To earn the right to tell the mountain’s story, I had to try to climb it, fail, and then try again
By Marty Ollstein
MY FIRST ATTEMPT – 1970
My breath came in short bursts. My heart was pounding. Each step was an effort. Wind whipped across the exposed rocky ridge — 13,000 feet above sea level and thousands of feet straight down to the glacier below.
We were two-thirds of the way up the Matterhorn, but running out of time.
I first learned of the Matterhorn when I went to Disneyland as a kid and became more fascinated by the climbers in lederhosen costumes scaling the mountain than by the roller coaster ride. I decided then and there that I would someday climb the real thing.
While studying abroad in France during my sophomore year at Stanford, I traveled to Switzerland and finally saw the real thing. The Matterhorn entranced me at first sight. I had to climb it.
I met a young Argentinian priest who shared my Matterhorn dream. We bought
a rope, slept in the “hut” (the Hornlihutte) at the base of the mountain, got up before dawn and tried to keep up with the official mountain guides.
We soon fell far behind — clobbered by the altitude.
By midday we’d arrived at the Solvay Hut, a tiny shelter perched on a cliff more than 1,000 feet below the summit. If we had continued to the top we would have ended up climbing down in darkness, an extremely dangerous situation. I knew we had to turn around. But I vowed to return and complete what I had started. Little did I know that it would be decades before I’d return to make another try.
THE FIRST ASCENT – 1865
In the 19th century’s Golden Age of Mountaineering, the Matterhorn was the last unconquered peak in the Alps. It was considered invincible. Hundreds of people died climbing the mountain, which straddles the border of Switzerland and Italy. Legend held that the summit was inhabited by demons.
This year marked the 150th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn. In commemoration, the tourism office in Zermatt, Switzerland, curated a series of jubilee events this summer.
Now a film director and cinematographer living in Marina del Rey, I attended the jubilee while preparing to direct “Exposure,” a feature-length action thriller based on the inspiring and tragic story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn. I plan to shoot the film this summer and am currently assembling producers and arranging financing.
The British artist Edward Whymper initially encountered the Matterhorn in 1860. For five years, Whymper made attempts to climb the mountain from
the Italian side. Jean-Antoine Carrel, a skilled Italian mountain guide, shared the same goal and had been making his own attempts.
In 1865, Carrel set out on a clandestine expedition up the south side of the mountain. Learning that Carrel was on his way up, Whymper desperately threw together a team and led them up a new route he had devised on the north side of the mountain in Switzerland: the Hornli ridge.
The race was on — Carrel’s team heading up the Italian south side of the mountain, Whymper’s up the Swiss side to the north.
Whymper set out with six other men: three climbers from England (Rev. Charles Hudson, his young friend Douglas Hadow and Lord Francis Douglas), Swiss mountain guides “Old” Peter Taugwalder and his son Peter, and French guide Michel Cros.
Whymper’s team won the race to the summit on July 14, but the victory became a tragedy during the descent. One man slipped, a rope broke, and the three English climbers and Cros fell thousands of feet to their deaths on the glacier below.
THE ANNIVERSARY JUBILIEE – 2015
Zermatt is celebrating the jubilee all year, but the main events happened on the anniversary week of Whymper’s pioneering climb.
A “Day of Reflection” on July 12 involved a communal hike to the Stelisee, a beautiful alpine lake known for its view of the Matterhorn and surrounded by grassy meadows filled with blooming alpine flowers. Music from traditional eight-foot wooden Alpine horns, called Alpenhorns, greeted us at the lake.
That afternoon in the mountaineer’s cemetery, clergy dedicated a memorial marker — a large rock in the shape of the Matterhorn — dedicated to the “unknown climbers” who had perished on a mountain.
That evening, Rev. Alan Purser led a commemorative service in the English Church that was dedicated to the first ascent of the Matterhorn and those who died on that day. Members of the British Alpine Club attended, and one read from the writings of Whymper, ending with “… a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
The next day, jubilee organizers illuminated lights on the Matterhorn that guides had placed all the way up the mountain, following Whymper’s Hornli route. The lights came on one-by-one, starting from the bottom. It was magical.
On July 14, the anniversary of the first ascent, there was a moratorium on climbing in honor of those who had died attempting to conquer the Matterhorn.
That morning, Zermatt dedicated a beautiful new Hornlihutte with large windows facing the summit and the mountain range to the east. Reachable by a strenuous two-hour hike from Schwarzee, the top station of the gondola, the hut is the take-off point for the climb up the Matterhorn. Like I had done in 1970, climbers spend the night there before rising in the early morning to start their climb.
Helicopters gave rides to VIPs who couldn’t make the trek. I hiked it. On the way up, I met Paul Whymper-Williams, the great-grandnephew of Whymper.
That afternoon introduced the “Walk of the Climb.” Modeled after Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, plaques honored each of the seven climbers who made the first ascent and two from the competing Italian team. The great-great-grandsons of Whymper, Croz, the Taugwalders and Carrel unveiled the plaques, and I was able to tell each of them about my plans for a film. They all offered their support.
There was also a dramatic play about the first ascent staged in a beautiful valley meadow facing the Matterhorn. In most accounts, Whymper is generally considered the hero and the Taugwalders are faulted for using a thin rope that snapped. This play, “The Matterhorn Story,” favored the Taugwalders, raising more controversy about the accident.
On July 17, two teams made a double ascent of the Matterhorn — one leaving from Zermatt and the other from the Italian side, with climbers from Italy, France, England and Switzerland taking the places of those from their countries who had made the climb 150 years ago. This time, the teams met at the summit
for a brief memorial service and descended on opposite sides of the mountain.
MY SECOND ATTEMPT — 2014
My steel-spiked crampons bit into the ice sheathing the rock. Wind whipped snow across the ridge. I was back on the Matterhorn.
This time I had prepared myself by training as a rock climber and alpinist, building my endurance hiking and climbing. I worked out on the walls at Rockreation, the climbing gym in Santa Monica. I took climbing courses at UCLA. I climbed in Joshua Tree National Park, attending the annual Climb Smart convention there. I hiked Mount Baldy, Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto — each more than 10,000 feet tall — and once even climbed all three in two days as part of the A16 “Three-peak challenge.” I trained at altitude in the High Sierras; I climbed the Palisades Traverse, which includes scaling five 14,000-foot peaks in four days. I climbed Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.
This time, I was ready.
The weather in 2014, however, was the worst in decades. It was still snowing in August. Snow and ice covered the Matterhorn. I spent a week climbing other mountains, including the Breithorn Traverse. I slept in high altitude huts (small chalets run by the Alpine Clubs) to acclimate to the altitude.
Finally, on Aug. 17, I attempted the Matterhorn again, leaving from Schwarzsee (two hours below the Hornlihutte) before dawn with American guide Neil Satterfield of Sierra Mountain Guides.
Though usually dry in August, the route was covered with snow and ice. For better traction we strapped crampons — metal spikes that dig into ice — on our boots, but climbing with crampons is harder and takes more time.
We were alone on the route; the Swiss guides would not climb because of the ice and snow. The risk of falling thousands of feet was real. It was cold. Rest breaks were few and brief — a quick drink, an energy bar, then back to climbing.
But finally, at 11:30 a.m., I stepped onto the summit of the Matterhorn.
The sky was crystal clear — the snow sparkling in the sun, the Alps unfolding around me. It was worth every bit of effort, and I feel it earned me the right to tell Whymper’s story.
Marty Ollstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit exposurethefilm.com to learn more about his preparations for filming “Exposure.”