BORN TOO LATE: Are All the Great Alpine First Ascents Gone? By Simon Anthamatten
I get up, draw back the curtains and there she is: the Diva of the Alps, the Matterhorn. The sight of this mountain shouldn’t really fascinate me so much anymore. I grew up at the foot of this beautiful gneiss pyramid and have stood on its summit dozens of times. But fascinated I am.
What must it be like to be the first to climb such a mountain? One hundred forty years ago, climbers wooed the Matterhorn just like today’s alpine elite compete for challenges like the North Ridge of Latok I or the Torres Traverse. Just the thought of what those climbers in 1865 must have felt when they made the first ascent of the famed Matterhorn fills me with excitement. The Matterhorn! What a dream it must have been 150 years ago to attempt the first ascents of the Alps’ great peaks. Was I born too late as an alpinist?
First ascents still remain the purest form of mountaineering. On first free ascents, speed ascents or link-ups, climbers always have the certainty that the line is feasible because someone has already done it. A repeat climber never gets the same thrill as the first ascentionist who heads into difficulties that are virtually unknown. So for me, as an alpinist, it’s far more attractive to do a first ascent. But the most attractive, obvious lines on the Matterhorn have already been climbed: Whymper grabbed the Hörnli Ridge, Burgener the Zmutt Ridge, the Schmid brothers the North Face, Bonatti the right part of the North Face, and Gogna the Zmutt Nose. Was there a first for me or was I really born too late?
With those thoughts at the back of our minds, my brother, Samuel, and I now climb in the middle of the north face of the Matterhorn. Above us looms a 400-meter untouched buttress. It is the left boundary of the Zmutt Nose. The left, more pronounced part is the North Face proper while the right part—the Zmutt Nose—is vertical to overhanging and bends a bit towards the northwest. This bend, this untouched buttress is to be the heart of our first ascent. Above the rock buttress is 300 meters of classic north face climbing: alpine mixed terrain that is less steep but has minimal good gear. Below us is the 300 meters of near-vertical mixed snow and ice we simul-climbed the day before in one long pitch, me leading with two Viper tools and a pack and Samuel following with one Fusion tool, wearing the haul bag and dragging the portaledge between his feet.
After three long days, Samuel and I stood on the summit of the Matterhorn, our first ascent complete. We have no war stories of our line to tell. The line was straight and elegant, but nothing hard. We climbed the 1000-meter route as best we could, finding typically loose stone, some freeclimbing up to 6b, M6 mixed sections and some moderate but awkward aid climbing in the A1+ range. All our experience from bouldering, sport climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing and big walling created the basis to climb such a route today. Crampons, rock shoes, ice axes, chalk and hammer worked hand in hand.
Although our first ascent was no new dimension in alpinism, I feel such climbs are the training grounds for dramatic first ascents on the hundreds and hundreds of hardly touched steep faces of the Himalaya. Yes, the great lines in the Alps may have already been climbed, but the Himalaya is the biggest mountain range on our planet, one with dimensions and possibilities far greater than the Alps or anywhere else. I was not born too late. I was born at exactly the right time, a time when I can count on the experiences of 150 years of alpinism, can climb with the technical gear of our time and have so much training possibilities. To climb a line like ours, to do what we did this summer on the Matterhorn but on a 3000-meter face on a 7000-meter peak in the Himalaya—now, that would certainly be a new dimension in alpinism. Is such a climb possible? One hundred fifty years ago—no. One hundred years ago—no. Twenty five years ago—no. Now? Absolutely yes. I’m glad I wasn’t born earlier!
Simon Anthamatten is one of Europe’s most accomplished all-around climbers. His climbing highlights include first ascents of the North Face of Teng Kangpoche and Catalan Pillar on Bhagirathi III, a free repeat of Freerider on El Capitan, winning the 2008 Ice World Cup and a 2:33 speed record retour of the Matterhorn’s Hörnli Ridge.