FRED ZALOKAR: LICENSED TO CLIMB
In the summer of 1997, I was on my way to the Alps with two climbing buddies, Sean and Dave. We had a plan to climb three of Europe’s most iconic mountains: Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Matterhorn. This last one is perhaps the best-known and most visually striking mountain in the world. All climbers dream of one day climbing the Matterhorn, and we were on our way to make that dream a reality. Our plan was to climb Mont Blanc first, then move on to Monte Rosa, and save the biggest prize, the Matterhorn, for last.
Before we left the US, Sean had faxed me an article from USA Today about what he called a “situation in the Alps”. According to the article, nearly a hundred climbers had died on this mountain range in 1997 alone; because of the rash of recent deaths, officials were considering instituting mandatory safety rules and requiring licenses for anyone who wanted to climb. Sean underlined this part of the article and wrote a note to me in the margin: “You’d better get your license so we can go climbing”.
Undaunted, I put on my best James Bond impression and responded, “Fred Zalokar: licensed to climb”. I was up for the challenge, and I knew Sean would be, too. Dave, on the other hand… Well, Dave was a novice. Sean and I decided not to share the USA Today piece with him.
Off the three of us went, looking for adventure in Switzerland, but when we got to Geneva, our climbing equipment wasn’t there. Somehow, Swiss Air had a mix-up with our luggage, and it was going to arrive a day late. We were not happy at the thought of losing a day off our itinerary. The three of us liked to be in constant motion; the plan had been to arrive, climb three mountains in quick succession, and then leave as quickly as we had come. We hadn’t even booked hotel reservations in advance.
Still, there wasn’t much we could do, so we got our rental car, drove to Chamonix, and found a hotel. We called Swiss Air to tell them where we were staying, and they promised to get our climbing gear to us as soon as it arrived. Then, we settled in and prepared ourselves for a long, stifling wait.
As it turned out, the wait was not long at all. At two o’clock the following morning, someone started pounding on our hotel door. Groggy and disoriented, I went to answer, only to discover that our gear had arrived and that Swiss Air had driven it all the way out to Chamonix for us. Kudos to them! Our plan was back on track. The next day, we would climb.
On July 27th, 1997, the three of us summited Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Dave, new to the climbing scene, decided he’d had enough, but on July 30th, Sean and I summited the Dufourspitze, the highest peak of Monte Rosa. With two mountains down and no issues so far, it was time to turn our attention to the Matterhorn.
When we arrived, conditions on the mountain had been deemed so dangerous that even the guides were not climbing. Our thought: Great! It meant there would be fewer people on the mountain. We woke up the morning of July 31st, ready to take on the Matterhorn. The only problem—really, an insignificant detail—was that it was snowing sideways, and the forecast promised no change in the weather.
Frustrated and not actually wanting to die despite our bravado, Sean and I descended. We had no plan, and to attempt the Matterhorn in that kind of weather would just have been stupid. Instead, we went to Montreux and turned north, ending up at the hilltop town of Gruyere. By this time, it was August 1st, Swiss National Day, so we partied with the Swiss! A lot of fireworks, a lot of alcohol, and (go figure) a lot of Shakespeare. It was a surprising, fun time, and it almost made up for us getting weathered off the Matterhorn.
On the morning of August 2nd, the weather report looked more favorable. We weren’t scheduled to fly home until August 4th, so after a brief conference, Sean and I decided to drive back to the town of Zermatt and attack the Matterhorn again. I don’t know what Dave thought of us, our breakneck pace, or our determination to get all three summits under our belt; what I do know is that he never came on another climbing trip with us again. We left him down in Zermatt as we ascended to the alpine hut at the Matterhorn’s base and prepared to climb.
The morning of August 3rd, the weather was good. When we started our climb, there were probably half a dozen people on the mountain; on a normal day, there would have been at least a hundred. Although the weather had improved, it was still far from ideal, and we had trouble finding our route due to reduced visibility. We got off-track and had to retrace our steps numerous times, and as a result, we lost a lot of time. When finally reached the hut stationed at 4000 meters’ altitude (near the summit), it was getting late. We had to make a decision. We could keep climbing and hope to summit, but we would have to spend the night on the mountain and miss our plane the next morning. Or, we could go down. Since Dave was still waiting for us down in Zermatt, and since we were his only way of getting to the airport and back to the US, we reluctantly decided to descend. The highest point we reached on the Matterhorn was 4000 meters.
By the time we arrived at the lower hut, it was very late. We raced to the top of the tram that runs between Zermatt and the base of the mountain, but the tram had already closed for the night. It was starting to get dark.
And so, of course, we started running down the mountain.
I ran down as fast as I could, bushwhacking all the way. Sean fell back a bit, but that was normal for the two of us; I knew he would meet me at the car. Before I was halfway down, it was completely dark out, but the weather had cleared, so I just focused on the lights of Zermatt and kept running. It took me a couple of hours to get to the town, and when I did finally arrive, I couldn’t find Dave.
Exhausted, I decided to head for the car. Cars aren’t allowed in Zermatt, so we had parked it in the nearby town of Tasch and taken the train in. I ran to the train station, but—no surprise—the trains had stopped running for the night. So I found the road to Tasch and started heading there on foot.
