Whymper’s achievement kick-started Zermatt’s transformation from obscure farming village into Switzerland’s most visited resort.
“The Matterhorn is the perfect marketing tool for Zermatt,” admits Sandra Fuchs, who runs village bakery Bäckerei Fuchs with her husband Philipp. Among their bestsellers is a Matterhorn shaped chocolate known as “Matterhörnli”. Sandra has completed the famous ascent twice, in 1997 and 2004.
An international success
As someone who is only ever likely to scale the Matterhorn using computer technology, I am intrigued to speak to Sandra about the experience. She explains how “awesome but challenging” the climb is. “You have to train seriously starting one year in advance,” she says. “It also helps to have climbed another 4,000-metre mountain.”
She continues: “The ascent is not such a big thing, but without a guide it is very difficult to find the right path. It gets steep towards the top, but there are fixed ropes to help.
“You need a lot of strength in your arms. At the top you are very thirsty and tired – but you still have to go all the way back down. After completing the whole climb I had the sorest muscles you can imagine!”
Sandra Fuchs (left) at the top of the Matterhorn.
As well as locals, many international people, including celebrities, have attempted the summit. Last September Richard Branson’s son Sam had to be airlifted from the Matterhorn after he succumbed to extreme altitude sickness during a charity climb.
It hasn’t escaped the attention of Swiss alpinists pushing speed boundaries, either: in April, Swiss climber Dani Arnold successfully scaled its North Face in one hour and 46 minutes – breaking Ueli Steck’s existing record by ten minutes. Meanwhile, in 2013, Spanish trail runner Kilian Jornet sprinted up from the Italian village of Cervinia in just under three hours.
A resort in celebration
Zermatt is now in full flow counting down to the official anniversary on July 14th – there is even a large clock on the main square ticking off the minutes. The Matterhorn itself will be closed to climbers on the day – as a mark of respect to those who died – but a series of events and festivities are planned. These include an open-air theatre on the mountainside showing ‘The Story of the Matterhorn’ (July 9th – August 29th). Zermatt is even hoping for a royal visit: letters were sent to Buckingham Palace inviting Princes William and Harry to attempt the climb.
Summer will also see the Hörnli Hut, or Matterhorn base camp, re-open following extensive renovation to transform it into a sustainable structure with 34 rooms, shower facilities and even wifi access. Since 1880, it has provided climbers a bed for the night at the foot of the Hörnligrat ridge.
“The Hörnli Hut is important for climbers attempting the Matterhorn, because it provides a night of comfort beforehand,” says assistant hut warden Stephanie Mayor. “Guests come from all over the world, and during the evening can dine together and motivate each other.”
From Zermatt’s main square, the Matterhorn looks spectacular – as if sculpted by expert hand, the late afternoon sun lending majesty in light and shade – but I can see how getting up there must take motivation and then some.
Sandra sums it up nicely, saying the Matterhorn is an amazing mountain that looks different every minute of the day. And yet, 150 years on, it probably looks the same as it would have to Edward Whymper and his party before their fated yet triumphant climb.
For a programme of the anniversary celebrations, visit the Zermatt tourism office's website.
If you fancy trying the climb yourself, book a guide through the Zermatt Alpin Center. The climb costs around 1,215 francs ($1,285).
To try out Mammut’s software, visit: matterhorncalling.mammut.ch
Artist Gustave Doré's impression of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Photo: Zermatt Tourismus/Archive