Friday, 28 January 2011

The first ascent of the Matterhorn's Zmutt Ridge

Albert Mummery

AT the age of fifteen the crags of the Via Mala and the snows of the Theodule roused a passion within me that has grown with years, and has to no small extent moulded my life and thought. It has led me into regions of such fairy beauty that the fabled wonders of Xanadu seem commonplace beside them; it has brought me friends who may be relied on in fair weather and in foul; and it has stored my mind with memories that are treasures, corruptible neither by moth nor rust- sickness nor old age. My boyish delight in the great white peaks towering above the gloom of pines is still awakened when the lumber­ing rolls through the gorge of the Diosaz or when the Matterhorn rises from out the foliage of the Val Tournanohe. I remember, as if it were yesterday, my first sight of the great mountain. It was shining in all the calm majesty of a Sep­tember moon, and in the stillness of an autumn night, it seemed the very embodiment of mystery and a fitting dwelling-place for the spirits with which old legends, people its stone swept slopes. From that moment I have been one of the great peak's most reverent worshippers and whenever the mighty rock appears above the distant horizon, I hail its advent with devoutest joy. Even the vulgarisation of Zermatt- the cheap trippers and their trumpery fashions- cannot wholly drive me from the lower slopes and I still love to gaze at it from amongst the pines of the Riffelberg, or to watch its huge mass soaring above the flowery meadows of the Staffel Alp.

In those distant days (1871), however, it was still shrouded with a halo of but half banished inaccessibility and as I looked at it through the tangle of the pines or from the breezy alps, I scarcely dared to hope that one day I might be numbered among the glorious few who had scaled its frozen cliffs. Three years later, however, the ascent had become fashionable, the deluge had begun, and with its earlier waves I was swept on to the long desired summit.
I am aware that from that moment my interest in the peak should have ceased, that the well conducted climber never repeats an ascent; that his object is to reach the summit and that object once attained, his work is over and he should rest in ignoble ease. The true faith on this subject is crystallised and resplendent in a remark made to me last year by a bandbox inmate of the Monte Rosa, Hotel: " I had to go to Grindelwald to ascend the Eiger; it was a beastly nuisance, but wanted to finish off the Oberland: shall never go there again."
For myself I am fain to confess a deplorable weakness in my character. No sooner have I ascended a peak than it becomes a friend and delightful as it may be to seek " fresh woods and Pastures new," in my heart of hearts I long for the slopes of which I know every wrinkle and on which each crag awakens memories of mirth and laughter and of the friends of long ago. As a consequence of this terrible weakness, I have been no less than seven times on the top of the Matterhorn. I have sat on the summit with my wife when a lighted match would not flicker in the windless air, and I have been chased from its shattered crest and down the Italian ridge by the mad fury of thunder, lightning, and whirling snow. Yet each memory has its own peculiar charm, and the wild music of the hurricane is hardly a less delight than the glories of a perfect day. The idea which cleaves unto the orthodox mountaineer that a single ascent, on one day, in one year, enables that same moun­taineer to know and realise how that peak looks on all other days, in all other years, suggests that he is still wallowing in the lowest bogs of Philis­tinism. It is true the crags and pinnacles are the same, but their charm and beauty lies in the ever changing light and shade, in the mists which wreath around them, in the huge cornices and pendent icicles, in all the varying circumstance of weather, season, and hour. Moreover, it is not merely that the actual vision impressed on the retina reflects every mood and change of summer storm and sunshine ; but the observer himself is hardly less inconsistent.

The Zmutt Ridge

On one day he is domi­nated by the tingling horror of the precipice, the  gaunt bareness of the stupendous cliffs - or the deadly rush of the rocks when some huge block breaks from its moorings and hurtles through the air- a fit emblem of resistless wrath. On yet another day he notices none of these things; lulled by the delicate tints of opal and azure, he revels in the vaporous softness of the Italian valleys, in the graceful sweep of the wind drifted snow, or even in the tiny flowers wedged in the joints of the granite. While the mountain  may sometimes impress its mood on the spectator, as often the spectator only sees that which harmonises with his own. A man may doubtless be so constructed that "a primrose by the river's brim, A yellow primrose is to him ." and in no conceivable circumstance or time could it ever be aught else but others more happily constituted, who can rejoice in the beauty of the external world, are scarcely likely to feel the "taint of staleness," no matter how thoroughly they may know the substantial basis of rock and ice on which the sun and cloud, mist, air, and sky are ever weaving the glory of the view.

