Simon Anthamatten interview
Ellade Ossola interviews Swiss alpinist and mountain guide Simon Anthamatten, a key player in the mountaineering world with important ascents to his name which have their roots in his desire to maintain an "independent" alpinism.
"Were I to decide to exploit my image, market myself more, then I'd already manage to earn a living just from my expeditions, but this isn't what I want. I was born and still live in Zermatt and I see myself above all as a Mountain Guide. I have strong ties to this profession and I regularly work as a guide." This, in synthesis, is Simon Anthamatten.
26 years old, Anthamatten grew up in the shadow of the Matterhorn and is directed towards the world's biggest mountains by a devouring passion and a universally recognised talent. Together with his brother Samuel or other partners (including the extremely talented Ueli Steck) Simon has completed a series of ascents whose importance were quickly recognised by the mountaineering elite. These include climbs such as his recent South Face of Jasemba (7350m) together with his brother and Michael Lerjen-Demjen, the North Face of Tengkampoche (6500m) with Ueli Steck which netted them the Piolet d’or 2009, a sort of Oscar Award for alpinism, and a series of extremely difficult ascent in Patagonia's Fitz Roy mountain chain.
In addition, there is another aspect of Anthamatten's alpinism which is worth remembering and which is often less taken for granted in a not always exactly uplifting panorama: in 2008, and once again with Steck, he abandoned his ascent on Annapurna (8091m) to attempt to rescue two mountaineers in difficulty on the same mountain (this attempt was recognised with the Prix Courage). And a few weeks ago and right after his Jasemba feat he rushed back to the Himalaya to take part in an unsuccessful rescue attempt of the extremely strong Slovenian Tomaz Humar who had fallen during a solo ascent of the south face of Langfang Lirung (7300m).
One can really believe Anthamatten when he states "sponsors are fundamental, but it's also important to succeed in maintaining a certain independence. When you're in the mountains your safety depends on the decisions you make, you need to remain objective, not succumb to outside pressure, such as that from sponsors. In my case I don't have any problems of this sort because I have an excellent relationship with all my sponsors. I want to remain independent and that's why I became a mountain guide. I work when I want to work and rest when I want to rest... this is important."
The Matterhorn is a symbol recognised throughout the world. What does it represent to an alpinist who lives at the foot of this mountain?
"The Matterhorn is synonymous with home, with where I come from. I was born here and I have a deep respect for this mountain. I've already climbed it 85 times, it's an extraordinary peak with both easy and difficult routes. There's something for everyone. What I mean with respect is that even if I live at the foot of this mountain, I don't climb it every day nor at any cost, but only when conditions are perfect. Climbing the Matterhorn is never a walk in the park, you need to respect it."
How did your sprint up the Matterhorn in just 2 hours and 33 minutes, there and back, spring to life a couple of years ago?
"It was an adventure I shared with my friend Michi Lerjen who took part in the Jasemba expedition. We'd been shut down in the hut for three days because of the wind. The weather was fantastic but unfortunately the wind was crazy and it prevented us from climbing the Matterhorn with our clients. After two days in the hut we celebrated in the evening, the next day we woke up at four in the morning only to tell our clients that the weather conditions hadn't improved and that climbing was impossible. At nine I said to Michi "come on, let's go, just you and me, let's give it a go regardless of the wind." That's how we started and we immediately realised that we had made swift progress. No one was on the mountain due to the high wind and so no other climbers slowed our progress down. I have to say though that it all came about pretty much by chance."
Can it be put down to chance the Simon Anthamatten holds the record for the fastest ascent of the Matterhorn, while Ueli Steck holds the record for the fastest ascent of the North Face of the Eiger?
"Michi Lerjen's grandfather held the previous record which remained unbroken for 30 years. When we started our ascent we thought of this, also because his grandfather always made fun of us whenever we told him about our climbs in the mountains: he liked to underline the fact that the Matterhorn record was still his. Ueli Steck comes from the Bern region and did the same thing on the Eiger, on "his" mountain. I think this is a normal pattern in the evolution of alpinism. There's a mountain which you know better than others, you begin almost for the fun of it, make a bet and then you realise that you were really quick and that you set a new record. There's not much else behind it, we managed to do this on the Matterhonr and Ueli succeeded on the Eiger."
You've climbed together with Ueli Steck on numerous expeditions, while your brother Samuel has accompanied you on other projects. How does the relationship change when it's your brother who's tied in to the other end of the rope?
