Führer Fest, Zermatt, Switzerland, 1952. Because of the unprecedented cold and stormy weather in the Swiss Alps, last fall, I had finally resigned myself to the thought of leaving Zermatt on Sunday September 28th. The most recent storm had left a foot or more of fresh snow on the high peaks of the Valais, which precluded all thought of attempting the Obergabelhorn by the Southwest Face, or even the usual route, for we had been turned back to the Rothorn Hut only the previous day by icy blasts and crusted snow knee-deep on the Trift Glacier.
As I was saying goodbye to my old friend Adolf Schaller, he said in his quiet way, “But you must not leave yet, for tomorrow we are having our Führer Fest in the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, and I would like you to come as my guest.”
“The Führer Fest!” I exclaimed. “That is only for all of you who are guides in the Valley.” But his persuasive smile and quiet assurance that “I would be very welcome” was hospitality and an honor I could not lightly refuse.
It was not without considerable misgivings that I found myself next day at the appointed hour of half after noon, threading my way between groups of guides gathered in the lobby and lounge
of the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, where, in the spacious dining hall, clustered around the many small tables, drinking aperitives, were many more guides than I had ever imagined existed in the Valley of the Visp. Young guides and old, tall guides and short, fair guides and dark, Biners, Perrens, Furrers, Aufdenblattens and Julens, these and all the many other familiar and famous names of Valais guides of the past were here represented. For, handed down from father to son, has come that inborn knowledge of ice and snow, serac and crevasse, couloir and avalanche slope, gendarme and rockfall. Bearded or smooth-shaven, blond or brunette, slender or stocky, they had one trait in common, that sturdy self-reliance of the mountaineer who has faced great odds in nature and won through to a respectful understanding of her laws and the penalties she may exact when they are ignored.
While I was attempting to locate Adolf Schaller, there before me, with blue eyes twinkling and red cheeks glowing, stood Josef Biner, kind and understanding friend of many seasons, who indicated with a cordial sweep of his hand that I was to seat myself at his table. This I was very happy to do, for the sudden lull in the low rumble of masculine conversation which had followed on the heels of my invasion of this exclusive gathering of guides from all of the many little villages up and down the length of the Valley, had been a trifle disconcerting. Once seated, however, I was soon busily engaged in exchanging climbing experiences and news of this and that with Josef and his friends. Before our brimming glasses had been emptied for the second time, luncheon was announced, and we were ushered into the long private dining room that looks across the garden and up to the Matterhorn, now veiled by swirling mist and thick draperies of wet snow which turned to rain as they reached the stormbound valley. Down the long table prettily decorated with miniature Swiss flags and gay bouquets of bright flowers, we walked, seeking our places as indicated by charming place cards decorated with dainty drawings of tiny flowers.
When everyone had found his place Rev. Father Gregor Brantechen said a brief grace. As we seated ourselves I found that I was placed between a Rev. Franz Fux, Vicar, on my left, who spoke fluent French, and Elias Lauber, a guide, on my right, who spoke German. While we were being served a variety of good things to eat and drink, I mustered up what French I had learned in school and conversed with my left-hand neighbor. He had spent two years of his preparation for the priesthood in Innsbruck, which I, too, had visited during the F. I. S. Rennen of ’32. But my six lessons in German at the Berlitz School were not quite so productive of small talk when matched with the difficult Valais dialect, and I am afraid that my luncheon companion on my right found me very dull company indeed.
After some three or four courses had been served by shy, smiling girls of the village, there was a general settling back into chairs as pipes, cigars, and cigarettes were lighted. The flow of conversation slowly increased in volume and was only broken when Bernard Biner, Chef des Guides (son of Alois Biner, who had been Chef des Guides before him) stood at his place at the end of the long head table and, as Master of Ceremonies, prepared to introduce the first speaker.
To my surprise and utter consternation I found that he was addressing his opening speech of welcome and introduction to “The American lady—Frau Orcutt ” Before I could collect my thoughts I, too, was on my feet facing some 90 or more guides and speaking to them in very hesitating English, though I would have liked to have paid them the courtesy of addressing them in their own colorful dialect. I am not certain that I can tell you what I said to them. I do know that I thanked them for the honor they had conferred on me by inviting me to share with them their annual get-together at this Fiihrer Fest, a privilege and memory I would long treasure and would share with my fellow members of the American Alpine Club when we all met in December on the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of our Club. I told them that I had noticed many changes which had taken place since I had last visited Zermatt, and that I was quite certain that during this interval of sixteen years the mountains had grown a lot higher and my legs a lot shorter. Aware of their eagerness for climbing news, I told them what little I knew of the coming expedition to K2, and I could see a happy gleam in the eye of Alex Graven when he learned that Charlie Houston was to lead the party, for they had climbed together on Monte Rosa the previous summer. I told them already I had heard enthusiastic reports of climbs my friends had made with their fellow guides at Lake Louise, Walter Perren and Edmund Petrig, and that the climbing world mourned with them the loss of Otto Furrer with whom so many members of our Club had climbed or skied and who was so greatly admired and loved by all. I told them that we in America hoped that more of them would find their way to our side of the water where they would be warmly welcomed, and where they would find new peaks to conquer.*
Christine L. Orcutt
*In the library of the Club house, framed and hanging on the wall, are the signatures of the guides who attended the Führer Fest in Zermatt, on 28 September, 1952.