Monday, August 1, 2022

South side story (4)

Concluded: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

On the morning of the 17th, we drank our coffee after melting some pieces of ice with our spirit stove. Then, roping up at the tent’s door and taking with us only the most necessary gear, we starting climbing again. It was a beautiful day. The first pitch, climbing the tower, was difficult: the water seeping down the rocks in the sun had frozen during the night. We had no idea how to get a hold, our knees would slip, and our fingers were stiff with cold. Even the sun seemed to be waiting for a bit of warmth before venturing out. 

The fixed rope underneath Pic Tyndall
Image from Guido Rey's The Matterhorn

Only one of us moved at a time, the others standing fast and winding the rope around some rocky spike to prevent an accident. We followed this system for the rest of the day; it has the advantage that the one who is climbing has three men to watch over him and make sure that he plants his feet solidly and gets a good grip with his hands, because if anybody were to miss a hold, there is no way he could recover from the slightest slip. The others, who would otherwise be unable hold a fall, even if they were well positioned, can now oppose any shock; this can be quickly done in the most dangerous places, even over endless gulfs like those surrounding us.

After climbing the tower, we left the ridge and regained the Valtournenche side through a very dangerous funnel-like couloir. From there we crossed a small plateau covered with very hard snow, then a few minutes later we reached the fixed rope. This was the rope that Tyndall had left behind during a previous attempt. Our four scouts from Valtournenche had found it in good condition. As it was completely bleached by the sun, however, they didn’t dare rely on it completely. They replaced it with a stronger rope, but when they descended they left behind only a thin line. So we first had to pull through a narrower rope, and then a hawser, so that we had a double rope. Then, one at a time, we tied in to one end of the rope while the others pulled the other end down. In this way, we clambered up more than 20 vertical metres. 

At this height, there is a rock window where the wind always blows vigorously, and next to it is the so-called Cock’s Comb. From there to the pyramid at the shoulder the route was easy; we were once again on the ridge.

At nine o'clock we were at the pyramid of the Shoulder. From there over to Pic Tyndall, the trail is quite awkward for anybody who suffers from vertigo. You walk horizontally over a knife’s edge with precipices on both sides, and one is forced to look downwards the whole time.

By ten o'clock, we had Pic Tyndall behind us. We took Tyndall's staff with us so that we could fly our flag with it. We took a short rest on a rock beside the brèche between the Shoulder and the summit block. Now we were venturing into unknown territory; none of us had previously gone beyond this point.

It seemed to me obvious that we would continue the climb as best we could along the ridge, but Carrel was taken by some somewhat redder-gleaming shelves of rock; he thought we’d need to follow this line to reach the Swiss side. Now we set off again, leaving all our gear behind at our rocky resting perch, except for two ropes, one of which we were tied into and the other reserved for unforeseen incidents. 

Crossing the brèche after the Shoulder is rather ticklish. You have to scramble across, climbing more than a metre from one rock to the next. Thus we bridged ourselves over the abyss, not always on sound rock. Creeping along, flattened against the wall, we were already almost halfway across the flank that overlooks the Zmutt valley when we were alarmed by fragments of ice and rock falling from the direction of the summit. We could see no way out of there, and so we moved up again through the vertical face. This was the pitch that cost us the most time and effort. 

Finally, we reached the base of the final block, which leaned out a bit. The ice fragments we saw falling past our head couldn’t touch us here; we saw them shatter on the section of rock we had just climbed through. This place is no wider than two metres and slopes away at 75 percent, yet we still graced it with the name of corridor, gallery, railroad and so on. Clutching the rock above us, we crept along this gallery. "No way here," cried Carrel in the lead. "So much the better then,” replied Meynet, who was taking up the rear. He had misheard Carrel’s words as "all safe". 

A hitherto unseen couloir, a few metres wide, cut us off from the ridge, from where the climbing was easy and without danger. We took a look at the place and saw that seven or eight metres below we could get to the ridge and hence our goal. Let’s rope down, we decided. Yes, but how? We had no time to drive an iron ring into the rock. But without one we wouldn’t get any further, and yet it was only a matter of a few paces. This was the last obstacle. 

We thought about it. I was the heaviest and the strongest, yet I wouldn’t have given in if I had been paid my weight in gold. But a sacrifice was called for here, and I had to make it. Bracing my heels over the precipice, and propping my back firmly against the rock, I wedged my hands against my chest and let two of my companions down on the rope. The third chose to stay with me, to my relief.

A few minutes later, my companions were out of danger, on an easy route. They could practically run now. Yet my sacrifice weighed on me. I watched them as I sat astride the ridge, and cheered them on. And I kicked my heels into the Matterhorn, as if to impress on it that it was vanquished: "Now we have we have you!” I was looking for a way to abseil down this couloir and to make it accessible to future climbers when the others came back. I pulled them up on the rope and they pressed my hand. After a few words of congratulation, I tied into the rope again, and we started our descent.

We went back along our ledge and returned to the ridge that looks out on the Val Tournanche and which we should have climbed on our way up. From there to the shoulder is not far and it is without any danger too. After we had picked up the supplies we’d left behind on our rock (we had no time to eat, it was too late), we saw a phenomenon that cheered us. The air was clear over Switzerland, and we saw ourselves in the centre of a rainbow-hued halo. This fata morgana encircled all our shadows as if in a wreath. We left the rope in place for future ascents. 

As night started to fall, we were back at the funnel. It was already dark when we abseiled down the tower, and we reached our tent at nine o’ clock. Since we couldn’t find any dripping water to collect, we melted a piece of ice and mixed it with the rest of our wine. We ate with healthy appetites, and after we had done all that had to be done, we laid ourselves down to rest at midnight.

Sleep after such a day's work does one good, and I slept very deeply. In the morning I felt something cold on my head, pressing down with an icy weight. I asked Carrel what he’d put on my head, but nothing was the answer. I put a hand to my head and realised that we lay at least a foot deep in hailstones. A storm had broken out overnight, and our tent was almost covered. The whole mountain was white and the weather was ugly.

We lost two hours trying to melt hailstones for our breakfast. I never imagined that hailstones would be so difficult to melt and yield so little water. After a miserable repast ,we tied into the rope again and set off, leaving our supplies in the tent which we tied up tightly. Without Carrel, who knew this part of the mountain like the back of his hand, we would hardly have made it down this time. We could scarcely see where to put our feet or what to grip with our hands. Everything was iced up.

From the Col du Lion we saw one flag fluttering out over Giomein, then two, then three more. Our fatigue vanished, we were out of danger and everybody had seen us. A surge of jubilation came over us when, at last, we felt grass under our feet on grass again. We found we could speak again, having said almost nothing all that time on the mountain except get a grip, easy now, have a care! I now confessed to my companions that I had never dared to let myself think of turning back, and I found that their thoughts had been the same.

People came up to meet us. Our return was like a triumph. At noon on July 18, we entered Giomein. Only then did we learn of the misfortune that had befallen the Englishmen who had pipped us to the post.

The ascent of the Matterhorn will always be a considerable undertaking, but with some preparation it should be within the reach of those with mountain sense and experience. In several places, you would need to drive iron rings into the rock and pass a rope through so that climbers can secure themselves. And I’m pleased to hear that the Turin Alpine Club is seriously considering Canon Carrel’s proposal to dig out a recess in the rock, either at the Cravate or at the Collier de la Vierge. A hut up there would provide a safe refuge and the option of sitting out bad weather. This, however, would make an ascent not only possible, but I would almost say easy.


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991