"My brother and I are very similar, we know each other perfectly, often we don't even need to talk; this is an advantage, a fundamental condition when you're in the mountains. With Ueli things are similar, but we've had to work to achieve this feeling. When we decided to go on our first joint expedition we trained together for four weeks, to get to know each other, to learn about these natural mechanisms. Things need to work smoothly with your climbing partner, you cannot afford the slightest hiccough otherwise the risk of an accident happening is too high.
When my brother climbs a dangerous section on a mountain face I worry more: we're blood brothers. When the same situation occurs with Ueli Steck I say to myself: "Ueli knows what he needs to do and if he falls it's his problem..."
Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that when you climb in the mountains with a friend you couldn't care less and when you climb with your brother you pay greater attention. No, it's not like that... you attempt to avoid the fall in any case, but it's clear that when I'm with my brother I'm a bit more worried, I think that's a normal reaction."
When you're in the mountains with your brother you feel like you have a greater safety margin. Does this mean that you dare more?
"Exactly the opposite. When I'm with my brother I always say to myself "please don't fall, watch out", while when I'm with Ueli I repeat that Ueli knows how to deal with things and that he's in control. When I'm in the mountains with my brother I experience contrasting sensations because I fear that something might happen to him. You can feel afraid even when you're on a rock face with a friend, but less so."
How does you mother feel having three "out of the ordinary"children? You and your brother Samuel are extreme alpinists, and Martin a world-class ski mountaineer?
"We also have a younger sister who is "normal"... It's clear that it's no easy task for my mother to look after three children who are always away, somewhere about in the world; but I think that in the past she found it much harder to deal with, when we started out on our adventures. I'm now a qualified mountain guide, Samuel is in the process of becoming one and she too has understood that we do things in a professional manner, that we don't improvise anything. But it's clear that she worries when we head off to Nepal for two months to climb a mountain that no one has ever climbed before. Thankfully we have an excellent relationship, we discuss things a great deal and I think this is of fundamental importance. Our mother has understood the level of extreme risk which interests us, that we want to return home safe and sound as well."
You're not interested in extreme risk, but where does the difference lie between a risk which is "acceptable " and one which is "dangerous"?
"I think two factors are important in the mountains: first and foremost you need to be realistic. When I'm in the mountains I don't think about my family, my companion, my friends. I only think about the mountain and what I'm doing at that given moment, nothing else. I need to calculate the risks, decide what and how to do something, think about my climbing partner, the weather. I need to concentrate on every tiny detail and can't leave anything to chance. The second factor is down to gut feeling: if I wake up one morning and the sensations aren't right, then I'm best off not doing anything. If one of these two factors indicates that's it's better to stop then to continue, then you need to have the courage to turn back. At least, that's how I see things. Experience gained on the mountain faces helps me make decisions which are sometimes difficult but necessary."
Ulrich Inderbinen was a historic figure for Walser alpinism until his death in 2004 at the age of 104. What did this man represent to the new generation of mountain guides in Zermatt?
"Everyone in Zermatt knew Ulrich Inderbinen. To die at 104 is obviously the aim of all mountaineers... one always says that it would be nice if all alpinists could die a natural death in their own bed, but unfortunately this isn't always the case. There are many other old mountain guides in Zermatt and for us youngsters they are important because every now and then they put us in our right place. They congratulate us for our achievements, but they always tell us to take care, to not risk too much, to always respect the mountains. It's important tat everyone can speak their mind, even if perhaps their ideas are different from ours. In any case I deeply respect the older guides."
You mentioned that you'd like to work as a mountain guide and at the same time continue as an extreme alpinist. Another important aspect is your involvement with the mountain rescue. Recently you took part in the attempt to rescue Tomas Humar in the Himalaya, in 2008 you and Steck received the Prix Courage for another rescue attempt, unfortunately to no avail, of Basque mountaineer Inaki Ochoa on Annapurna. Is this another aspect of your alpinism?
"Three years ago I completed by training to become a mountain guide, a year ago I specialised in mountain rescues. This is something which interests me a lot, especially with a view to my future. When I'm no longer strong enough to climb difficult routes I'll spend more time working as a mountain guide and I'll be involved with mountain rescues. It's incredible how much you can learn when you rescue an alpinist in distress. Every accident shows how something has gone wrong. Perhaps a too greater risk was taken, or perhaps there was a different sort of problem. It's a tough job which reminds you once again how the mountains aren't a fun park, but an environment which requires ability and a serious approach."
Interview by Ellade Ossola