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A Sideways Glance at the Face of Death Article

© Dan Moore

Dan Moore reflects on a harrowing experience on the Matterhorn, which caused him to question his actions prior to the incident as well as his own personal motivations as a mountaineer...


It's been a while since I put pen to paper, or rather since I digitalised my thoughts. But a profound incident has stirred me from my intellectual slumber. It was on the Matterhorn that the event took place. In the past days I have grown away from it. Assimilated it into my system. Dwelt upon it. Forgotten it. But it's there, it happened.

Sunrise in a magical place.  © Dan Moore
Sunrise in a magical place.
© Dan Moore

I turned a corner while descending the Hörnli ridge and saw him looking up. He seemed a little at a loss, and his words confirmed my suspicion. With no air of calm, I heard him speak out to no one in particular, "Where's the path?" As we made our way down to him he turned and sat, facing out from a lofty chair upon the mountainside. The great white glacier spread out before him under the midday sun; the Klein Matterhorn, the Breithorn and the Monte Rosa Massif all visible to the wandering eye. But he did not see it, see them. He was wholly inside himself. "Did you make it to the top" I asked. "No", he replied, "I ..." He continued with an explanation and his words trailed off, but the stress contained within them sounded on.

Ropes hung loosely coiled around his neck. His helmet was green; an empty GoPro mount on top. His jacket and trousers were matching red, his rucksack a darker shade. Sunglasses hid his eyes. And a dark, neatly shaven beard adorned his cheeks. Was he dressed to impress? He looked like a kind man.

"There are many ways down off this mountain, and all of them are dangerous", I tried. "Go SLOWLY, be safe and concentrate."

I wish I'd said nothing. I wish I'd said more. I wish I had packed his coils away and taken him on our rope. But my responsibility was to my climbing partner. He was the one I came here with; ready, prepared, a team. Bonded through past experiences. His life was mine to protect. Not this stranger. I knew that if I did anymore for him I would jeopardise our own safety, our relationship. So I spoke my soothing words as kindly as I could, then turned my heart to steel, turned myself away and looked to my own next steps. I did not look back at this man, perhaps in his forties. I did not then consider the fact that these would be the last words he'd hear; that I would be the last person he spoke to on this earth...I really did not consider.

Sunset alpenglow on the Breithorn.  © Dan Moore
Sunset alpenglow on the Breithorn.
© Dan Moore

***

I had a bad dream several years ago, wherein a climbing partner, on a great sweeping rock wall, somehow unclipped himself from our belay before leaning back. My hand shot out to grab him but there was only air. I watched him accelerate away from me, start to tumble down the wall, bouncing off the rock, arms flailing. There was nothing I could do but stare as he fell. And in my dream I felt my heart break, felt the horror and the shock. I slowly stopped climbing with this particular partner after that.

***

The days of preparation. Weather watching. Webcam stalking. Packing. Planning the climb. Putting the puzzle together, a little piece at a time. What gear to take for the bivvy, what gear to take on the climb. Everything based on a broad experience of past climbs. We met in St Niklaus. Repacked together - adding things, putting things aside. We hiked up from Schwarzsee with our heavy rucksacks. Found our spot beside the closed hut. Cooked our evening meal. Relaxed. Talked together. Admired the incredible sunset. Racked up ready for the morning. Drank tea, and more tea. Said goodnight.

I lay there under the gaze of the rising moon. It was so full. So bright. Three hours until the alarm. I'd been here before. I'd gotten angry at myself for not sleeping. Now I was calm. I knew that sleep was not necessary, only rest. And as I stared out from the hood of my sleeping bag at the stars, I knew I was ready. Knew I could do it. There was no doubt in my thoughts. Only peace. This, I realised is what it means to be prepared. Around midnight I slowly drifted from the conscious world. Whether it was truly sleep, or just a deep meditative acceptance I do not know. When the alarm went off, I felt I could have slept a minute or a hundred years.

Black, instant coffee poured down the throat. A crap on a slate hurled down slope. Geared up harnesses were drawn tight about the waist. Boots laced well, once for the day. And then movement. We wouldn't stop until we stood on the summit. We descended round, then up through the rock band onto the Matterhorn Glacier. Traversed to the foot of the climb. And climbed. We climbed together on the vorbau, placing a screw where necessary. We reached the start of the ramp, took off coils and began the first pitch. We moved competently and found that it was easy. We linked pitches together, simul-climbing with three microtractions variously placed as running belays. I joined Mario on one belay, and we realised we'd climbed through what should be an M5 pitch. What conditions! We hadn't even noticed the difficulty.

Sharing all this majesty with just two other, strong, happy parties.   © Dan Moore
Sharing all this majesty with just two other, strong, happy parties.
© Dan Moore

On we went. On and on, together. Living, breathing, connected. Symbionts, tied by a string - a physical symbol of all of our connections. It was a dream, the North Face; the Schmid Route. We were climbing it! It felt like cheating with such good tracks. Some would say it was. I kept waiting for the 'sting in the tail' though, never letting my guard down. I wouldn't be fooled into thinking that the difficulties were over. I learnt this - to never believe I've passed the crux of a route, of a mountain, until I am on flat ground again walking out with the heavy rucksack, tired but truly safe.

The ice pitch was spectacular. Then it was up and right, up and right, up and right, until we reached the Zmutt ridge. We were off the face. There were no more barriers to overcome. Just a cold, cold wind blowing 80kmh across the lip. We buttoned up and went on together, reaching the summit by 10am. It took us 7 hours to climb the face. It's been done a lot faster. But what's speed compared to enjoyment? And I had enjoyed every minute of it. Never felt truly fatigued. I had planned well for this route and climbed it in good form. I was proud of myself.

