When we turned up at the hotel on the Friday night, it was clear that we had come ill-prepared for what our hosts had in mind. Gloves? I said. Hats? Goggles? We didn’t have any of that malarkey. As for waterproof jackets and trousers – well, I proposed to go in my tweed jacket, if that was all right with them. They laughed, in a slightly incredulous way.
Stefano, our guide, indicated where he proposed to take us, and that was when I began – as I have said – to feel a twinge of alarm. The mountain did seem very high, and very big – probably one of the largest and coldest objects in the whole European landscape.
I looked anxiously at Marina, but she seemed to be taking things in her stride. The truth is that I don’t think either of us fully grasped, even then, what we were letting ourselves in for. The next morning we set out at 10.30 with Stephano, and I was relieved to find that we were going by car. We drove up and up in a Mitsubishi 4 X 4, and, as we passed the pistes, I marvelled at the expense and energy that goes into bulldozing the rocks out the way. The result is that in the summer the ski slopes become lovely undulating meadows.
• The story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn
I thought perhaps we might stop, and meander among the wildflowers. Oh no. Stephano had other ideas. We finally came to a place that already seemed impossibly high – at the top of the highest ski-lift. Was that it, then? Was our excursion complete? It was not.
We got out and began to walk, and as the hours went by it became clear that this was no ramble. Higher and higher we went, until there was no grass and no trees. We had left the ibex far below us. There weren’t even any birds, let alone butterflies; and the landscape had changed from the Sound of Music to a desolate and blasted moonscape, full of haphazard piles of metamorphic rock, colossal slabs of schist and gneiss – broken and ruined as though eternally dynamited by some malign cosmic force.
By this stage I was starting to feel the effects of hauling my 17 stone up the mountain, and Stephano made a sympathetic puffing noise, like a walrus. “Are you all right, Boris?” he asked. “We can always stop or go back if it is not possible for you.” Well, there is only one way to respond to a challenge like that, isn’t there? We kept going, Marina much more nimbly than me.
By mid afternoon we came at last to a “rifugio” – a kind of pinewood cabin just below the snowline, where Stephano proposed that we spend the night. In the morning, said our guide, we would make for the summit. Why wait? I said, with all the bravura I could muster. Why not keep going? Stephano looked at me and smiled.
We passed a fitful night, surrounded by exceedingly serious Italian mountaineers, all of them bedecked with ropes and pitons and ice-axes, and all of them roasted by the sun to the colour of Nutella. At 4 am we rose and put on miner’s headlamps and crampons – the first time I have ever worn crampons – and began the final assault.
By now the whole mission was turning in my imagination into some Everest disaster epic. We staggered on up a wide and steep plain of ice and snow, fissured by crevasses. As the wind started to bite us – penetrating even the waterproof I had borrowed from the Mayor of Ayas – my morale began to sink yet further.
I fell over as I negotiated a crevasse, and as I tottered to my feet I asked Stephano if we could declare victory. “Isn’t this pretty much the summit?” I asked. It wasn’t, said our guide. For two more hours we toiled up a snow ridge so terrifying that we were commanded not to look on either side – an instruction I disobeyed. I instantly felt queasy. We were walking up a knife edge, with certain death on either side.
Finally we were on the top, just as the sun came up, and I wish I could record that I felt full of some spiritual insight or peace. As we tried to keep our balance on that small patch of stamped-down snow, I thought how lucky it was that Marina was so good at climbing, and I wondered how on earth we were going to get down from this 4226 metre spot and catch our plane from Turin; and as I looked at Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, gleaming in the dawn, I am afraid I yearned to climb them, too.