Finally, after running practically all night, I got to the car. Dave was still nowhere to be seen. At this point, I was completely fried and barely able to think straight. I couldn’t really worry about where Dave was; I just had to trust that he and Sean would find me. I moved the car to the front of the parking lot, closer to the road, and then—with the motor still running—I passed out from exhaustion.
The next thing I knew, Sean and Dave were knocking frantically on the window. I was delighted to see them, but they were in less of a good mood. When Sean had gotten to Zermatt, he’d run into Dave. The two of them had gone to where the car was originally parked, not realizing that I (being the helpful, thoughtful, generous, kind creature that I am) had moved it for them. When the car wasn’t where it was supposed to be, Sean thought I had left them and gone to the airport on my own. Needless to say, he was not amused.
To this day, I still can’t believe he thought I would ever leave him, or anyone, for that matter, in the middle of the night in Switzerland! Regardless, he did think that. Stranded in a Swiss parking lot and desperate for help, they remembered seeing a car with the motor running close to the road. Lo and behold, when they went to ask the driver for help, they discovered me! Reunited, and with a plane to catch in a matter of mere hours, we started driving to the airport in Geneva. I was just too tired to drive, so after a few kilometers, I pulled over to the side of the road and let Dave take my place in the driver’s seat. The next thing I remember is arriving at the airport, exactly two hours before our flight to the US was set to depart. Plenty of time; no sweat.
At that point the Matterhorn was one of the few mountains I had ever attempted but not summitted. I’m not a fan of having unfinished business. Sean went back and attempted it again, a few years later, with his brother Chris and his friend Jim. Once again, though, they were unsuccessful.
Fast forward to the summer of 2009. I was on a family vacation with my wife, Deb, and our son, Ian, who was thirteen years old at the time. We flew in and out of Milan and rented a car. The plan was to climb two high points: Monte Titano in San Marino (as a family) and the Grossglockner in Austria (with just me and Ian). We also planned to spend some time in Bled, Slovenia, as well as Interlaken and Zermatt in Switzerland, finishing up at Lake Como in Italy. We arrived in Zermatt at noon on August 16th, and the first thing I said was, “Let’s go to the Guide Services Building and see what the Matterhorn situation is.” Somehow, my family wasn’t surprised.
At Guide Services, I inquired about the possibility of organizing a Matterhorn climb. The clerk explained that the process normally takes a few days, and that a guide would have to take me on a practice climb in order to check my skills and make sure I was acclimatized to the altitude before attempting the Matterhorn. In response, I told her that I was in Zermatt for two nights, that I was acclimatized since I had just summitted the Grossglockner, that my skills were solid, and I that I was hiring a guide primarily for route-finding. She said that it was most likely not going to be possible, but that she would make some calls & call me if anything was available.
I didn’t have a phone, and I didn’t have a hotel, but I told her I’d get a hotel and check back with her. It took about an hour to get a hotel room, and as soon as we were settled, we went back to the Guide Services Building to let the woman know where we were staying. She had managed to arrange a guide for me for the next day. However, I had to get to the alpine hut at the mountain’s base by dinner time. I would meet my guide, Haraud, at dinner, and we would plan the climb.
I paid my fee, got my receipt, and had a few hours to organize my gear. I had all the proper clothes. I rented a helmet, harness & crampons, as I had at the Grossglockner. There were no boots to rent, so I bought a new pair. Normally, it’s a bad idea to attempt a serious climb in a brand-new pair of boots, because footwear that hasn’t been broken in can cause serious blisters, but I had no other option and I knew I could make it work. I packed for my climb back at the hotel, and Deb and Ian took the tram to the base of the mountain with me. Rather than hiking the rest of the way up to the hut, they took the tram back down right away, so they wouldn’t have to risk missing the last ride and walking down to Zermatt like I did in 1997!
I hiked to the hut, had dinner, and met Haraud. There were about thirty climbers and guides at the hut, one guide for each climber. After dinner, the guides checked their clients’ equipment and edited what they were going to carry in their packs on the climb. This largely consisted of them going through their clients’ packs and throwing out all of the equipment that they deemed excessive and unnecessary. I was the only one who didn’t have anything taken out, as I tend to pack light. It was pretty funny to watch the clients trying to negotiate with their guides over what they could and couldn’t carry; many of them tried to insist on carrying extra gear, even though the guides repeatedly explained that this gear was extraneous and would only add weight to their packs and serve to slow them down.
Haraud did look a little skeptical when he saw my boots. He turned to me and asked, “Are these new?” I looked at him, nodded, and said, “Yes. Trust me, it won’t be a problem.” No further discussion was needed. We arranged our start time for the next morning, then went to sleep.
The day of our climb, the weather was perfect. Haraud and I were among the first teams to reach the summit. The climb was a ton of fun. Interestingly, the Matterhorn guides don’t believe in using ice axes when they climb. They consider ice axes a mental crutch more than a useful tool, and think they have the potential to create problems. The shoulder of the mountain was a sheet of solid ice, and at first, I felt a little naked and exposed without my ice axe. Still, we got up and down quickly and uneventfully; we were back at the hut by 9:30am. Haraud invited me to have breakfast with him, but I declined. Instead, I took the tram back down (much more pleasant than running in the dark!) to meet up with Deb and Ian, and to get back to our family vacation. My unfinished business with the Matterhorn was finally resolved. I was officially…
Fred Zalokar: Licensed to Climb.