Thursday, June 25, 2009


Alone amongst the clouds it stands / like from Pan’s head was torn / Proud and tall, kind and strong / stands the great Matterhorn / And down in town there are dreams that brew / To climb its peak come a motley crew / As they clambered they laughed and cried / seduced by the charms of a snow-veiled bride / But as they walked, some missed their stride / and on the crags, the weak can’t hide / Their ghosts still roam these snows that mourn / the graves that grow in the shadow of the Horn

Bergsteiger Friedhof in Zermatt, that most gorgeous of Swiss towns, is a cemetery like no other… Under clear skies, and a fading sun, the cemetery looks serene and calm. Gray graves and the green grass, sitting side by side in strange harmony. Walk along the graves though and you know that this is an unusual resting place… names from all over the world… Oxford, New York, even Simla, and they all died young… Then you figure out why, for on each grave there’s a common motif, that of a pick axe and a climbing rope. One of the most beautiful gravestones had no name… just a figure of Christ on the cross, but here instead of a cross there was a climbing rope and a pick axe on his back. And by his foot blossomed an edelweiss… This was the Mountaineers’ cemetery – a graveyard for those who died while trying to climb their dreams of summiting these peaks that surround this town, foremost amongst them, the great Matterhorn. And so sat the tombs, in quiet rows, like obedient children waiting for the bell… and it tolls still…

Zermatt rose at the foot of the great Matterhorn, a lonely alpine peak that straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy and is shaped like a goat’s horn (thus the name). The town is in a small basin encircled by forbidding mountains, like a newborn lamb surrounded by a herd of protective ewes. It took me four hours by road and then a train ride to reach Zermatt from Zurich. Car-free and pollution free, Zermatt is basically one long street of designer stores for the uber-rich with a cluster of pretty Swiss chalets, hotels and homes around it. You could walk this street that starts from the station in 20 impatient minutes if you’re the sorts to give in to the call of the mountains. But if trips to foreign lands don’t seem complete without a few shopping bags in tow then it’ll take you all day and more to pull away from the allure of the shop windows showcasing everything from Rolexes to rugged mountain gear.

But these stores are mere distractions. For the real deal on this town, keep right on walking, past the stores, the horse drawn carriages and wide-eyed tourists posing for pictures, along a cobbled street till the narrow road opens up and you realise that you’re about to step into an astonishingly beautiful picture postcard…

Here, the road forks out, one half chasing a stream while the other meanders up a row of green hills dotted with yellow flowers and a lone hut, dwarfed by the shimmering vastness of the great Matterhorn, one of the last peaks conquered, towering behind it; so near, one feels one could scrape the snow off its sides, and yet so tall that even the clouds seem to stretch in vain to cloud its peak. It is a sight that takes the breath away; and to your left and right, if you slip back a few metres from the fork, are two lodgings that do a lot to restore it. If still facing the ‘Horn’, then to your left is the venerable Zermatterhof where yours truly found a roof and on your right stands what is arguably the oldest hotel in town – The Monte Rosa, full of history and cosy corners. And on a Monte Rosa wall hangs a bronze plaque with a face etched on it, and a name – Edward Whymper…

In the year 1860, Edward, an Englishman aspiring to be the first to climb the Matterhorn was struggling up a section of the mountain with his Italian guide, Jean Antoine Carrel.

They had reached a sheer rock face that seemed to yield no route. Carell told Whymper that he’d had to turn back from that very point on a previous climb with a client and that it was best to turn back. But Whymper didn’t budge. He was convinced that there was a way, and one Carell might know of. The guide insisted that he didn’t. But Whymper wouldn’t listen and wanted to keep climbing. Carell protested “your safety is my responsibility. You can’t go like this”. Whymper dismissed him on the spot and leaving a stunned Carell behind, started climbing but only to stumble and fall, right into a chasm. Carell dropped a rope, climbed down and picked up the broken and bruised Whymper on his back and in a feat of astonishing strength and courage, carried him home.

A grateful Whymper, before leaving, shook Carell’s hand. Carell pointed towards the ‘Horn’ as it spanned the horizon between heaven and earth and said “ Don’t worry Mr. Whymper, we’ll try again…”. “Yes, but this time, not as gentleman and servant but as friends,” replied Whymper.

After five years, in July 1865, Whymper reached Zermatt to plan another attempt and where should he choose to stay but the Monte Rosa where he met other climbers planning an ascent. He promised to join them but his team wouldn’t be complete without Carell and so he called on him.

Meanwhile Carell had refused a team of Italian climbers who were planning an ascent from the Italian side to claim the peak for Italy. He’d given his word to Whymper. The two friends met and discussed their plans for the ascent. Whymper wanted to climb from Zermatt while Carell thought he’d be betraying Italy yet again if he didn’t climb from the Italian side. With a heavy heart he refused Whymper. The Englishman took the refusal as an insult and went back to plan his ascent with the team. At that, Carell too decided to join the Italians and two friends who’d joined hands on the mountain now stood separated by it… in a race to the top.

It was the 14th of August and Carell’d had to contend with exhausted team members and a small avalanche, and yet he soldiered on. At about 1345 hrs, Carell was within hailing distance of the peak… his dream of being the first man on the summit would finally come true. Suddenly, a sound. He looked up. There was movement on the summit… a flag. And then he saw Whymper’s cream trousers. His friend had beaten him to the top. Crushed, Carell turned back…

Whymper and his team of six celebrated the fulfilment of a dream and aspirations of two nations and a generation of mountaineers.

Then seven happy climbers climbed down the mountain, tied to a single rope… Whymper at the top and a Swiss guide, Michael Croz leading the descent. In the middle, Hadow, the most inexperienced of the climbers had become unsteady… he lost his nerve and slipped. As he fell, he pulled three other people below him off the mountain face. Croz was the last in line and though he tried to secure the rope, he too got pulled away by the weight of the other three… Whymper and the two below him still stood on solid ground, holding on to the rope while the four hung by a thread… Croz reached for a cliff as he swung on the line… his fingers brushed the mountain… “Aah almost….” He thought and tried to swing closer… “there almost there…” even as he reached he heard a ‘pop’ and looked up to see the rope grating against a sharp rocky edge, coming undone strand by strand before his very eyes… and then he felt like he was being sucked into a vacuum. The mountain of his dreams rushed past him in a blur and he felt the cold wind and the blood rushing to his face… he heard Whymper call out his name as it faded away… that was the last thing he ever heard as did the others. Whymper and the surviving members returned to Zermatt, triumphant and distraught… Rescuers next day found the bodies and the first one to be entered into what became the Mountaineer’s cemetery was the body of Michael Croz where you can still see it today.

Such is the price of glory, one that Whymper wishes he hadn’t sought. “Five years I dreamt of climbing the Matterhorn and now the very name is hateful to me…” he wrote. And yet the mountain calls, and people from all over are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Whymper said he saw shadows of a cross on the mountain at sunset the day the four died. A shadow that still haunts this mountain every year…

As I write these words, the sun has set, and set the ‘Horn’ on fire… I can see the Matterhorn from my terrace, leaping into the sky like a divine golden flame even as the cold mist swirls around it… like a bride’s veil trying in vain to conceal her radiant face. And I begin to know what draws us men to this cold and frigid beauty….


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