The Swiss town of Zermatt lies on the Italian border south of the Naturpark Pfyn-Finges some way from Bern. There lies a string of more bustling towns to its north, following a liner path marked by a roadway, connected by the towns of Sion and Sierre. Zermatt is a place for those interested in a variety of winter sports more than anything else, though I’d been a regular visitor for some years; treating it as a quiet retreat away from research work. In the winter season, the town was a picture-perfect example of Swiss design, the snow falling in crisp white sheets across its mountainous pathways, dominated by the jagged peak of the famous Matterhorn.
It may have seemed a strange destination for such relaxation when skiing and other such pastimes were of the remotest of interest to me, but I’d found something enjoyable about the many pathways and walks available outside of the routes used by the sports enthusiasts. There was a consistently pleasant feeling to be had when returning to the warmth of the hotel where I regularly stayed after such frosty walks; its log cabin interior, fireside chairs and Horu-Käserei fondue being a welcome and relaxing greeting after many trudges dispelling the stress of the academic semester.
Yet, for the last few years now, I’ve avoided the place and its mountainous hills like the plague. A strange series of events unfolded on my last visit, resulting in its pleasures being permanently blackened. Death often touches a place that way.
I arrived that year at my usual hotel, The Zermatterhof, checking in with the friendly concierge who informed me of the usual amenities with a warm and regular familiarity. The hotel had changed somewhat, but still retained its grand atmosphere from an earlier epoch when travel was reserved for only the most wealthy. It was now enjoyably sparse during the time of year, the younger hotels more popular with the winter sports crowd, and I sought it deliberately to take advantage of its many empty lounges and dining rooms for quiet reading and a relaxed pace of thought.
I would awake in good time on a typical day there, collect food from the main dining table at breakfast and journey out into various areas and pathways all around the town before returning later to read. A certain pleasure was to be had from observing the many skiers from a safely warm nook, a sport for which I had little personal enthusiasm but one from which I took great pleasure in idly watching from afar, often from one of the many hillside terrace cafes and bakeries which littered the valley of the town. It was on my second day of that trip, however, when I met a fellow occupant at The Zermatterhof, Wilhelm Keller, and from then it became a decidedly odd stay.
I was waiting in the lounge in an idle daydream when the man, short in height and jittery in nature, sought to make my acquaintance on the part that I was browsing a book by the mountaineer Eric Shipton. Keller, so he told me in his frantic manner, was a keen climber and explorer of a kind that I had assumed had largely been consigned to the history books with the final conquest of Everest. I even ascertained that his room was only a few doors down from mine in the hotel, in his rambling mode of speech.
Keller mentioned that he spent his time on a mixture of mountain exploration, as “high as he dared” were his words, along with some historical interest that was his chief work; a kind of archaeology of climbing. He discussed in passing the many tragedies that had befallen the climbers of the various mountains of the area, and professed his desire to one day find the remains of some of earliest of victims which, by his own admittance, he had a macabre fascination with.
I laughed off his obvious oddities, not possessing the temerity to admit that I had merely picked up Shipton’s book from the nearby table as a diversion and had little interest in the scaling of mountains, only in their atmosphere and perhaps the gentle meandering around their bases and low-level pathways under their rocky stare.
Keller bid me an awkward farewell, leaving the hotel to walk a fair trek towards the minor peaks that clustered around the valley. In his parting parlance, he jokingly suggested that he would not be climbing the Matterhorn just yet. As he left, I looked out of the large bay window of the lounge, observing the peak of the mountain, but unable to fully hold its gaze.
I retrieved the genuine book that I was currently reading out of my satchel and walked off down to the lobby and out of the side door towards La Serac for an afternoon’s ponder on the writing of Martin Heidegger whose tepid work was, at the time, seeming as impossible an ascent as the Matterhorn’s peak.
I had numerous sporadic meetings with Keller throughout my stay from that morning on, much to my regret. As is usual in my rituals when visiting the area, I took the Gornergrat train up to the ski routes and enjoyed wandering there with a sense of purposeless. A mountain rescue expert stood with his tourist-friendly St. Bernard panting heavily and drooling near the station’s entrance at the top.
I noticed as I walked further that a wide path lead deeper into the mountains and away from the smooth slopes of the main ski routes. It looked blindingly white, a strangly dizzying white in fact that is difficult to describe. Safety warnings littered its beginnings in a variety of languages. No doubt it was the beginning of the territory that gave the St. Bernard its working hours on the mountains.
