As I sat at the Hörnli Hut, beneath the pyramidal colossus that is the Matterhorn, looking up at its seemingly endless wall of granite on the eve of my summit bid, anticipation built. My climbing partner, JD, and I sipped beer that we hoped would settle the nerves as the sun set behind the 4,478m peak, casting a huge shadow over the Zmutt Glacier Basin and the town of Zermatt, far below. The thunder of avalanches and rockfall resounded throughout the natural amphitheatre, blending with the chirrup of alpine choughs that had briefly ventured to this altitude to scavenge crumbs left on the hut’s veranda.
As the shadows lengthened, the choughs descended. Now climbers and hut staff were the only living things remaining, surrounded by majestic desolation. As I looked up at the mountain – every bit as steep and imposing in the flesh as I had imagined – I gave thought to what had brought me here: why this mountain?
The answer partly lies in the Lake District. When I was six, my Dad took me walking on a clear winter’s day to Blea Tarn, an isolated lake that sits in a bowl of granite below incongruously named High Street mountain. As I looked up I saw two ice climbers, roped together, inching up the frozen falls above. The sounds of their axes cutting into the ice echoed around the otherwise silent landscape. I was awestruck by their endeavour, how it was they were doing what they were doing, and what it would take to one day do the same. Years later, I was given the opportunity to learn to climb but this only progressed to mountaineering a decade later, spurred on by a pact to climb the Matterhorn – aka the Berg der Berge, the Mountain of Mountains.
But perhaps the fundamental reason I developed such a fascination for this peak is the same reason the Matterhorn has achieved such iconic status elsewhere, both in popular culture (adorning everything from Toblerone bars to Swiss francs) and the mountaineering community: its sheer beauty. An almost perfect four-sided pyramid, it straddles the Swiss-Italian border in unparalleled dominion and, if you’re of a certain mindset, it begs to be climbed.
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