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There for the Taking

From Ride the Breath by Gerry Roach

Chapter Six – Odyssey

The Matterhorn, Switzerland, 1973

Suddenly nervous, I looked at Barb and said, ‘Let’s rope up! I know this seems silly after climbing this high unroped, but look at the madhouse above us! One of us must always be anchored.’ We roped up, and re-joined the fracas.

There were several techniques in the struggle between Uppers (people going up) and Downers (people going down). The Downers, seizing any opening, swarmed down on top of each other, leaving no opening for the hapless Uppers. The Uppers, growing impatient, surged up in the tiniest gap, baffling the Downers with their almost obscene energy bursts. This seesaw technique worked, except that Uppers were always trying to pass Uppers and Downers were always trying to pass Downers. Thus, Uppers overlapped Uppers, their ropes inter-cross-mingled, and likewise Downers. The urgent impetus for movement meant that nobody waited for anybody, and the mob degenerated into a spinning swarm of human protoplasm.

Our insistence that one of us remain anchored further complicated our ascent, but we quickly learned how to play the game. We just played it one at a time. Finally, we arrived at the base of the summit snowfield, stopped to put on our crampons, and sure enough, our slow-motion friends passed us. As soon as we were ready to go, they stopped, and we had to wait.

Just as I thought that we might make a sane approach to the summit, I heard the whop-whop-whop of a big helicopter buzzing up from below, and I thought, ‘My God! It’s coming for bodies!’ Old fears gripped me, and I turned to focus on the step’s security. The chopper’s powerful motor, and beating blades indeed spoke of bleeding and death. Apparently intent on tormenting me, the machine made several slow, close passes. Feeling like I was ignoring an overdue payment to an insolent dues collector, I hunched over my ax and refused to look at the deafening dead-zone. The air-shattering whine made me nervous until long after the last echo faded.

We learned later that the chopper was on a photographic mission for a newspaper that was doing a story about overcrowding on the Matterhorn, but the chopper was part of the story. After asking, we ultimately secured some photos from the flight, and amazingly, we were able to identify ourselves. With the chopper long gone, the view from beyond held our approach to the summit of the Matterhorn in a silent spotlight.

The Matterhorn The Matterhorn

Barb and I arrived in Zermatt under blue skies; the good weather was still with us. When we asked a local guide about conditions on the mountain, he just shrugged and replied, ‘Oui, the mountain is there for the taking.’ Our plan was simple: we would take the Matterhorn.
Aerial view of the upper part of the route on the Matterhorn Aerial view of the upper part of the route on the Matterhorn

Gerry and Barb are just starting up the summit snowfield, and are the two highest climbers in this composite photo. Look carefully! You can see many other climbers.

Our laughter mingled with all the urgent, shouted commands. The Uppers’ faces all said, ‘Summit, Summit, Summit!’

The Downers’ faces all said, ‘Will I get off this mountain alive?’

Barb was below me, and after twenty years of mountaineering, the best advice I could offer her was, ‘Look for an opening!’ Everyone else did the same thing, and the dissonance rose in six languages.
The main summit of the Matterhorn from the slightly lower Italian summit The main summit of the Matterhorn from the Italian summit

We carefully traversed to the slightly lower Italian summit, and sat near a large metal cross. One of our horde-mates sang a glorious song in a rich tenor, and his notes floated free. It was the perfect expression for this extant summit, and for a few moments, we forgot the circus.
The Matterhorn
Again true to our mountain aesthetics, we hiked all the way back to Zermatt while the telepherique hummed overhead. We had the lower trail to ourselves, and we lingered in an eleutherian meadow as the Matterhorn re-assumed its classic shape.
Monte Rosa Monte Rosa

The ragged range had found its way under our skin. If it had been raining, we would have moved on, but le Grande Beau continued. Pulsing to the same drum, all I had to do was look at Barb, and say, ‘One more?’ She nodded her commitment, and the next day we marched toward Monte Rosa.
Our rapture high on Monte Rosa Our rapture high on Monte Rosa

The first part of the ridge was easy, but it steadily steepened and narrowed. Our splendid position and peek-a-boo views were sufficient reward for our effort—the summit would just be a bonus. When the snow ridge gave way to rock, we stowed our crampons and axes, and I led on from perch to airy perch. Today there were no lines, traffic jams, Irrationals, or helicopters—it was just us and the mountain.

Photos from the Gerry Roach Collection



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