I had walked around in an ever decreasing circle for some part of the afternoon, beginning to walk away from a seeming path to nowhere only to be eventually confronted by the shadow of a man coming towards me. The sight unnerved me at first as walking on the snow gave even the most skilled hiker a strange, unearthly gait. But quickly, I realised it was Herr Keller ambling towards me, panting in equal measure to the rescue dog a mile or so back near the slopes.
I greeted him heartily, grateful that he wasn’t some abominable snowman or creature of the mountain. But I was surprised to find he looked a little perturbed. At first, I conceived that he had witnessed some sort of sporting accident, perhaps a climber in distress and awaiting Keller’s speedy return with help, but later found the problem to be much more complex. After escorting a babbling Keller back to the skiing area and sitting him down on a chair in the café, he told me of his apparent “find.”
Keller was convinced that, after many years’ disappearance, he had found the place occupied by the body or bodies of victims of a famous climbing accident. He was on his way back to find some equipment that could potentially help in excavating the bodies. His bluster took me off guard as we sat drinking steaming cups of coffee, and I quickly found myself absentmindedly accompanying the frantic man as a de facto assistant back to the town, in spite of having planned to return to the hotel. As we approached the beginning of the town, a white, freezing mist arriving, and I finally broke the spell he had cast with his enthusiasm; agreeing we could reconvene at the fireside later in the gesellschaftsraum where I promised to listen further about his potential finds. I left him searching the town for a shop where he could purchase some sort of trowel or spade and perhaps a pickaxe to break the icy earth.
I spent the rest of the day in daze, unable to concentrate on the scenery or the several books I had optimistically brought with me to finish. I travelled back along the cog railway, noticing as it trundled through the many patches of trees the tip of the Matterhorn watching like an all-seeing eye.
I became distracted as I found a pathway that led along the Gornera river, its water lashing with surprising violence upon its snowy edges, and decided to continue walking for a while rather than go straight back to Heidegger. The afternoon’s cold seemed more appealing than the philosopher’s. Yet Keller’s urgency and possessed excitement played upon my mind and, by mid-afternoon, I had opted to head back to my room for a brief respite and perhaps attempt to find some reasonably priced food.
I later made my way to one of the gesellschaftsraum’s leather chairs that lay next to a crackling fire and pretended to read my Heidegger while waiting for Keller to reappear. Though he was half an hour late, Keller did eventually arrive, impossibly, so I thought at the time, even more excited than he was earlier. He sat down in the chair opposite, fresh clumps of dirty snow falling onto a lavish rug, and unburdened his arms of several maps and books, and a wet-looking scrap of clothing that he had clearly collected in the intervening hours. He had already returned to the site in the intervening hours.
The Matterhorn, so he told me, was apparently the site of one of the first fully publicised mountaineering accidents. It happened during the first attempted ascent of the mountain’s peak. Four of the six climbers who made the ascent were killed when one of their party, Douglas Hadlow of Regent’s Park, had slipped; pulling the three climbers ahead of him down into the mountain’s many dark hollows and pits. Hadlow, along with two of the other bodies were eventually recovered after much coverage in The Times, the paper receiving constant reports from the expedition’s leader, Edward Whymper. But one body had not been recovered; that of Lord Francis Douglas, an Edinburgh-born novice mountaineer whose brother, Keller continued, had been the inventor of the Marquis of Queensbury rules in boxing. Keller then proceeded to show me some of the artefacts he had spread on the table between us. The first was a page in a book showing a drawing by the French artist Gustave Doré. It depicted the event of Hadlow’s fatal slip upon the mountain. The second was an extract from The Times, quoted in another dull-looking book, in which one Reverend Arthur G. Butler, defended the party’s dangerous ambition in the odd form of a verse poem which read:
We were not what we are
Without that other fiery element —
The love, the thirst for venture, and the scorn
That aught should be too great for mortal powers.
This was simply the beginning of Keller’s mania, however, as he went on to relate how the spot where Douglas’ body lay was being slowly revealed to him.
Keller thought he had seen a group of climbers making their way along a ridge some way up towards the summit and well past the famed Tiefenbach River and ridge path. When venturing to the south of the mountain, he was shocked to see a number of their party suddenly fall. The sight had caught him off guard and, for a brief time, he had been in a state of panic.
He told of how he had made his way further down the ridge, to where he presumed he would come upon the most ghastly of discoveries. He estimated that, from the angle he had glimpsed the fall, there would be numerous bodies scattered around the Schweiz Italia or thereabouts. After an hour of hopelessly wandering, just before he had walked back and met me, he confessed that he’d began to question the veracity of what he saw, similar perhaps to some Brocken Spectre.
