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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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