I was enjoying some Swiss cheese fondue and a glass of wine in Zermatt when I saw them walk by. They didn’t look like the other tourists. They carried helmets on their packs and walked with a certain resolve that immediately caught my attention. These guys are on a mission, I thought to myself. Imagine my surprise when I returned back to my hostile and found them lounging in my door room. I introduced myself and asked about their gear. Christoph and Herbert Maile couldn’t contain their excitement. They were about to fulfill their 16-year dream to climb the Matterhorn, and sometime later that evening they agreed to give me the honor to tell their story.
I did my pre-climb interview the next morning with Chris, who speaks fluent English. He was 24 years old and full of energy. As we sipped our cappuccinos and ate our breakfast, I pestered him with a bunch of questions. His enthusiasm was contagious and I hoped to god they would make the summit.
Me: How many people are in your climb group?
Chris: Me, Dad (who is 56) and two guides. One is assigned to helping my father and one is assigned to helping me.
Me: Do you mind if I ask how much the guides cost?
Chris: No, that’s fine. They cost 1,000 euros each (about 1,180 USD).
Me: What does your mom think of this?
Chris: She knows she can’t stop us, so she just accepts it.
Me: How long do you anticipate it will take you?
Chris: A few hours the first day to reach the Carell hut where we spend the night. Then we will leave at dawn or whenever the weather is right for the summit. That should take another 4 to 5 hours, even though it is only 700 meters. It will take an additional 3 to 4 hours to climb down to the Carell hut and then we have to leave that night so we are hiking all the way back down to the bottom which will be another 4 hours.
Me: So, you could be climbing for 12 to 13 hours that day?
Chris: Yah, (he says, with a shrug of his shoulders, like it’s no big deal).
Me: Why the Matterhorn?
Chris: It’s not the highest mountains but it is jagged rock most of the way up and one of the more difficult climbs. My dad has been talking about it forever. I remember on his 40th birthday his friends gave him a model of the mountain and a place to start stashing money inside to save for the climb. It’s been our dream ever since.
Me: Are you nervous?
Chris: We are mostly nervous about the weather. We only have one day and we really hope the weather holds, but you’ve seen how it is. It can change quickly, too quickly.
Me: Do you worry about your dad and how he will do?
Chris: Of course, and he worries about me. We like to say that he has the experience but I have the energy. We make a good team!
Me: What will you eat and do you have to carry it, or will your guides carry it for you?
Chris: No, we have to carry our own food. We are taking Powerbars, a loaf of bread, a block of cheese and some cereal that we will eat with melted snow instead of milk.
That concluded our pre-climb interview. About 5 days later I interviewed him again about the climb.
Me: You must know my first question. Did you make it to the summit?
Chris: Not everything went well, but we came down safely. The conditions weren’t as good as we expected and as the forecast said. After the night on the Carell hut with thunderstorm, rain and snow, and a lot of wind, it was hard to climb the wet and icy rocks. Additionally, the wind got very strong on climbing day, so we decided to turn around 200 meters under the summit. But despite the bad conditions, it was a great experience. Success is always depending on the weather in the mountains and it is always a risk. This shows us that the nature was one more time stronger than us humans.
Me: That must have been a heartbreaking decision to make. Up to that point, were you ever frightened and wanted to quit?
Chris: Sometimes I was a little bit “nervous”. But I wouldn’t call it nervous like you are afraid of something but more like a tense situation constantly. Because of the difficult conditions, you never knew what you could expect behind the next corner or above the next rock you climbed. And additionally, it was necessary to concentrate the whole time. Because every mistake you make could have a high price.
Me: Aside from the bad weather, were there any other surprises?
Chris: Yes, there were some surprises. But these surprises were positive. When we started to climb on Tuesday, we first met the guides, talked and checked the equipment, and went up to the Carell Hut (3800 meters), where we spent the night. When we arrived at the hut, the weather got really bad. As I told you, it started to rain and snow in a thunderstorm. So, we were happy to be inside the hut. Because of the weather, there weren’t that many people in the hut (only around 20 people). The hut is divided into two sections. One section for the clients and private mountaineers and the other section for the guides only. But because of the small number of people, our guides (Andrea and Frederico) took us together with them into the guides section. And that was a really nice surprise. They had a small kitchen with a gas flame to cook and make something to eat. And the best part of it was, that they had gas to warm up the small room a little bit. That was a luxury thing we didn’t expected and these small things make you happy if you don’t expect them. Another highlight in the hut was when Andrea cooked some Pasta for us. We carried our food (bread and cheese) up there, but a warm pasta was much better and we really enjoyed the easy but delicious dinner.
Me: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Chris: There is not much I would change. The weather is always something you cannot change and you have to deal with it. Next time, maybe, taking more time for the climb would be an alternative. Because of the small timeframe, it wasn’t possible to wait until the weather got better. On Friday, the day we left for home, the weather was perfect. But our time was over and we had to go back to reality and doing our jobs.
Me: What would you recommend to other people thinking about climbing the Matterhorn?
Chris: Something I would recommend is that you should definitely train to walk with crampons on different surfaces. My experience with crampons on my feet was walking on a glacier and climbing easy rocks. But as you can see on the pictures, the climbing part was not that easy and the different conditions, like wet rocks, icy rocks, snow over the rocks, ice under the snow and so on, are not easy to walk on. My father did well, but my inexperience showed me that there is always something new and challenging you didn’t expect. But I think this is something a mountaineer loves, exploring new areas with different conditions and challenging tasks.
Also, I would recommend to climb the Matterhorn with a guide. Finding the way seems to be easy because you think that you just can follow the ridge. But it is much more difficult. There are no signs where you have to go. Only a few pitons show you the way (sometimes). At the Carell hut, we met some other guides with clients from Austria. They told us that that they never climbed the Matterhorn before. So, in the morning they started at 5 o’clock (when the storm still was there), but our guides waited until 7 o’clock when the wind wasn’t as strong. After 3 hours of climbing we met the guys again. So, they needed 5 hours of climbing, because they didn’t know the exact way, whereas our guides only needed 3 hours for the same distance because they had climbed it many times. Despite of them having very experienced and professional guides (one of them tried to climb Mt. Everest but had to turn around 100 meters before the summit because of missing oxygen), they were really slow in climbing up to the summit.
Me: So, you think your guides did a good job and earned their money?
Chris: Yes, they definitely did! They are responsible for their clients and they did a great job. When you’re near the summit you don’t want to turn around. But they know the weather very well and said the wind was getting stronger and stronger. They were right, during our descent the wind did get much stronger. So, we were happy, to go down and not fight against mother nature on the summit.
On the first day, they said we would have to hurry up climbing to the hut because they saw bad weather coming. And they were right. Instead of a 4 hour climb it took us only 2 and a half. And when we arrived at the Carrel hut only a few minutes later the rain and thunderstorm began. Without their experience, we would have had a problem and still been outside in the thunderstorm.
This concluded our interview and I thanked Chris and Herb profusely for sharing their story with me. It left me feeling inspired and in awe once again of this beautiful place we call earth.