Yet, he had seen the event from some considerable distance so he had persevered on. A thudding nearby had supposedly drawn him to a particular spot, assuming suddenly that a body, horrifically caught in some icy outcrop, had finally given way and fell. Instead of bodies, he had found at the spot a scrap of clothing protruding from the snow, its unnatural shape suggesting something buried beneath.
He held the scrap of material up to my face excitedly, though it failed to arouse the same response in me. It could have been any old bit of rubbish. He, however, assumed he’d come across one of the poor fellows who had fallen from the heights all those years ago, the fragment of cloth being tatty with age and frozen into a deep layer of snow.
He went on, telling of how he had broken the harder snow with his boot and releasing what looked like a fragment of old-looking climbing jacket, dating roughly to the 1860s at his estimate. The snow had failed to relinquish it, however. It was then that he had remembered the stories of Edward Whymper’s expedition to first climb the mountain and had concluded excitedly that this was from his expedition’s tragedy.
“I must go back as soon as is possible and uncover the full remains before the snow hides it again,” he had said “It’s an unbelievable discovery if it is that final missing climber!”
Keller’s manner was unnerving and slightly discomforting, especially as he seemed to question very little the sight of the falling men or the sound of the bodily collision he spoke of once he had moved on to the discussion of his potential find. I asked him whether he had reported the potential fall to the authorities, the question raising his guard slightly. He dismissed the suggestion, and said that it was probably some trick of the light, maintaining some extended Brocken’s Spectre as the cause. At this point, the man’s company was becoming a little tiresome, so I begged his forgiveness and left him, feigning fatigue due to the day’s walking, promising myself as well to inform the mountain rescue team of Keller’s news the following day. The man’s reluctance had somehow rubbed off on me, so I felt happy to give him a further morning to find what he wanted before sending the rescue teams hunting for the possible bodies of fellow climbers.
On the following day, I came across Keller early in the morning waiting for the cog train to take him up through the Gornagrat, so I asked him of his plans. He was lumbered with bulky equipment, and told of his desire to try and uncover the body he believed he had found before the coming snow storm was due to hit in the following hours. Its coming was already biting at the air.
I insisted on warning him of such a change in the weather and begged him to at least let one of the rescue men that stood near the kaffehaus at the top point know of his intention to go onto the range. But he only began babbling about taking sole credit for his find. It was to be the last time that I saw him alive, and I remember making a point of seeing him off as the cog train drew him slowly up into the pine forest and away, waving an excited farewell through its large glass window like a child.
I couldn’t shake the sense of dread that was beginning to wash over me as I walked back up the streets of the town and towards the Whympyer-Stube restaurant where I failed to relax, letting several cups of coffee turn icily cold. I consoled myself by ordering a meal of raclette and several cooked vegetables with bread and oil, only to find further reason for my dread. Perhaps unconsciously, I had wandered into a restaurant named after the leader of that early Matterhorn attempt, as if the whole event was somehow reasserting its presence in the town.
I could no longer put Keller and his insane theories of discovery out of my mind. I picked at my food before retiring again to my hotel and room with some desire to sleep, promising that I would inform the mountain authorities of Keller’s presence on the range, just in case he got stuck there when the storm hit, after a quick sleep. After all, the main office for the authorities was at the top of the hill of the town and the wind was making it intolerable to walk in the streets.
I overslept, as if the mountain had calmed my nerves with a soothing lullaby. That night, I distinctly remember lying in my bed, disorientated in that way when a sleep pattern is knocked off-kilter, and noticing out of the window the small orange glow of several flickering lights from neighbouring buildings as the snowfall thickened. It seemed incredibly picturesque, but it couldn’t distract from thoughts of Keller. I quickly got up, covered myself in my dressing-gown and wandered along the corridor. A few brief knocks failed to elicit a response from his room. I felt a stinging guilt for not alerting the mountain rescue team earlier, assuming Keller to be cowering somewhere on the mountain and freezing to death.
For several hours, I sat in the dark, wide awake; my body firm in its belief that the night was in fact mid-morning. It was then that I heard the door leading to the stairwell open in the corridor. I suddenly heard what sounded like several boots tramping along outside of my room. A light with an unusual yellow glow appeared under my door, very much unlike the light usually emitted from the hallway’s several lamps and hangings. The light was interrupted by several black shadows, clearly a number of walkers making their way past my room and down the corridor to Keller’s, their boots sounding incredibly heavy with congealed snow; clumps audibly falling to the floor.
