Dumbing down the mountain

One of the world's greatest climbs is to be `protected' with fixed ropes and bolts. This theme park treatment of the Matterhorn would make Alpine pioneers blush, says Stephen Goodwin
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Our appreciation of life is keenest when our hold on it is most precarious," wrote the poet and mountaineer Michael Roberts 60 years ago. He was attempting to answer the "Why?" question that so wearies climbers. Instead of the usual shrug and suggestion to go and try it, Roberts developed an almost theological argument. Climbing, he said, was "a demonstration that man is not wholly tied to grubbing for his food, not wholly tied by family and social loyalties".

Alfred Mummery must have felt that wild exhilaration when his party reached the summit of the Matterhorn in 1879 after making the first ascent of the stupendous Zmutt Ridge. The 4,478-metre peak on the Swiss-Italian border was first climbed by an easier route in 1865 - Edward Whymper's triumph was followed by disaster. But Mummery's ascent ranks as perhaps the finest anywhere during the 19th century and embodies qualities of risk and freedom at the heart of mountaineering. "The slip of one meant the destruction of all who were roped to him," he wrote. So no one slipped. Mummery's example is all the better in that he climbed for fun, not to plant flags or play the scientist. And though down the decades the Victorian tweeds and long-handled ice axes have been replaced by Gore-tex jackets and specialised tools, the challenge of the Zmutt has barely diminished. Until this year.

The Zermatt guides, who regard the Matterhorn as their private property, have begun installing steel safety aids up the route and a cry of "rape" has gone out. The two "easiest" routes up the world's most distinctive mountain were tamed with fixed ropes and chains more than a century ago. But the Zmutt remained an unsullied place for the bold. Desecrating it now seems a deliberate "dumbing down" to attract more paying clients, but is it also symptomatic of our reluctance to accept the challenges thrown down by rock and ice with the red-blooded boldness shown by the pioneers?

Let's have done with the confessions. I haven't climbed the Zmutt ridge. Even in middle age it is just about within my technical ability - that is, I am capable of the individual moves near sea level - but whether I have the bottle for it at 4,000 metres is more debatable. At one point, you traverse out from the ridge on to the mountain's vast west face - "delicate" is the usual understated description. For that read "teetering across steep ground with poor protection and a couple of thousand feet of air beneath your boots". And then comes "Carrel's Gallery", named after a Matterhorn-obsessed Italian guide of the last century. The so-called gallery is actually a sloping ledge said in the same laconic guidebook argot to be "no pushover" when dusted in snow.

So I and every other alpinist of a nervous disposition should be rejoicing at the news from Zermatt. Or should we? The guides are drilling bolts and steel stanchions into the Zmutt. Retreat will be easier should bad weather strike and, with anchors in place on the most exposed sections, the risk of fatal fall will be reduced. A comfy bivouac cabin has been erected at the foot of the soaring ridge and there will even be paint splashes to mark the way through tricky sections.

Thrown on to the defensive by the advocates of traditional adventure climbing, the guides insist the Zmutt is not being turned into a "sport climb" where all one has to do is clip the rope into the eye of a bolt every few metres and safety is assured. "There's been a misunderstanding," says Gianni Mazzone, president of the Zermatt guides. "We know this is a famous ridge. We are not making a sport climb. But a lot of people are killed in accidents, especially on the gallery. We have to clear up the meat. All we are doing is for security reasons." Put in such grisly terms, it is hard not to sympathise with the guides. But is that my own Innere Schweinhund entering the debate, the sub-conscious voice of moderation that tries to undermine any attempt to push at modest frontiers?

