I have always been a hiker. I didn't play soccer, tennis,
or basketball as a child, but I could walk all day from the time I was
five. I came late to climbing, however, which is a source of deep regret
to me. The turning point occurred in 1990 when my husband, Marvin Lazerson,
read about a middle-aged man climbing the Matterhorn and determined to
try it himself. (At the time, Marvin, now the Carruth Family Professor
of Education, was dean of Penn's Graduate School of Education, and I think
he believed that nothing was more difficult than university administration.)
I had been to Zermatt in the 1950s as a young girl and had resisted returning
as an adult, fearing that, like so much of Switzerland, the bucolic environment
I remembered and saw in my parents' old photographs had become high-rise
hotels and ski lifts criss-crossing the valley like Los Angeles freeways.
Zermatt is not like Los Angeles. We
have returned every July since 1990, living at the Hotel Bijou, in the
shadow of the Matterhorn, away from the hordes of tourists who come for
24 hours to take their pictures, ride the cog railway, and buy postcards.
Marvin never has climbed the Matterhorn, but I did in 1992. Since then,
climbing has become my life's passion. I have stood on 18,000-foot mountains
in Bolivia and Mexico; climbed the three peaks of Mt. Blanc, Europe's
highest mountain; scaled the Jungfrau in Switzerland; been to Mt. Rainier
and summited Mt. Washington in the harshest mid-winter conditions. But
most of all, I have lived and climbed in Zermatt, summiting more than
20 of the world's most beautiful mountains over 4,000 meters.
1992: The Matterhorn; or,
the Race to the Top
To understand my climb up the Matterhorn, you have to
know two things. First, the climb has become Switzerland's version of
the New York Marathon. On many summer days, there are more people on the
mountain than can fit and the race to get ahead of the crowd is intense.
Second, my guide, Andre Lerjen, is a descendant of many generations of
professionally trained and certified mountain guides. His father, Alfons,
the story goes, once climbed the Matterhorn and returned in three hours.
(The normal climb is eight to nine hours.) Before Andre went up with me,
he asked if I thought I could make it to the top in four hours, since
he did not climb with people who took longer.
Andre lives up to his family reputation. At 4:00 a.m.,
we are among the first out the door of the Hoernli Hütte at the base of
the mountain. I kiss Marvin goodbye. He is both excited for me and envious,
but promises to remain at the hut until I return. Andre leads, holding
the rope that is my security blanket as we head straight up over the rocks,
following the glow of the few headlamps ahead of us. The going is hard,
and Andre is passing whatever rope parties he can. The first time I look
at anything but his feet, it is 6:00 a.m. and the sun has risen. We are
halfway there; the Solvay hut, an emergency hut at 3,800 meters, is just
above us. I am panting, my Philadelphia-acclimated lungs struggling in
the thin atmosphere, and looking forward to leaving unnecessary gear at
the hut. But Andre doesn't even break stride as we pass the hut. I am
afraid to say anything because rumor has it that the guides use this as
a turning-around point for clients who don't cut the mustard. Just above
us is the shoulder of the Matterhorn, the snow and ice fields we must
cross to reach the summit.
By the time we get to the summit, which is like a steeply
sloping roof, I am tired, cold, barely able to see the beauty around me.
As we perch on top, I am clutching Andre's knee in the hope that this
will keep me from a 1,200 meter slide back down to the Hoernli hut. Beneath
my weariness, I am incredibly proud of making it, but Andre is already
worried about getting caught in the traffic going down. "Do we have
to catch a train?" I think. Descending is grim. On the first part
of the roof, I hesitate, but Andre yells, "Das halt! Das halt!"
(It holds! It holds! -- referring to my crampons.) When we reach the fixed
ropes just below the roof, a mass of what looks like 100 people is coming
up. I want to wait, but Andre yells again, "Nicht warten!"
(Don't stop!) and I barely avoid digging my crampons into someone's hand.
There are several places where he lowers me down on the rope, trying to
speed our descent, and yells at me, "Rauslehnen, rauslehnen! Weisst
du nicht was das bedeutet?" (Lean out, lean out! Don't you know
what that means?) I realize that I am learning on the job, so to speak,
and try to model his behavior or just do what I am told. Down, down, down.
Not much room for the "creative thinking" I urge on my students.
My legs are exhausted Andre is now behind me, tightly holding the rope,
yelling in German, "Left, right, don't sit," and warning other
climbers coming up to move aside.
Almost unbelievably, we are down, the ascent and descent
accomplished in eight hours, not bad for a novice climber. Andre is pleased.
Only a few other climbers have arrived ahead of us. Of the three women
on the Matterhorn that day, I am the only one to summit. Marvin is there,
more obviously ecstatic than I, his jealousy lost in pride at my accomplishment.
He has the energy to gush; I concentrate on my wobbly knees, praying that
I won't fall and disgrace myself.
I have learned a lot. While climbing, I resented Andre's
commands. Once down, I understand how shrewd and careful he was, guiding
and challenging me at the same time, teaching without lecturing that climbing
is a skill in which adherence to rules and appropriate techniques is critical.
The Matterhorn has a lot of loose rock, which is particularly dangerous
as the day warms and the snow melts. Andre was not punishing me by demanding
a speedy descent, but looking out for our safety. By following him up
and down the mountain, mimicking his behavior, I have been initiated into
the ranks of climbers.