Typical Keller, I thought with undeniable relief. The poor rescue team must have already been told of his lunatic adventure out on the mountainside and had spent half the night saving the damn eccentric from freezing to death up there. And now, I thought, they must have been helping him back to his room.
I estimated that there were at least three persons to this passing entourage but I cannot be entirely sure these days. At first, they passed in silence but, as they neared the end of the corridor to where Keller’s room was, I heard what I recognised to be his voice whispering, or perhaps whimpering was a better word. The cold must have induced some shock, no doubt.
From what I gathered, however, his tone was pleading though I failed fully to catch the words. I imagined rambling, profuse apologies pouring out to the men charged with saving the reckless man, clearly embarrassed by his own stupidity. After all, he had professed an interest and knowledge in climbing, and had made himself look like an absolute amateur.
I heard the lock of his door click and the footsteps enter his room. Considering that Keller had insisted on meeting me as soon as he had returned from his expedition, I was surprised that he had not attempted to gain my attention and wake me from a presumed slumber. It would have been exactly the sort of inconsiderate thing he’d have done, but I felt grateful that, perhaps through shame, he simply wanted to get to bed and let his rescuers do the same.
Perhaps his search had even lead to trouble with the local mountain authorities and he was having to answer serious questions for the meticulous Swiss paperwork. Thinking nothing more of the matter, but firmly glad he was safe, I rolled over and fell into a gentle doze; Keller’s return allowing my body to forget its previously disrupted sleep pattern.
Some hours later, I was awoken again, this time by the sharp cry of a woman in the corridor. I later learned it was a maid responding to a room service call. The cry was followed by a crescendo of shuffling, muffled voices and footsteps running up and down the wooden floors of the hallway.
I wagered to guess that one such runner even knocked one of the tables that sat near my door in their haste, its ornate vase shattering on the ground. After spending some time finding my glasses and dressing gown, I switched on a nearby lamp, turning its dimmer to envelop the room with a pleasing glow.
On opening my door, I found a crowd of people gathering outside Keller’s room, many with the look of horror engraved deeply upon their faces. A pair of medical men quickly barged past me and attempted to make their way through the small crowd, eventually shuffling them out of the way. Having failed to see what had happened in Keller’s room, I retired back to bed and waited tentatively; staring blankly at the room’s wooden walls, and paralysed by an unnamed worry. A firm knock at the door soon broke my anxiety.
A short man in heavy coat stared back at me. He turned out to be a local inspector, though he never showed any sort of warrant card. He asked who I was and, before getting an answer, said he wanted an interview in the hotel’s lounge downstairs in the next hour. I promised to be there for nine, and let him wander off before closing the door. His grave look suggested a serious affair in hand.
I later gave my impression of Keller to the inspector, relating everything he had said including witnessing him, so I assumed, in the company of several people late during the night, as well as his own witnessing of a potential accident in the mountains and his discovery of some clothing in the ice.
It was on the information concerning multiple persons that the inspector seemed most interested in, especially as no one else in the hotel seemed to be able verify it. My curiosity about the man’s fate could no longer be resisted. At first, I thought that my German had failed to convey my question in full, but it turned out the inspector was simply reluctant to think about the contents of Keller’s room.
According to the grumpy man, Keller’s room had been locked from the inside and so the presence of other persons in the ambiguous fate of the man was purportedly deemed mostly unimportant, though certainly still of slight interest. The inspector was at pains not to divulge more than he needed to, not simply because the information was, at that point, barred from public relation, but also because he seemed genuinely disturbed by the events.
Keller was dead, that much was clear, though the news shocked me surprisingly little. It was, however, the way in which his death was described by the inspector where my quiet fear lay, festering in the hours that followed to the point where I ended up cutting my trip short and going home. It also explained why his room had been quickly sealed off and the floor’s occupants, including myself, had been subsequently moved to new rooms.
Keller was not simply found dead. According to the inspector, and a later coroner report conducted by Gemeindepolizei, Keller was found “mangled” and spread widely across the entirety of his room. In the words of the conducting authority, it was “as if he had fallen from an immense height.” I remember later reading that description in a newspaper and feeling faint. Even the room below his had been subsequently closed; its occupants removed due to undeniable stains visible and congealing upon its white ceiling, such was the mess.
I recall staring out of the window of my new room that morning after the inspector had left, thinking over and over about those words.
“Fallen from an immense height.”
It was too much to bear. The early morning light seemed sickly as I started to pack, and I noticed the Matterhorn looking down upon the town and valley, utterly convinced for a brief moment that a malice was present within its stony glare. I’ve never been back there since.