My First Client for the Matterhorn.
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 have to learn to deal with all sorts of different people and situations. This is the story of one of my early experiences working as an Alpine 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 who, it transpired, was there to help with the introductions, as Yoko could not speak French.
At the time neither could I. Nor could Jane. Yoko had incorrectly, but unsurprisingly, assumed that because I was coming from Chamonix in France that I would indeed be French. An excruciating hour of conversation in “Franglais” and, on their part, Japanese got nowhere.
Eventually we retired to our hotel where, because Jane and I were not married, we had to sleep in separate rooms. Jane shared with Yoko and I slept in a grotty dormitory.
The next morning, Jane had befriended Yoko and discovered that she could understand considerably more English than we thought the previous evening. 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 required. 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 of attack might be. Yoko nodded. We found our translator, we 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’m a British Mountain Guide living in Chamonix.”
“Sorry. I can’t [meaning he wouldn’t] help,” seemingly because he would only talk to Zermatt Guides. So, that was that.
As we walked down the main street I attempted to make conversation. Suddenly, two beautiful, fluffy St. Bernard puppies crossed the road in front of us. I said, “Oh, aren’t they beautiful?”
Yoko said, “Very tasty!” This was not going well.
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 acclimatization. She moved quickly and efficiently and I made sure she understood the 4 key words: stop, go, right, left. We were ready [or as ready as we could be].
We walked up to the Hornli Hut primed for the big climb the next day. After dinner I checked Yoko’s kit to make sure she had not anything extraneous. Carrying too much weight on these trips is not clever. I got her to tip the contents of her rucksack all over the floor of the dormitory. There were some sensible things: spare sweater, gloves, water bottle, high energy food, all normal things. But there were 2 cameras: both heavy SLR’s. I asked why there were two? “Positive /Negative” she said waving them alternately. Meaning one with print film one with transparencies. I managed to negotiate Yoko down to one camera. I forget which one.
The conditions on the route meant that it was not necessary to carry an ice axe and I duly asked Yoko to leave it behind. Yoko looked horrified and clutched it to her chest 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 to me that Yoko had told her the ice axe was called a Yamanoshi, she said knowingly.
I said “So?”
Jane said "It is made by a bespoke Samurai Sword metallurgist; there are very few in the world, it was a present from god knows who and its worth over $2000." AND that was when $2000 was a lot of money.
“Oh,” I said. “We will 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 3 meters long. It resembled a wallet that you might keep credit cards in but longer. Instead it wasn’t full of cards but photos of...well I was not sure. Again I said, “You don’t need that,” and reached down to separate the pile of kit that was going from the pile of kit that was not going. Yoko went berserk, grabbed the long strip of plastic and stuffed it into her bag and made it perfectly clear that it was going. Oh well, I thought. scratching my head. This is one battle not worth fighting.
The alarm went at 3.30 am. There was the usual hut scramble and the stagger to 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 clear head start. Of course this was just covered up as an over-sight by the hut guardian who unrepentantly unlocked the door some 15 minutes later.
After an unsatisfactory breakfast we joined the long line of head lamps leaving the hut and heading towards the first step of actual rock climbing. There were many people ahead of us and we kept getting caught in traffic jams.
After about an hour of moving slowly, dawn began to break and I could see more clearly. I managed an out-flanking maneuver that allowed us to pick up the pace. We arrived at the foot of the Mosely Slabs: the technically most difficult part of the climb. We moved very fluently over taking slower parties. Yoko was a very good climber.
We stopped at the Solway Hut which is a small shed like structure which forms an emergency shelter at 4000 meters. It is also the half way point on the climb. We had a quick drink and a bite to eat. After the Solway Hut the route moves onto the ridge where it changes in character and you follow the soaring arrete. It is from this juncture that the climbing is utterly spectacular and justifies all the combined aggravation needed to get to this point. The climbing becomes very steep and to help the Zermatt Guides “process“ all their clients up and down the Matterhorn there are huge fixed ropes, the sort of rope used to moor an oil tanker. There is little choice but to use them too because they hang in the way of the useful hand holds.
At the top of the fixed rope we were faced with lots of snow and ice. We stopped to put crampons on. Yoko attempted to ask me how far to go? I said “not far, half an hour maybe.” She raised her arms to the sky and shouted “Matterhorn! Matterhorn!” indicating that she was so nearly there and her dream was about to be fulfilled.
At that exact same moment a Zermatt Guide who we had out maneuvered lower down, barged past us and his client stumbled and kicked the crampon I was attempting to strap on my boot. The crampon went ping, ping, almost stopped then went bong, and sailed off down the north face of the Matterhorn.
The sheer emotion of disbelief, anger, and rage I felt was replaced with the question of what what was I to do now?
Although I had asked Yoko to leave her axe at the bottom, fortunately I was still carrying mine. Just like Edward Whymper’s 1st ascent party in 1865, I was able to use it to cut steps all the way 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 inside it until she found her long strip of plastic which contained her photos. She pulled it out and then started waving it around her head like a streamer, while simultaneously wailing and crying, then sobbing uncontrollably. I became quite alarmed and grabbed Yoko hard; both in an attempt to shake her out of her trance and to stop her falling to her death and importantly dragging me with her [I was still tied to her].
I did manage to glance at some of the photos in the wallet. They appeared to be photos of 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, thank you.
My reply to this was, "Thank me at the bottom if you like because we are only halfway home and the real climbing starts now.”
--Mark Seaton, March 2013