Stephen Venables, who climbed the Zmutt ridge in 1990, this month raised the alarm through his column in the climbing magazine High. He believes the guides are guilty of the worst kind of nannying. "The only way they can get people on to this route is to make it a safe convenient package." The ridge itself is three kilometres long and rises 1,200 metres. Venables and Dave Wilkinson took 17 hours on the route, including a night-time approach across the glacier beneath the Matterhorn's north face. They met no one. Meanwhile scores of climbers and their guides were jostling for a grip of the ropes and chains on the "tourist" route up the mountain, the Hornli ridge. On a summer's day, up to 250 people climb the Hornli. Tempers fray and occasionally there are fights when a descending party meets another coming up and neither will give way. Traffic problems, as well as more conventional hazards, make even the Hornli potentially dangerous and each year about seven people are killed on the route.

Spreading the load on to another ridge must have seemed an attractive idea when the guides were offered a new bivouac hut by the Swiss chemical giant Lonza AG. This 24-berth cabin has been erected immediately below the Zmutt ridge at about 3,000 metres. But it would probably stand empty most of the season unless the route was made more customer friendly. So double bolt anchors have been placed on difficult rocks above a section known as The Teeth and next summer, when the weather allows, bolts or stanchions will be placed on the West Face and the gallery. Herr Mazzone told me the equipment would be perhaps 30m apart, which certainly allows scope for a little nervous perspiration. "It is our profession to take people up the mountain. If we make the bolts 2m apart do you think clients would ask for a mountain guide again?" No, this may be another step in the "dumbing down" of mountaineering but the Zermatters are not that dumb.

Thankfully, equipping the Zmutt has not gone unnoticed by the great panjandrums of mountaineering. "Murder of a tremendous route," says Roger Payne, general secretary of the British Mountaineering Council. "Appalling," says Ian McNaught-Davis, president of the UIAA, in effect the United Nations of mountaineering clubs. "It is against the spirit of a sport that is all about self-reliance and all the more appalling that it should be happening on the Matterhorn. It is more than just a mountain. The Matterhorn is the very symbol of mountaineering - a symbol of the freedom and adventure of it. Respect for the mountains and their pristine state is being sacrificed for purely commercial reasons."

Symbolism and hypocrisy surround the Matterhorn. Its first ascent in 1865 by Edward Whymper and party via the Hornli was followed two hours later by what became the most famous accident in mountaineering history. The Times railed against the uselessness of a pursuit which had caused "the best blood of England" to stain the eternal snows. Three Englishmen and a French guide fell to their deaths when the rope above them broke. Whymper and two Zermatt guides, Old Peter Taugwalder and his son, survived but became enmeshed in bitter recrimination. According to Whymper, even during their anguished descent the Taugwalders were plotting to turn the disaster to pecuniary advantage. "Next year, there will be many travellers at Zermatt and we shall get more voyageurs," the young Taugwalder told him.

Yet while the symbol the Zermatters see in their great pyramidal mountain is that of the Swiss franc rampant, the rest of the world, buying bottled water, toothpaste or, once upon time, menthol cigarettes, sees it as an icon of natural purity. This may be McNaught-Davis's best weapon in getting the UIAA to lean on the fiercely clannish guides. Ironically, he is the first non-Swiss president of the UIAA. The Alpine bureaucrats and in turn the Zermatt guides have to be persuaded that iron works on the Zmutt would smack of double standards amid all the rules about taking your litter back down to the valley with you.

But it is that other symbol, the freedom to take risks, that is most precious on the Matterhorn. William Penhall reached the summit via the Zmutt only an hour after Mummery. Yet even before Penhall left Zermatt after his impressive ascent he heard disquieting talk of putting a hut on the ridge. "If this is done, ropes at the bad places are sure to follow," he warned. Almost 120 years later the hut is there and the bolts are going in. Theme park mediocrity is about to numb a part of alpinism's once free spirit. In urging the guides to spare the Zmutt the bite of the cordless drill, the plea is not just for the preservation of a piece of mountaineering heritage but the freedom to take the same risks as the pioneers. Can the bolt croppers of outraged opinion be taken to the property of the burghers of Zermatt - or will we just buy the new guide book?

Present day climbers at the summit (top) and Whymper's engraving of his first ascent in 1865, beating a rival Italian party. `We remained on top for one hour. One crowded hour of glorious life,' he said