ZERMATT, Switzerland — I was in over my head.
This realization came to me 13,780 feet up the Matterhorn, the pyramid-shaped peak that reigns over this 13th-century farming village turned glamorous ski resort in southwest Switzerland.
It was 8 a.m. on a bluebird day in late July and I was sitting on a rock atop a section known as the Shoulder, a knife blade of a ridge that drops away thousands of feet to the valley below.
Three hours earlier, just before dawn, Christian Buchmann, my taciturn 41-year-old guide from the Alpine Center Zermatt, and I had left the Hornli Hut, a mountain shelter that serves as the traditional starting point for summit-hungry climbers, and struck out for the top.
We followed a snake-like line of flickering headlamps that wound up the mountain and ascended a series of rocky pitches before dawn broke on the Bohr Löcher, a perch at 12,139 feet that overlooks the melting Furgg glacier.
We scaled a steep stretch of rock called the lower Moseley slab, which requires gripping the mountain with hands and feet; we took a break at the Solvay Hut, a small refuge at 13,133 feet; and then clamored up the Shoulder.
Now, more than halfway up, there were about 1,000 feet and 12 fixed ropes — aids bolted to the mountain to assist climbers in tricky sections — between me and the summit.
I wasn’t sure that I would make it.
It wasn’t the physical demand of the Matterhorn that daunted me — I was fit from a weekly program of running 30 miles and doing three CrossFit routines. I just wasn’t sure I had the climbing skills, or the stomach for heights.
I had climbed mountains before — Mount Rainier when I was 14, Grand Teton in Wyoming, several 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado — but the combination of sustained heights, the knowledge that one slip could mean serious injury or worse, and the need to climb, not hike, up a sheer ridge with small hand and foot holds for the better part of 4,000 feet while attached to nothing but my guide was new to me.
Getting in over my head was not. I have long possessed a thirst for adventure that has, at times, exceeded my skills.
When I was 8, I begged my father to take me down a double-black-diamond ski run in Aspen, Colorado. Halfway down the slope, in tears, I had to take off my skis and slide down on my rear.
Since then, I have climbed and skied remote peaks in the Alps, walked through the wilds of Zambia and ridden a live, bucking rodeo bull in California. But I never felt such fear as I did on the Matterhorn.
I was drawn to the Matterhorn for the same reasons as countless others: With its clean lines and sheer faces rising dramatically out of the Mattertal valley, it is one of the most aesthetically striking peaks on the planet.
The mountain has long attracted ambitious travelers, and in July, enthusiasts marked the 150th anniversary of its first ascent, a feat that was triumphant and tragic.
On July 14, 1865, four Englishmen — Edward Whymper, the Rev. Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow and Lord Francis Douglas — and their three mountain guides — Peter Taugwalder junior and senior of Switzerland, and Michel Croz of France — conquered the Matterhorn. It was the last unclimbed peak of more than 4,000 meters in the Alps, so their climb was one of the most impressive mountaineering feats of the era.
But about an hour into their descent, Hadow — who was wearing boots better suited for “church on Sunday morning than climbing up a mountain,” according to Othmar Kronig, a retired guide from Zermatt — slipped and fell, dragging Douglas, Hudson and Croz with him 3,000 feet down the Matterhorn’s sheer north face to their deaths.
Whymper and the Taugwalders survived, thanks in large part to the quick reflexes of the senior Taugwalder and to the fact that the rope attaching him to Lord Francis broke.
Now, about 3,000 people climb the Matterhorn each year — and about a dozen die. Memorials to fallen climbers dot the mountain, which did little to bolster my confidence.
Once atop the Shoulder, I put on my crampons and grappled with the decision to go on or to give up. I thought about the advice that the acclaimed Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck, one of the world’s best speed climbers, had given me the day before: “Step by step. Slowly, slowly.”
It’s a cliché but it felt like great wisdom. If I thought about the enormousness of the task in front of me — 1,000 more feet, the danger, the exposure — it was overwhelming. But if I narrowed my focus to just that 12-square-inch spot of rock and snow where I placed my foot, and then the next one after that, it seemed manageable.
I took Steck’s advice to heart: I put one foot in front of the other and started pulling myself up the first rope while digging my crampons into the sheer rock and ice wall. Within minutes, I was at the top of the first fixed rope pitch. Eleven more ropes followed, and after an hour, we reached the Roof, the homestretch, and we were plodding toward the summit.
Soon we crested a knoll and a statue of St. Bernard, the patron saint of mountain climbers, popped into view. My heart fluttered, knowing that we must be close to the top. We passed the statue and across the summit ridge, a 600-foot fin of rock and snow. Four hours and forty minutes after leaving the Hornli Hut, we had made it to the top of the Matterhorn.
I hugged my guide and then tucked myself into a secure spot to enjoy the view. Italy spooled out to the south, Switzerland to the north. The snowy peaks of Monte Rosa, Dent Blanche and Dom punctuated the sky in the distance.
I was thrilled to have made it to the summit, but also aware that we had gone only half the way. The descent is often the most dangerous part of a climb, when weary bodies are more likely to make a mistake, as Mr. Whymper and his team discovered.
I was nervous about the way down, overwhelmed by the thought of all those high and empty places. But then I remembered Steck’s words and pushed past my fear, one cramponed step after the other.