July 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn– the renowned mountain in the Alps straddling the border between Italy and Switzerland which has captured imaginations of explorers around the world. In the countless narratives of fearless ambitions, earned successes, and heroic failures on the Matterhorn, Herve Barmasse, accomplished alpinist and mountaineer, plays an indispensible role. This is not just because Barmasse holds the record for making the most first ascents on the Matterhorn, but more so for his fascinating relationship with the mountain. It’s for this reason that we sat down with Herve to ask him 9 questions about the Matterhorn and his experiences and feelings with this iconic peak.
1. What are the objectives you are attempting on the Matterhorn this year before the 150th Anniversary of the first ascent?
I have always been in search of new experiences on the Matterhorn different from the ones I had already done, soloing those routes that have been climbed only with a rope party, including the first solo on the south face of the Matterhorn in 2007. I opened new routes also soloing both in the summer and in the winter. Last winter I made the first enchainment of the four Matterhorn ridges. At this point, I might be wondering: “what I could do differently?” Mountaineering is both exploration and the search for the new. However, there is still something to be carried out, an objective never achieved before. I hope to be able to communicate it soon. Anyway, actions will speak louder than words.
2. You have spent a lot of time climbing in other parts of the world, but a significant amount on your home mountain, Matterhorn. What is it about the Matterhorn that keeps drawing you back? What is the biggest fascination about on the Mountain for you?
I have climbed in many countries throughout the world, such as Pakistan, Nepal, Patagonia and China. I have always attempted to carry out new enterprises on untouched peaks or unclimbed walls because they were thought unreachable by the most. Anyway, every time I came back home, Matterhorn was still the best mountain in the world for me, the only one being worth to be climbed more than once and through different and new routes. This is why I have always alternated my career between exploration in faraway places and exploration on the Alps or on the Matterhorn. Today, I am the mountaineer with the greatest number of first ascents on the Matterhorn, among solos, winter and new routes.
3. What was the most memorable challenge you have had on your multiple projects on the
Only one? They are at least three. The first one was the new route opened with my father in 2010. This was a much sought-after project. Since 1939 a lot of alpinists had been attempting it but they all failed. It has been a beautiful sensation to achieve that goal also because everybody thought it was impossible and accomplishing it together with my father has been even more exciting. Then, the new solo route opened in 2011, which was very difficult and treacherous. I think it was absolutely the most dangerous and almost impossible to carry out. I soloed it not only with all my fears and my sufferings but also with a good deal of courage, joy and hardship. I really felt a lot of emotions! Finally, the last challenge that dates back to March 13, 2014. It wasn’t since 1950 that so much snow had fallen on the Alps. Consequently, carrying out the first enchainment of the four Matterhorn ridges was really fascinating but difficult and particularly treacherous: a 17-hour “grande course”. An unforgettable experience!
4. Can you sum up/comment on Matterhorn (from your point of view) in one sentence?
The Matterhorn does not leave anyone “cold” / indiferent. Both alpinists and tourists are enchanted by it. I consider it like a friend or rather, a sort of brother.
5. What is your first memory of the Matterhorn?
The Matterhorn belonged to me even before my birth, like in a fairy-tale. While my mother was giving birth to me, my father was leaving for the first winter ascent of the Western face. The big one.
6. Climbing the Matterhorn is almost like a family legacy for you. Did your father push you in developing a career as a mountaineer? You started your career at a very young age. Did you ever think of doing something different?
My father never pushed me into developing a career as a mountaineer. On the contrary, he tried to keep me away, being aware of the risks you take in the mountains, particularly if you love soloing like me. Anyway, when I was forced to stop my ski competitions because of an accident, I realised that mountaineering might have become my future sport.
7. The best advice you received from your father about climbing the Matterhorn?
It is always the same I receive about all my extreme climbs: “ If you don’t feel safe, you should follow your instinct and draw back”.
8. Since you started exploring Matterhorn at a very young age, do you feel like your relationship
with the mountain and your view of the mountain has changed with age? If so, how?
It has definitely changed and improved over the years. I opened my first new route on this mountain at the age of 23. If at that time, I had attempted to accomplish one of the difficult projects I made in the last years, I think that I wouldn’t have survived. Mountaineering requires not only technique and strength, but also a lot of experience.
9. Is there a route on the Matterhorn you have dreamed of doing but haven’t attempted yet?
Like a “holy grail” of routes for you.
The next one! It will not be something new but an idea, a creative and stimulating project.
Photos: Damiano Levati