Zermatt, Switzerland is legendary throughout the global climbing community. It is surrounded by incredible mountain peaks, whose names – Breithorn, Täschhorn, Monte Rosa, and the iconic Matterhorn – echo through climbing history. With the thousands of tourists that file up and down these peaks each year, it is easy to forget that there was a time when the safest routes were still mysterious – and that to this day, one wrong move could cost you your life.
The cemetery of Zermatt has a special section, elevated above the rest of the graves and shaded by pine trees. This part, called the Mountaineer’s cemetery, is filled almost exclusively with climbers who died on the local peaks. The sole exception to this rule is one stone marking the grave of two men, Peter Taugwalder and his son Peter. They were two of the three survivors of the disastrous first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, where four of the seven climbers fell tragically to their deaths. One of their crewmates who died that day, Michel-Auguste Croz, rests beside them. Another famous climbing pioneer, Eleonore Noll-Hasenclever, is also interred in the cemetery. She lost her life in an avalanche descending the Bishorn in 1925.
One may wonder what exactly led these men and women to risk their lives on some of the most dangerous peaks on Earth. One grave, holding the ice axe of its owner Donald Williams, provides a clue in its epitaph: “I chose to climb.” This message, reminiscent of the cryptic words of George Mallory, suggests that the reason for climbing is self-evident. It suggests that there is something on those slopes and cliffs worth pursuing, and perhaps even worth dying for. Perhaps the mountain was the only place they could find themselves.