150 years of Matterhorn
Following the ascent on July 14, 1865, the Matterhorn became the thing of myth, the epitome of mountaineering, and the world's most photographed mountain. Its highest peak has become the emblem of Switzerland.
Resembling the huge fang of a dinosaur, the Matterhorn rises 4,478 meters into the heavens. Switzerland's highest mountain is world famous for its distinctive shape, and is considered the world's most photographed mountain. The emblem of the Swiss Confederation is located in the canton of Valais. It was first ascended 150 years ago.
Africa in the Alps
Experts say the Matterhorn was "an African," a geological migrant that moved with the African continental plate to Europe 45 million years ago. Ever since human beings came into existence, they have most probably dreamed of climbing this giant in order to conquer its peak. But the Matterhorn, near Zermatt, was considered unconquerable well into the 19th century.
The Matterhorn remained the last unconquered peak of the Alps until July 14, 1865. But then Englishman Edward Whymper (front right) and his team took on the challenge. Accompanied by three Valais mountain leaders, they mounted the giant and conquered its peak - an historic achievement, and a major international triumph.
By a thread
After having reached the peak tragedy struck: During the descent, one of the English climbers tumbles, taking along two of his fellow climbers and a mountain guide into the abyss. Whymper and the two remaining guides survive, because the rope breaks. The fall still remains somewhat of a mystery. The original rope, a silent witness, is exhibited in the Museum Zermatt.
Call of a mountain
In the 150 years following the first ascent of the Matterhorn, the triumph and tragedy of the event have inspired many - including artists. The German feature film "Der Berg Ruft" (The Mountain Calls), produced in 1937/38, remains a thrilling tale to this day. South Tyrolean alpinist Louis Trenker both directed and starred in the film, which was a remake of a silent film.
"The Matterhorn Story" is a play shown during the Freilichtspiele Zermatt until late August. "A play about love and death. About friendship and rivalry. About megalomania and the belief in God," promises the accompanying text. Surrounded by imposing natural scenery, the play aims to remind of the events of 1865, and the tragic circumstances of the first ascent.
Retelling a tragedy
Much has been written about the myth of Matterhorn. In "Absturz des Himmels" (Crash of Heaven), a new novel based on facts, mountaineer Reinhold Messner describes the events of the first ascent in detail. On German television, he speaks of a "giant hype" surrounding the accident: "The Matterhorn and tourism in Zermatt are based on a tragedy."
Alpine for the masses
Nature paintings don't usually depict the hordes of tourists eager to experience the spell of the Matterhorn. Around two million overnight stays per year now take place in the village of Zermatt (with 6000 inhabitants). More than 3000 people ascend the Matterhorn every year. But with around 550 people having lost their lives during the attempt, the Matterhorn remains a dangerous proposition.
St Bernards have become an unofficial symbol of the mountain and region. Bred for over 300 years by monks as avalanche dogs, they have adorned tourist photos taken at the Matterhorn for decades. Although many view the practice as animal exploitation, and discourage the touristic tradition.
Nearly a dozen mini-Matterhorn replicas are said to exist outside Switzerland. A favorite one is located in the artificial dream world of Disneyland in Anaheim, near Los Angeles. Opened in 1959, the replica in the scale of 1:100 is surrounded by tracks. In the upper part of the hollowed mountain, there is a basketball court for the employees.
The Hörnli-hut, 3260 meters high, has been the starting point for climbing to the Matterhorn peak for decades. It has been newly renovated for the 150th anniversary of the first ascent. In mid-July 2003, around 90 alpinists were evacuated from here by helicopters, after tons of rocks thundered down - triggered by melting snow.
Holding the record
For professional mountaineers, the Matterhorn may not be a serious challenge anymore. But historically the mountain proved a challenge to any serious climber. The legendary Zermatt mountain guide Ulrich Inderbinen (1900-2004) reached the summit of the Matterhorn 371 times - holding the record - and for the last time at age 86. He only climbed Mont Blanc 84 times...
Peak of peace?
With about 400-500 million overnight stays per year, the Alps are one of the world's biggest tourist destinations. The consequences of mass tourism for the environment has become a main concern.
The Riffelsee (Lake Riffel) is at the foot of the mighty Matterhorn. The festivities surrounding this anniversary of the mountain of mountains will naturally become part of history. The myth, however, will always remain.