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food / travel

The Matterhorn Watchman: Living In The Shadow Of Switzerland’s Iconic Peak

After 15 years of running the “Hut” at the base of the Matterhorn mountain, Kurt Lauber knows the peak like a big brother. The “Watchman” has roped together memories of perilous rescues and the daily quirks of a mountain life.

Matterhorn at dawn (Franco Pecchio)
Matterhorn at dawn (Franco Pecchio)
Kurt Lauber

The Hörnli Hut is the legendary starting point for anyone climbing the iconic Swiss Matterhorn peak. For 15 years, it has been run by a man named Kurt Lauber. A ski instructor, mountain guide, helicopter pilot and trained rescuer, Lauber has just published a book in German -- Der Wächter des Matterhorns (The Matterhorn Watchman) – about his experiences. Here are some excerpts:

1. Altitude sickness. My mobile phone rang around 4 p.m. Two Italian climbers were on the Matterhorn. One of them had altitude sickness and couldn't climb down. The peak was enshrouded in fog, so a helicopter rescue wasn't possible. I explained that given the weather we could only copter to 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) and climb up on foot from there. But the climber insisted, saying his friend had pulmonary edema, and absolutely needed a helicopter.

Without seeing a patient, it's difficult to assess the situation properly, but instinct told me this was not a life-threatening situation. The climbers had probably realized they weren't going to make it back down to the Hörnli Hut before nightfall, and didn't want to spend the night on the mountain. An "air taxi" would be the most comfortable way out -- and for a medical emergency the tab is picked up by the insurance company. But I couldn't exclude a real emergency, and so quickly organized a helicopter along with three other rescuers.

We flew to 4,200 meters and climbed the rest of the way. When we got to the peak, one of the climbers was seated, the other lay near him in a sleeping bag. One closer look at the man in the sleeping bag, and it was pretty clear there was nothing seriously wrong with him. They just wanted their helicopter ride.

We told them to get ready to climb down to an altitude where the copter could fetch us. No reaction. We had to stand the guy in the sleeping bag up on his legs, and get both of them attached to the ropes and moving down safely. Below the fog line the landscape suddenly opened up and we could see the Hörnli Hut 1,000 meters below us. I radioed the pilot to come and get us. The Italians had however completely lost all enthusiasm for the idea. They realized their "altitude sickness' ploy wouldn't wash, and that their insurance wouldn't pay for the emergency rescue. But they were going to wind up with a big fat bill anyway – an indeed when the doctor examined the man with "pulmonary edema," he found nothing wrong with him.

2. Sharing crampons. A client and I were climbing down from the Matterhorn when we passed another guide whose nickname was Turbo. I noticed he was only wearing one of his crampons on his boot, and his client was wearing the other. "My guy forgot his crampons, which we only noticed too late so we're sharing mine," Turbo explained. A little later we came across some other climbers. I knew most of them by sight – they were from France, Germany and Austria. All of them were wearing just one crampon. No way they could all have forgotten their crampons at the Hut. "Where's your other crampon?" I called out to one. "In my backpack." Said another: "We saw that one of the local guys uses this new, one crampon method and we wanted to try it out."

3. The mountain crumbles. For years we've been noticing how much warmer the climate is getting. But the summer of 2003 was extreme. For weeks we'd been having beautiful, dry, warm weather, which also happens to multiply the danger of rock falls. And eventually at the Hut, we started hearing the sound of stones rolling down day and night. It was mid-July, and the season was in full swing. We had 80 climbers who were there to hike the Hörnligrat: they set out at 4 a.m.

About four hours later, we heard a deafening noise – and saw that entire sections of mountain, as big as cars, were crashing down creating a monster dust cloud. When the cloud cleared I saw through my telescope that the falling rock had left a 40 to 50 meter gap – and that luckily our climbers were nowhere to be seen. They had already climbed out of the way by the time the avalanche started. But it had taken place exactly on the route they'd used – but for lucky timing their excursion would have been fatal.

Then we got a call from a guide, and had to rescue two other guides and two climbers up on the Hörnligrat and fly them back to the Hut. That gave me a chance to examine the "damage" up close, and I realized we didn't have any choice but to evacuate the whole group that had set out from the Hut at 4 that morning. We organized an additional helicopter and divided the mountain into two sections, each copter tackling one section. One after the other, we got the climbers off the mountain. By this time, journalists in helicopters had shown up, photographing and filming the rescue action from the air. Climbers started calling, canceling their reservations. And the press -- print media, radio and TV stations, the London Times, the New York Times, and many more – were now on the landline and the mobile. More than anything what they wanted to know: When, in my opinion, would the whole of Matterhorn crumble?

Read the story in German in Tages Anzeiger.

Photo - Franco Pecchio

Der Wächter des Matterhorns, Kurt Lauber/Sabine Jürgens, Droemer/Knaur, 248 pages, ISBN 978-3-426-27573-3

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