It was, then, with an interest in the great moun­tain only intensified by my first ascent, that I crossed the Tiefenmatten Joch in 1879. Whilst descending the glacier, I gazed long and earnestly at the great Zmutt ridge towering above the long slopes of rock and stone swept couloirs of the western face. I was by no means the first who had so gazed amongst others, Mr. Whymper with his guides Michel Croz and Christian Almer, had studied it carefully from the crags of the Dent Blanche. The conclusions they came to may be gathered from the following paragraph : " My old enemy—the Matterhorn—seen across the basin of the Z'Muttgletscher, looked totally unassailable. " Do you think,' the men asked, I that you, or any one else, will ever get up that mountain ? ' And when, undismayed by their ridicule, I stoutly answered, " Yes, but not upon that side," they burst into derisive chuckles. I must confess that my hopes sank  for nothing can look or be, more completely inaccessible than the Matterhorn on its northern and north-west sides."  It did not appear, however, that this judgment was wholly warranted. The snow ridge and the jagged rocks by which it is continued for some distance further, offered an obtrusively easy route to a height of about 18,000 feet and on the final ridge, from about 14,000 feet to the summit, the climber had little to fear. Serious difficulty was limited to the short section of the route by which these two highways would have to be connected. From observations on this and previous occasions, it was evident that where the Zmutt ridge first steepens till it verges on the perpendicular, it would be necessary to bear to the left into a deeply out couloir, which falls in appal­ling Precipices to the Matterhorn glacier. The upper part of this couloir where alone we should have to deal with it, did not, however, look altogether hopeless and provided it could be ascended, the ridge would be regained above the first in­accessible step.

A short distance further, where it again becomes perpendicular, or rather actually overhangs, it was apparently possible to swerve to the right on to the long slopes of the western face, and after a considerable ascent, to regain the Zmutt ridge above all serious difficulty. Having decided upon this somewhat ambitious programme, I went down to Zermatt to find a suitable guide to carry it out.
In front of the Monte Rosa, Hotel I met an old companion, Alois Burgener, who gave me the joyful news that his brother Alexander might possibly be able to join me for a few days. The broad-shouldered Alexander, his face half hidden in beard, was then interviewed, he bluntly expressed his opinion that to go on such an expedition with a Herr of whom he knew nothing would be a  verfluchte Dummheit. I was much taken by this bold expression of opinion which appeared to me not merely indicative of a wise distrust of an untried climber, but also of a determination to drive home the attack, when once begun, to the utmost limits of possibility. My previous experi­ence had been chiefly, if not exclusively, with men who were eager to start on any attempt, no matter how desperate and who were far too polite to inquire whether their employer knew anything about the art of climbing. At an early stage in the proceedings, however, these men had invariably developed a most touching, but none the less most inconvenient, affection for their wives and families and were compelled by these most commendable feelings to discontinue the ascent. The confident carriage of Alexandra and the honest outspoken­ness of his language, seemed to show that he was not of this sort and  presaged well for our future acquaintance. I gladly accepted his suggestions, and agreed that we should make a few preliminary expeditions together.

We accordingly crossed to the Laquin Thal by the Mischabel and Laquin passes, forcing our way back over the Fletschhorn by a new and remarkably difficult route. We then ascended the Portiebeen thus successfully inaugurated, we were ready turn our attention to the Zmutt ridge. We felt, however, that we had fairly earned a day's rest so we spent the last of August lying among a haymakers of the lower slopes. Towards evening we heard that Mr. Penhall, with Ferd Imseng  and L. Zurbrucken, had started that very day to sleep on the mountain and assault the Zmutt ridge the next morning. We had little doubt about their success. The weather looked perfect, the mountain was in exceptionally good condition and the party was of most unusual skill and strength. We determined in consequence to vary our plans and cross the Col Durand. This would enable us to watch their progress and obtain useful information for the future and we hoped that possibly the east ridge or north-east face of the Dent Blanche would afford us consolation for the loss of the Zmutt ridge.

