Alps Guide Ulrich Inderbinen, 103
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2004; Page B05
Legendary Swiss mountain guide Ulrich Inderbinen, who climbed the 14,690-foot Matterhorn more than 370 times, battling roaring avalanches, killer ice storms and deadly glacial crevasses, died in his sleep at his Zermatt home June 14. He was 103 years old.
His family announced his death in a notice in a Swiss newspaper. No cause of death was reported.
Known as "King of the Alps," Mr. Inderbinen ascended 13,000-foot peaks four days a week for 70 years, bothered by little except clients who couldn't keep up with his steady, methodical pace.
His craggy, nut-brown face and drooping white mustache helped make him seem the personification of a mountain man. Mr. Inderbinen once said he was "the third-most photographed attraction in Zermatt, after the Matterhorn and the goats."
He took up competitive skiing at age 80 and always won -- because he was the only contestant in his category. He received a pair of skis for his 90th birthday and an ice ax for his 95th. Mr. Inderbinen gave up guiding in his mid-nineties, but he was still an amazing physical specimen: He had his first dental appointment at 74 and never needed eyeglasses. The only time he took off work was for 10 days 30 years ago, after he slipped on ice and injured his shoulder.
A lifelong resident of Zermatt, Mr. Inderbinen spent his childhood tending animals in the mountains above town. At 21, he decided that guiding was a better career than farming, but he needed climbing experience to enter the training class. So he set off on the Matterhorn with his younger sister, a male friend and the friend's sister. His only gear was his hobnailed boots and a tweed jacket.
That initial climb was exceedingly perilous, he admitted later. The band carried flickering candle lanterns and found their way by peering at scratches left on rocks by previous climbers. But they reached the summit and descended safely, and he was up and down so many times after that that he eventually lost count of his ascents.
Five years later, on his first trip as a qualified ski guide, he wound rope around the skis for the 10-hour ascent, step-by-step, of the Breithorn. On the way down, his seven-foot skis slipped on a patch of ice, and he broke his leg. He survived by sitting on the skis and dragging himself down the mountain.
In 1990, a writer for the London Independent described a hike with the man whom Swiss tourism officials called the oldest active guide in the world.
"There he was, immaculate in breeches, chequered blue-and-red stockings and heavy mountain boots. We set off on foot for the cable-car station at the top of the village; soon after 8 we stepped out at the Schwarzsee, some 8,000 feet above sea level, and started to walk. For the next six hours, unless I asked him to, my guide never stopped. Up, up, up he went, moving relentlessly at a slow but perfect pace. That deliberate, regular tread -- the product of a lifetime's experience -- ate up ground at an extraordinary rate, and soon I was positively glad that he was not thirty or forty years younger."
He claimed to be the only person in Zermatt without a telephone; people knew that they would find the devout Roman Catholic each evening in Zermatt's church square, the Associated Press said.
His only regret in life, he told journalists, was when his family vetoed his plans to climb Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 92.
"I've really no idea why they were all against it," he sighed.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company