By Michael Faulkner
Back in the 1990s, I moved up from Manchester to Co Durham and was introduced to Tony. We made friends, and started climbing together.
One of Tony’s ambitions was to climb the Matterhorn. He and a bunch of mates had been several times to Switzerland, with a view to climbing the mountain. Amixture of bad weather, and probably too big a party of mixed ability, meant they never made it.
After yet another trip to Zermatt, Tony came back frustrated at spending time and money; and with an idea: the best thing was to wait for a weather window, and then just rush out there and do it.
So it was that on a Friday morning in August 1995, I left home at 9.30 (I had to wait for the morning post to bring proof that Tony was now insured to drive my car), and headed off to pick up Tony who then lived in Northallerton. Then it was onto the Ai and southwards to Dover. We’d thought about camping en route, but with the ability to drive alternately, we just kept going. By 7.30 on Saturday morning we were having breakfast ina lay-by in the Rhone valley.
An hour or two later, we rolled up at the campsite in Tasch, put up the tent, and had a sleep. The plan was to acclimatise Saturday and Sunday, and then climb on the Monday, so after lunch we walked up to Zermatt in perfect weather. A bit of a shock then when we went to the Guides’ Office, and discovered that the forecast had changed. Bad weather was due to arrive later on Sunday.
So our plans changed too: off to the station, train to Tasch, pack up the gear, back to Zermatt on the train; last cable car to Schwarzsee; and then trek up to the Hornli hut. At 3.30 next morning, we set off with a string of others to begin the ascent. I’ve never been a fan of climbing in crowds, but at least there was no problem route finding. To be honest, a lot of it felt like climbing a slag heap, and it was relief to reach the Moseley Slab and climb a bit of fairly solid rock to the Solvay hut.
On the platform of the hut we met a couple of German climbers. They were looking anxiously at some gathering cloud, but we decided to press on. Being totally unacclimatised, we were on the slow side, so on the shoulder above the hut we began to meet quicker parties coming down. On the fixed ropes and summit pyramid, there was serious traffic. But the upside was that when we reached the summit, we had it entirely to ouselves. The sun was shining and there was little wind, but cloud was increasing, so we didn’t stay long.
We rapidly got down to the shoulder, where the first cloud swirled round us. Even then it was light stuff, and not a problem. Then suddenly it changed. The cloud thickened and it started to snow. We abseiled down to the Solvay hut and thought about sheltering there, but pressing on seemed the better option. So far route finding had been no problem, but once we got on to the loose slopes below the hut, it was hard to be sure where we were heading.
Suddenly, out of nowhere came a most enormous bang and a flash. The ground fizzed under my feet. Tony was somewhere behind and above and I was sure it had struck him. For a few moments, I was sure I had a dead companion. Then he emerged from the mist, grinning as usual.
Fortunately the lightning seemed to have been an isolated bolt. We continued our descent through the soft snow, constantly feeling our way. If we’d had the acclimatisation day we had planned, we would have climbed the crumbly pitches above the hut in daylight to get the lie of the land. As it was, with minimal visibility, it became a slow and laborious attempt to descend safely.
When we finally reached the hut, the warden was looking out for us. We were the last of the people she had been expecting, so now everyone was accounted for. She pressed us to stay, but we decided to collect our passports and carry on down to Zermatt. That in itself is a long walk, especially as at a lower altitude it was now pouring with rain. It was a weary business, but we were buoyed up by the fact that we’d actually managed what we came for.
We caught a late train back to Tasch, had a long night’s sleep, and woke to a glorious sunny morning. After suitable refreshment, we packed up and got going. At 7.30 on Tuesday morning, we stopped at the Little Chef near Northallerton for breakfast, surprising Tony’s wife when we walked in a 9.00 in the morning.
Glad to have done it – but I wouldn’t want to repeat that particular adventure.