I knew our descent route, the Hörnli ridge well. I'd climbed it before and was ready for the arduous downhill slog. But was I really ready for what would occur there? Was I so naïve to think it would never happen around me? That I would only hear about it in the news. Read it in the papers. Dream it in the night.

We'd started down another set of abseils. The first was done. Mario had completed the second. I had threaded the rope into my belay plate and was ready to follow. Then... Someone's shouting from above. I took a quick glance up – it would be rocks – I wanted to make sure I could dodge them. I saw a couple roll over the top of a rock band, 20m up but over to the left – I was safe. But the shouts intensified. What was happening? Then I saw it.

The green helmet.

His arms were out in front. He was sliding head first over the edge. The red jacket, then the red trousers came too. He was in the air now. I looked away. Bent in towards the abseil station. Shouted "No!" and "Why?" I wouldn't look back. I couldn't look back. But of course I did.

On the second impact with the rocks below I knew that life had left him. Thereafter his body went limp and he tumbled down the mountain, just like the rag doll in my dream. And there was nothing I could do but stare, like a curious child, sideways at the face of death, who had caught me unawares. I felt shock rise within me but knew in an instant I had to control it. I let the image wash over me. Bathed in its sour aroma. Then took a deep breath and continued the abseil. My partner was already on the phone to Rega. I heard him say in Swiss German that the man was certainly dead. Accordingly, the helicopter took its time. Meanwhile my partner and I talked, and started down again. "Just imagine it was a crash test dummy," he said. "Focus on what you are doing." Of course he was right.

But I knew that I was more sensitive than that. I had spoken to this man and had seen in his eyes a hint of his destiny. Therein rose a sense of guilt that I couldn't simply cast aside. I know I had acted correctly. But had I acted well? As a mountaineer, as a responsible partner, as a human?

If I knew before what I would see, would I have gone? (photo: another separate incident)  © Dan Moore
If I knew before what I would see, would I have gone? (photo: another separate incident)
© Dan Moore

As a mountaineer I had spoken with unusual kindness and compassion. I have passed many climbers and guides in the mountains who have appeared rude, who have acted as if I wasn't there. Perhaps now I understand this better. When in the mountains with a partner, it is with them you have chosen to be. To watch out for and secure each other as you go. Whoever else is on the mountain is there as a separate unit whether they be with a partner, or solo. They are as much a part of the mountain scenery as a fixed rope or a loose block. But to interact with them in any serious way is to alter both their fate and yours. As a responsible partner I had not done anything to jeopardise the safety of our 'rope'. In this I am sure of my actions. But as a human. Seeing another human in distress. How did I act. I could say that he was just having a rest but otherwise seemed fit and capable. I could say that he didn't show any signs of either needing or wanting assistance. But I'd be fooling myself if I said I didn't suspect he was out of his comfort zone.

We continued down-climbing and abseiling the various piles of rubble the Matterhorn is made up of. The helicopter flew overhead, circled a few times, and then drifted in towards the spot where this stranger's body lay at rest. They hovered for a time. I pictured them peering out at his twisted form, just to make sure that he was definitely gone. They flew off then, I guess swapping stretcher for a body bag, and came back to take him away. The police called, asking that we give a statement to them on arrival in Zermatt, to which we agreed. Back on the deck outside the Hörnli hut we spread our gear around, repacking it all into our large stashed rucksacks. People milled about. Several asked about conditions on the mountain. Some of them did not get the simple answer they were hoping for. For this I am sorry, but in those moments I was weak. They didn't have to know. It wouldn't affect their climb.

I think back over that day. To the feeling of pure joy on the route that we climbed. The fluidity of movement. The music in my breathing, the swing of the axe, the thump of cramponed boots into firm nevé. Someone asked me later if such good conditions were worth calling in sick for. In another moment of weakness he got an essay in response: "Worth is a hard thing to judge right now. I'm currently processing the events that happened on the descent. A stranger: he thought it was worth going to the Matterhorn, travelling a long way to climb this prestigious, world famous peak. He couldn't climb the Hörnli ridge. He'd made a mistake in going there alone. But I bet he didn't consider the possibility that he would die for this mistake…Nothing is worth your life. Not vanity, not ego. Yet if you feel truly up for something. Have the experience and skill to match your dreams. Then maybe there is some worth in leaving the warmth of your home and the love of the people around you, to discover another part of yourself; to take it with you home again."

Of course it would be better if I hadn't seen it. Of course it would be better if it hadn't happened. But it did. And nothing I can do will change it. I must let it pass like the bad dream. Heed what lesson I can from it and move on to the next thing. Nothing will sooth the sadness of his family. Nothing will change the violence surrounding his death. But if I can accept it, put it on the shelf, the world will go on. The mountains will continue to stand, alluring and enticing, calling on my strengths, showing me my weaknesses. But importantly, holding ever more of my respect.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Dan Moore



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18 Oct, 2018

Is anyone else having trouble viewing this article? 

18 Oct, 2018

It didn't work for me ten minutes ago but it does now.

18 Oct, 2018

Beautiful writing about something very traumatic and difficult to process. I can't imagine how it must feel to have witnessed that. I hope the feelings have settled and you can find some peace with it. Thanks Dan

18 Oct, 2018

No can't view it 

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