Ulrich Inderbinen

Veteran Swiss mountain guide

Ulrich Inderbinen was almost certainly the oldest active mountain guide in the world by the time he retired at the age of 95. His phenomenal physique made him a legend in Switzerland and increasingly well known in other countries.

Ulrich Inderbinen, mountain guide: born Zermatt, Switzerland 3 December 1900; married 1933 Anna Aufdenblatten (died 1984; one son, one daughter); died Zermatt 14 June 2004.

Ulrich Inderbinen was almost certainly the oldest active mountain guide in the world by the time he retired at the age of 95. His phenomenal physique made him a legend in Switzerland and increasingly well known in other countries.

He was approaching 90 when he climbed the Matterhorn for the last time, having made some 370 previous ascents. His feat was witnessed by Lord Hunt, leader of the British Everest expedition of 1953. "Not surprisingly," reported Hunt, "he was the centre of many admirers and much media attention that evening."

Astonishingly, he continued guiding clients up easier peaks around his native Zermatt for another five years after that. A new client who had the temerity to grumble at being given such an elderly guide returned to the guides' office to complain that Inderbinen would not let him stop for a rest. A party of English climbers who overtook him on one of his last climbs had difficulty staying ahead. "Nearly caught you," he chuckled as he joined them on the summit.

I first saw him at an altitude of about 10,000ft. He was 94 at the time and preparing to ski down from the top station of the Trockener Steg cable car above Zermatt. I watched in awe as he paused to let younger skiers pass and then set off down the mountain, a stooped and solitary figure but clearly in full control. Later he told me he had been practising for the annual international guides' ski race. "I won," he said, pausing for effect, ". . . in my class." Another pause for a twinkle, and then, grudgingly: "There was no one else in my age group."

He gave up climbing with great reluctance, settling for the life of a celebrity, much photographed, interviewed and sought after for signed copies of his biography, which was translated into English, French and Japanese ( Ulrich Inderbinen by Heidi Lanz and Liliane De Meester, 1996; in English Ulrich Inderbinen: as old as the century, 1997).

He remained remarkably fit in retirement. When photographs were needed for an article, he happily rode up on the Gornergrat railway and tramped through deep snow to pose for pictures before tucking into cakes and coffee. The previous year he had been interviewed for an hour by Swiss radio; the year before he had travelled to Rome to visit the Pope.

Inderbinen attributed his durability to his positive attitude, his enjoyment of nature and his frugal, hard-working life. Born in December 1900 during an exceptionally cold winter, with temperatures dropping to minus 27 Centigrade, he must have been a very tough baby, for Zermatt in those days had no doctor in winter and was often cut off by snow. Infant mortality was high and many women died in childbirth. None of the children of his father's first wife reached adulthood, and she herself died young. Ulrich's mother then lost two children herself.

From the age of four Ulrich helped on the family farm and continued to do so throughout his youth. Until he became a guide he was scarcely affected by the burgeoning tourist industry because his parents stuck to farming, an austere life only just above subsistence level. In summer they were constantly on the move among the high pastures above the village with nine children, four cows and several hens. The children were expected to work from dawn to dusk as schooling was confined to the winter.

At the age of 20 he decided to better himself by becoming a guide but in order to be accepted for the training course he had first to climb a mountain, which, as a farmer's boy, he had never done. In September 1921, he therefore set off on an amazingly foolhardy ascent of the Matterhorn with his younger sister, a friend and the friend's sister, none of whom had any real climbing experience. The girls wore long skirts and carried flickering lanterns which often blew out in the pre-dawn darkness as they groped their way upwards, searching for scratches left on the rock by the boots of previous climbers. They all returned safely and Ulrich eventually qualified as a guide in 1925, later becoming a ski guide as well.

For many years work was scarce. Sometimes he and his brother would rise early and climb nearly 5,000ft to the top of the Gornergrat railway to accost tourists alighting from the train. Gradually, he built up a list of loyal clients who wrote him glowing references. "He combines great energy and keenness with prudence and painstaking attention to detail," wrote a British climber in 1928. "Our guide was the best," wrote an enthusiastic American in 1933. ("Perhaps he did not know any other guides" was Inderbinen's dry comment when I pointed out this entry.) In the Second World War he did part-time military service, mostly patrolling the high frontiers above Zermatt on skis, often at night and alone.

In 1933 he married Anna Aufdenblatten, three years his senior, after several postponements caused first by poverty and then by deaths in both families. Two years later he finished building his own house, in which he lived for the rest of his life. They had a son, German-Ulrich, and a daughter, Maria, who cared for him after the death of his wife in 1984.

During his 70 years as a guide Inderbinen acquired many loyal British clients and learnt rudimentary English from his English aunt in Zermatt. She was married to his uncle Moritz, also a guide, who had spent many years in the household of Sir Montagu Butler, Headmaster of Harrow and later Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

His memories of his hard childhood and youth were largely happy, and he often expressed regret that the social cohesion of the village did not survive the avalanche of money that engulfed it when mass tourism arrived. "In the old days everyone knew everyone and they all helped each other. Now some of that contact has been lost," he said. But he accepted change - even the mechanisation of skiing - as inevitable. "People should enjoy themselves," he conceded.

If he had vices they were not apparent. He came across as a man of transparent integrity and simplicity, unfailingly patient, courteous and dignified, with a nice line in dry humour. Even after becoming famous he persevered with his simple life, continuing to chop his own wood for heating and never owning a car, bicycle or telephone. A pious Roman Catholic, he crossed himself with holy water before going to bed or leaving the house, carried his rosary with him at all times and scratched a cross on a loaf before cutting it.

Death he contemplated with equanimity and humour, never appearing to make any special effort to stay alive into such an extraordinarily active old age. "My season," he said at the end, "is over."

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