The next morning, on our way to the Staffel Alp we found that so fierce a wind was raging on the higher peaks that it seemed hardly possible any serious ascent could be effected. Our thoughts and aspirations consequently veered back to the Zmutt ridge, and when we met Penhall's party returning, and heard that they had definitely abandoned the ridge route, we determined to spend the day at the Stockje and see whether the wind and clouds really meant mischief On our arrival there the men soon came to the conclusion that the weather was hopeless. I was, however, much too young and too eager to dream of returning, and being wholly ignorant of all meteorological lore, I was able to prophesy fair things with such an appearance of well-founded knowledge that Burgener was half convinced. A second difficulty then arose. Our provisions were calculated on the basis of a ten hours' walk and were obviously insufficient for a two day campaign. Gentinetta's feelings, stimulated doubtless by the contemplation of these limited supplies, at length overcame his usual taciturnity and unabashed by " the dignity that doth hedge"  a Herr, he expressed his opinion of my prophecies. He backed this up by stating his conviction that at no period since the creation of the world, nor for that matter anterior to it, had such wind and such clouds resulted in aught but the most desperate and lasting bad weather. We felt that exercise would be good for his spirits and that in any case his company would be depressing, so he was sent back to Zermatt for extra supplies and the best man he could find and to help carry them. We pointed  out the place where we should camp, and undertook to intercept him on his way back should the weather appear to us too evil for sleeping out.

Ever darkening clouds rolled over the Col and the roar of the wind through the crags of the Matterhorn became distinctly audible, telling of the furious hurricane that was raging round its mighty ridges. Burgeners confidence began to waver and he again suggested retiring to the Capuan luxuries of the Monte Rosa Hotel. I felt more than a tremor of doubt myself, but the die was cast, so I trusted to luck, kept a cheerful countenance and declared that, come what might, we should have fair play from the weather. Burgener was impressed. The constant blotting out of the distant ridges, the ever gathering mass of cloud round the Matterhorn and more than a suspicion of dampness in the fierce squalls of wind that smote us at short intervals were signs, so distinct and unmistakable that he thought even a Herr must recognise, them. My persistence, therefore, suggested occult knowledge. I was, perhaps, a Mahatma (or its Saas Thal equivalent), and he settled himself in a sheltered comer and charmed by the caresses of my Lady Nicotine, told me weird tales of the ghosts and goblins which still haunt the great circle of cliffs towering above the Val Anzasca. As the day wore on, the burden of a cheerful countenance became too much for me so I retired to a quiet nook and, wrapped in numerous rugs sought to drown my anxieties in sleep. 

Late in the afternoon Burgener awoke me with a great thump and bid me look at the weather. My first impression was that he had come to upbraid me as an impostor, and hold up my prophecies to scorn and derision. His jubilant air and a look of thin­ness about the lingering clouds, however, negated these painful thoughts, and I found that the thump was intended to convey devout appreciation of my astounding wisdom ! I shook myself free from the damp rugs, and a gleam of sunshine breaking through the mists, we welcomed the returning orb of day with ear-splitting yells and a "break down " as vigorous as hobnailed boots would permit. Our conduct would doubtless have sug­gested to competent critics that we were pious followers of Zoroaster (or escaped lunatics ?). These ebullition's of joy having exhausted themselves and us, we packed the knapsacks and appro­priating the store of rugs belonging to the hut, made for the rendezvous appointed with Gentinetta.
At the extreme north-western corner of the great buttress or shelf on which rests the Matterhorn glacier is a stony plateau from which the ice has long since retreated. We hoped to discover a sheltered hollow amongst the debris with which it is strewn and thither ward we slowly wended our way. On our arrival we  found a total absence of convenient hollows and we were fain to content ourselves with such protection as the side of a big rock affords.

Above us frowned the great ice cliffs of the glacier, cutting off nearly all view of the mountain. To their right, and out of reach of any fragments that might fall from them was a long ridge of rock leading to the foot of the snow arete. Having lit our fire and set the pot to boil, we sat down at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Zmutt glacier, and soon discovered Gentinetta and another man making their way rapidly through the crevasses. Meanwhile the sun had set, and with the gathering darkness the last lingering clouds dispersed as by magic. About eight o'clock the men arrived, and we found that our new recruit was Johann Petrus. We were both delighted for no bolder climber or more resolute man has ever delighted the heart of an eager Herr.
Gentinetta's commissariat arrangements had taken a very fluid form. Our dinner consisted chiefly of the remains of our original provisions and an heterogeneous mixture of red wine and marsala, bottled beer and cognac.

During the continuance of this festivity, Burgener and Gentinetta vied with each other in extolling the weather wisdom of their Herr. Petrus was called upon to bear witness to its utterly uncompromising appearance in the morning and, not content with his testimony, the absent Imseng was added to my triumph : for had he not also given it up as hopeless ? " Yet their Herr had never faltered in his confidence little did they guess my feeling during the afternoon- " and had consistently borne true witness in the face of an adverse host." 

