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Matterhorn Madness

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Matterhorn Madness

Our man in Chamonix, mountain guide Mark Seaton recalls a particularly testing client

I have worked full time as a Mountain Guide for 21 years. Qualifying as a Guide is demanding, yet once you have the certification you learn to deal with all sorts of different people and situations. This is the story of one of my early experiences working as an Guide in my second full season in 1993.

I was told to go to Zermatt where I would meet a Japanese woman; we were to do some preliminary climbing and then at the end of the week climb the Matterhorn. We met at our pre arranged rendezvous. My girlfriend Jane had decided to come along because she had never seen Zermatt in the summer.

Yoko arrived with a friend, whom it transpired was there to help with the introductions, as Yoko could not speak French. At the time neither could I. Neither could Jane. Yoko had incorrectly but unsurprisingly assumed that because I was coming from Chamonix, I would indeed be French.

After an excruciating hour of ‘Franglais’ and Japanese, we had got nowhere. Eventually we retired to our hotel and by next morning, Jane had befriended Yoko and discovered that she understood considerably more English than we thought. Yet Yoko could not really speak English, so the way we communicated was I would say something and Yoko would nod or shake her head depending on the answer.

I said we needed to get a translator so we could at least establish the ground rules, and I could explain to her what the plan might be. Yoko nodded. We found our translator, sat down and I explained I was a Mountain Guide and this was my plan. The translator’s first (and only) question to me was, “So you’re not a Zermatt Guide then?” No, I replied, I’m a British Mountain Guide living in Chamonix. “Sorry. I can’t (meaning he wouldn’t) help.” Seemingly he would only talk to Zermatt Guides.

Fortunately Yoko seemed to have a lot of mountaineering experience and as far as I could ascertain, looked the part. After all, she had a particularly shiny ice axe. We set off up the mountain for our preparatory training climbs and acclimatisation. Yoko moved quickly and efficiently, and I made sure she understood the four key words: stop, go, right, left.

We were as ready as we could be. We walked up to the Hornli Hut, and after dinner I checked Yoko’s kit. I got her to tip the contents of her rucksack on the floor, and there were some sensible things; spare sweater, gloves, water bottle, energy food, all normal stuff. But there were also two cameras, both heavy SLRs. I asked why? “Positive/Negative” she said, waving them alternately. Meaning one with print film, and one with transparencies. I managed to negotiate Yoko down to a single camera.

The route conditions meant that it was not necessary to carry an ice axe, and I asked Yoko to leave hers behind. She looked horrified and clutched it in such a way that if I had chosen to, I would have had to wrestle it from her. “Yamanoshi, Yamanoshi” she shouted, a little too loudly. Jane scuttled over and explained that the ice axe was called a Yamanoshi. ”It’s made by a Samurai sword maker, it was a present from God knows who and its worth over $2000.“ And this was when $2000 was a LOT of money. “OK” I said, “We’ll get the hut guardian to lock it up” and Yoko very slowly, finger by finger, released her grip on it.

Next there was a long piece of plastic. About three metres long, it resembled a wallet that you might keep credit cards in, but longer. Instead of cards it was full of photos. Again, I said “You don’t need that” but Yoko went berserk, stuffing it into her bag, making it perfectly clear that it was going. Oh well, I thought. This is one battle not worth fighting.

The alarm went at 3.30am. There was the usual scramble for breakfast, but with one big difference; the door to the dining room was barred. We were locked in our dormitory. We were not allowed out until the Zermatt Guides had set off, giving them a head start.

Of course this was just covered up as an oversight by the hut guardian, who unrepentantly unlocked the door some 15 minutes later. After a quick breakfast we joined the long line of head torches leaving the hut, heading towards the first actual rock climbing. There were many people ahead of us and we kept getting caught in traffic jams. After an hour of moving slowly, dawn began to break and I could see more clearly. I managed an outflanking manoeuvre that allowed us to pick up the pace.

We arrived at the foot of the Mosely Slabs - technically the most difficult part of the climb -and we moved fluently, overtaking slower parties. Yoko was a very good climber. We paused at the Solway Hut, a small emergency shelter at 4,000 metres and the halfway point after which the route moves onto the ridge where it changes in character and you follow the soaring arête. It is from this juncture that the climbing is utterly spectacular and justifies all the aggravation needed to get to this point. The climb becomes steep and to help the Zermatt Guides ‘process’ their clients up and down the Matterhorn there are huge fixed ropes, the sort used to moor an oil tanker. There is little choice but to use them, because they hang in the way of the handholds.

At the top of the fixed ropes we were faced with lots of snow and ice, so we stopped to put crampons on. Yoko asked how far to go? I said “Not far, half an hour maybe”. At that exact moment a Zermatt Guide barged past us, his client stumbled and kicked the crampon I was attempting to strap onto my boot. The crampon went ping, ping, almost stopped then sailed down the North Face.

I felt disbelief, anger, rage, swiftly replaced with the question - what now? Although I had asked Yoko to leave her axe behind, fortunately I was still carrying mine. Just like Edward Whymper’s first ascent in 1865, I used it to cut steps to the summit ridge. After five and a half hours we arrived on the summit.

Yoko could hardly contain her joy. In fact she could not contain her joy. She took off her rucksack and rummaged around until she found her long strip of plastic, pulling it out and waving it around like a streamer, sobbing uncontrollably.

I became quite alarmed and grabbed Yoko in an attempt to shake her out of her trance, stop her falling and (more importantly) dragging me with her. I did manage to glance at some of the photos, which appeared to be family members who were ‘joining’ us on the summit. Eventually I was able to calm Yoko down and the wailing was superseded by a continuous sentence of “Thank you, thank you, thank you.“

To which my reply was; “Thank me at the bottom if you like, because we’re only halfway home and the real climbing starts now...”