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with Stefan Nestler

“Three times through Zermatt is too little for the Matterhorn”

Ascent on the Matterhorn (Photo: © Christoph Frutiger)

Ascent on the Matterhorn (Photo: © Christoph Frutiger)

Probably Richard Lehner would find the summit even blindfolded. The veteran mountain guide from Zermatt has reached the highest point of the Matterhorn at 4,478 meters 650 times. This is not the record but nevertheless he would deserve the title “Mr. Matterhorn”. The 76-year-old has passed on his passion for the mountains to his children. Two of his sons are mountain guides too, one is a ski instructor. Richard Lehner is one of 87 listed active mountain guides of the Alpin Center Zermatt, the local Mountain Guides Association. The Matterhorn, 150 years after the first ascent, from the perspective of a mountain guide:

Richard, all over the world the Matterhorn is a symbol for Switzerland. How do you see this mountain? Or in other words, what does it mean to you?

As a mountain guide, I have been working mainly on the Matterhorn. I have scaled the mountain 650 times. I was on top for the last time five years ago. For me, it has always been a beautiful mountain.

650 climbs – how often did you find yourself in critical situations?

Not often, and it was nothing serious.

What are the main challenges for a mountaineer who wants to climb the Matterhorn?

Matterhorn-VHe must be reasonably trained and a good runner. Technical climbing skills are not that important. The main thing is to be in good shape.

Do many climbers underestimate the mountain?

Yes, many. Some of those who climb the mountain need three to four days. They pitch their tent and set off. And when the weather is changing, they cry for help. Then the rescue helicopter has to start and bring them down.

What are the problems of these climbers?

Above all, they have difficulties in finding the right track.

Every year 2500 to 3000 climbers try to scale Matterhorn. Can the mountain take so many people?

No problem.

Are there no traffic jams on the mountain?

At the most in the morning when all climbers set off. After that, it’s not that bad.

Who does control the traffic on the mountain? The mountain guides?

No need. The mountain guides are the first who start in the morning. If one is faster, he climbs in front or passes. The climbers without mountain guides have hardly a chance to keep up, because they have to do too much work on the rope.

Nevertheless, hardly a year goes by without fatal accident on the Matterhorn. Have we to swallow this bitter pill?

Summit of the Matterhorn

Summit of the Matterhorn

Previously, the equipment was much worse than today. In the past we had ten accidents per year, today we have maybe one. Now there are fixed ropes at the places where the most accidents have happened. You can hold tight to the ropes while you’re descending.

But accidents still happen. Why first and foremost?

Mainly because climbers stray from the track.

A Matterhorn ascent with a mountain guide currently costs about 1,600 Swiss francs, or about 1,500 euros. That’s a lot of money. Does the client expect in return a summit guaranty?

You cannot give any guaranty. There are people who have problems to reach the Hörnli Hut, and then say: This mountain is much too high, I won’t climb on. And sometimes you have to turn around because of changing weather.

You have worked as a mountain guide on the Matterhorn for several decades. Has the type of summit aspirant changed?

Yes, a bit. People simply do not want to train. They mean when they walk three times back and forth through Zermatt, they are ready for the Matterhorn and can hire a mountain guide. But it doesn’t work without training. The summit success cannot be forced. In the old days, climbers used to make ten other mountain trips before heading to the Matterhorn. Today, people want to make only this mountain. Hardly one of them will return again later. They climb the Matterhorn – and ready.

If you could make the Matterhorn a present for the 150th anniversary of its first ascent, what would it be?

For us as mountain guides, it would be better if the Matterhorn aspirants would be a little better prepared. Someday I had a client; the ascent with him took me four and a half hours, but the descent eight hours. His trousers were torn, and he was bleeding. There must have been something wrong. But the Matterhorn is just the distinctive mountain, and we live on it. Every guest who is visiting Zermatt wants to have a room with a view of the Matterhorn.


9. July 2015 | 8:00