Subsequent experience has been quite thrown away on Burgener ; he still regards me as of transcendent merit in this branch of the climber's craft. When, as usually happens, facts do not agree with my forecast, he, like the celebrated French scientist, is inclined  to exclaim
"Tant pis pour les fait"
The night proved intensely cold. The clouds had prevented any sunshine reaching the plateau, and the small pools of water and patches of snow, even when we first reached it, were still hard frozen from the previous night's frost. These icy rocks below and a keen north wind above seemed to freeze us to the very marrow, and we shivered with the pain of cold under our scanty rugs. We were all glad when it was time to be moving, and at the first hint of dawn (4-15 a.m.) we began to scramble up the rocks and along the ridge leading towards the snow arete. At 5.20am, we reached its foot and an a sheltered ledge found the debris of Penhall's camp. Here we halted for breakfast and deposited the blankets which, thinking it just possible we might have to spend another night on the moun­tain, we had brought with us to this point. After half an hour's halt we put on the rope and began to ascend the snow ridge. Reaching the rocky teeth, which, when seen from Zermatt, stand out conspicuously against the sky, we scrambled over the rickety piles of frost-riven rock. Beyond the third tooth we were pulled up by a deep cleft. Burgener and Petrus, soon scrambled down the face of the rocks to our right and succeeded in getting into it. Further direct progress was, how­ever, impossible, as the ridge rose perpendicularly above them and a great rib supporting it bulged out in front and precluded all chance of traversing.

Of itself this would not have stopped either of the men, as a narrow gully between this rib and the fangs of the tooth on which Gentinetta and I were sitting, offered an obvious means of descending below the obstruction; further in front and to the left however, rose a slope with the unpleasant look that tells of a basis of rotten rock, glazed with ice and marked with powdery snow. Higher up it steepened till it seemed almost perpendicular. Up this slope we knew we must go or abandon the ascent, and startled by its appearence,the men recoiled to the rocks where I was still posted.
For another three-quarters of an hour we examined it without being able to see a satisfactory way across and doubts were being freely expressed when a distant jodel attracted our attention. Far away down the mountain we spied three dots whom we at once and rightly guessed to be Penhall and his guides. We wasted the next half-hour in alter­nately watching their progress and studying our slope. At length they disappeared behind a pro­jecting buttress and this excuse, for delay having disappeared, it was decided that we should pass the cleft in front and examine the slope more clearly. We descended into the gap. Burgener and Petrus then scrambled down the gully and soon found a way on to the face. On reaching this point, a few minutes later I found Burgener and Petrus already working upwards and in a few minutes we were again on the arete. After following it a short distance, we reached the point at which it was necessary to take to the evil slope and the discussion was once more renewed. Burgener was distinctly averse to attempting it but as there was no other way, Petrus went forward to explore.

I have not the slightest doubt that Burgenees objection to this slope was exclusively due to the fact that we had never previously been together on this sort of work. It was obviously practic­able but it was equally obvious that the slip of one meant the destruction of all who were roped to him. Subsequent experience enables me to sympathise with his feelings. The knowledge that you can do nothing to arrest a slip combined with a lively fear that one may occur, creates as unpleasant a situation as it is easy to imagine. The fear of slipping oneself is almost a delight when compared with the trap-like feeling induced by the rope with an " unknown quantity " at the and of it.
Our halts at this point and on the third tooth had exceeded two hours and we had no more time to lose. Petrus seemed to be getting on all right so Burgener made ready for the traverse. Though by no means a big man in the valley, on an ice glazed slope he seems to visibly dilate, and looks like a veritable giant when wielding his resistless axe. For some reason, probably to get a decent excuse for unroping Gentinetta and saving him from the risk of the " unknown quantity,"  Burgener told us to pay him out till he should be "gans fest." 

We paid out a hundred feet of rope, and as there was no immediate prospect of his being " ganz fest," and as in the event of a slip it was tolerably certain that it would make no difference whether he were or no, I cautiously followed his track ; Gentinetta bringing up the rear, free from the dangerous entanglement of the rope. Having traversed in all about a hundred and fifty feet we were able to turn up the slope, and soon reached firm rock, which, though very steep, offered good hold and plenty of it. Burgener dashed up at a furious pace. Suddenly a splinter of rock caught' his coat, and an agonised yell told us that his pipe, his faithful companion in many a hard-fought climb, and the gift of his most trusted Herr, had been jerked out of his pocket and had plunged down to the Matterhorn glacier.

Soon afterwards we regained the ridge and, without halting, followed it to the point where it not merely becomes perpendicular, but actually overhangs. We had now to traverse to our right on to the great western face of the mountain. Burgener anxiously scanned the huge cliff and then gripped my hand and exclaimed, " The pipe is avenged, we are on the summit," which I took to mean that we should be there sometime.
The men began the construction of a stone  man whilst I utilised the halt in a diligent search for a diminutive chicken which Burgener averred was concealed in the knapsack. We then prepared one of our numerous bottles for the due reception of our names and it was sub­sequently carefully built into the cairn. These duties having been performed and Burgener having borrowed Gentinetta's pipe—which, by the way, he did not return till we got back to Zer­matt—we began the ascent of the western face. We traversed a short distance and then turned straight up over slabby, icy and somewhat loose rocks. They were not however, difficult, and we made rapid progress. Probably we should have done better still farther to the right, but Burgener was very properly averse to this course as he thought it might bring us too directly above the other party. Even where we were he insisted on the utmost care to avoid upsetting stones. I subsequently learnt from Penhall that his party was too far to the right to be affected by anything we sent down and the one or two fragments we did dislodge never came within sight or hearing.

After some steady climbing, we reached a point from which it appeared possible to work back on to the Zmutt ridge, but Burgener was not quite certain, and on hearing that Carrel had traversed by a ledge higher up, he preferred to take that course. We soon gained this ledge the well known " corridor " of the early Broeil ascents-and found no difficulty in following it to the fault that bars access to the ridge. Petrus was promptly swung over to see if the last man could get down unaided. This being pronounced impossible, our second rope was got out. A good deal of time was spent before it could be fixed, the only available knob of rock being too round to admit of its being easily attached. Meanwhile,we had time to look' along the ledge which winds like a pathway, round all the irregularities of the mountain, to the southern ridge. It was quite free from ice and snow and in its then condition could have been traversed with ease. I also came upon a deeply rusted hook driven into the rock, a relic, I suppose, of Mr. Grove's ascent in 1867. Having slid down the rope we found the remainder of the ledge was very different. Instead of offering firm foothold on the rock, it was loaded with incoherent snow, and the few nobs which protruded through this were glazed with ice and for the most part rotten.

It was, however, of no great extent, and we were soon able to plunge through the snow on to the ridge 12.50 p.m.). Petrus, who had been more or less erratic in his movements all day, had disappeared. We followed his traces, occasionally on the arete, but more often on the steep slope to the left and in three-quarters of an hour found him on he summit (1-45 p.m.).
The day was perfectly calm and the view cloudless. Time fled swifly and when Burgener came up to me with the rope at 2.30 p.m. I could hardly believe we had been three-quarters of an hour on the summit.

Then we descended the chain-clad north-eastern arete to the elbow where we waited a few minutes to watch Penhall's party, which had just come in sight on the Zmutt ridge. With a parting jodel to our friends we plunged down the slopes to the cabana. Great care, however, was required to avoid the broken glass and sardine boxes which had accumulated in large quantities. After a short halt we ran down to the Furggen glacier and at 5.30 p.m. were unbuckling our gaiters on the moraine under the Hornli. An hour and a half later we tramped down the high street of Zermatt and were soon enjoying the rewards of the faithful.

Note.—So far as I can learn, the ascent had till 1894 been only once repeated. On the 27th of August of that year,however,S.A.R it Duca degli Abruzzi,with Dr. Norman Collie and myself,left a gite, rather below my previous quarters.Under the lead of young Pollinger, who was the only professional member of the party, we kept to the right of my old route,and,reaching the Tiefenmatten glacier,skirted it where it abuts against the cliffs of the Matterhorn. Then turning straight up,we climbed to the snow ridge just where it merges into the rocky teeth.
We found the mountain almost completely free from snow and ice, and were able to climb without serious difficulty on the face to the left of the ridge—in the gully falling away to the Matterhorn glacier—which,when I was there previously,had been excessively dangerous.Similar good luck followed us when we emerged on the western face and we found Places which in 1879 had been very formidable, comparatively easy and simple. By 9.10am we gained the upper Zmutt ridge. This, owing to the absence of snow, was quite easy and a little before 10am we reached the summit. The fear of approaching bad weather had, how­ever, driven us ever forward at our best pace, and it is not likely the ascent will often be made as rapidly.

Four days later, three parties were on this face of the mountain together. Miss Bristow, with young Pollinger and Zurbriggen (ascended by the Hornli route and descended by the Zmutt ridge—the first descent effected on this side of the mountain); Dr. Gussfeldt with Rey and Mr. Farrar with D. Maquignaz (both ascended by the Zmutt ridge; Dr Gussfelldt descending by the Hornli route and Mr. Farrar returning by the Zmutt).

Albert Frederick Mummery:My climbs in the Alps and Caucases:1895.
Published TF Unwin London