By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – Beneath a bluebird sky on Aug. 30, then 15-year-old Riley Becker took a deep breath of thin mountain air. Standing at 14,692 feet, Becker took in her surroundings: the steep faces of the mountain cascading down on all sides, the ice and glaciers nearby, and the expanse of Italy
stretching to the south amidst a swirl of storm clouds, Switzerland rolling out to the north with clear blue skies.
Becker had just completed her ascent of the Matterhorn, one of the highest summits in the Alps, fulfilling a dream she’d had since she was a small child.
Years in the Making
When she was about 4 years old, Becker visited Switzerland with her parents and grandparents, and that’s where the dream began, she said. “The Matterhorn was just really, really pretty and intriguing.” Becker was fortunate enough to make several trips with her family to ski and hike in the area, but the striking face of the Matterhorn continued to call to her.
Becker laughs now, saying the real motivation to climb the Matterhorn is perhaps a little more trivial. Becker says she really loves chocolate, and as a joke, she climbed the Matterhorn “so when I eat a Toblerone I can say I climbed that mountain,” referring to the triangular shape of the Swiss chocolate bar and the Matterhorn logo on the packaging.
In fact, there was nothing trivial about the Big Sky youth’s trip up the Matterhorn. Riley and her father Eric decided to make the trip about a year in advance and took that entire year to train.
The father and daughter were preparing for a climb that would take them nine hours, a difficult journey of fifth class climbing that would see the duo gain 4,000 feet in elevation on fixed lines and roped together, followed by a weary descent across ice, snow and rock.
In addition to her regular fitness program for free skiing and soccer, Riley began stacking on the miles hiking and climbing. During the peak of their summer training regimen, she and Eric would get up at 2 or 3 a.m. “We’d go summit Beehive or Wilson Peak, then I’d have to be at work at 8 or 9,” Eric said. “Then Riley would go back to sleep,” he added, Riley’s quiet smile perhaps a confirmation.
Beyond reaching a high level of physical fitness, it was critical for Becker to achieve a level of mental preparation for high-exposure climbing. “It’s hard for kids to have the mental fortitude to concentrate that long,” Eric said.
To prepare for high-exposure climbing and get beyond any fears of height, Riley and Eric spent a week in Chamonix, France, prior to the Matterhorn climb. In Chamonix, they acclimatized and trained with Miles and Erin Smart, the brother and sister guiding duo that would take them to the top of the pyramid-shaped Matterhorn.
Eric, who owns Geyser Whitewater Expeditions, says he is more of a kayaker and skier than a climber, but he and Riley trained together in order to fulfill a dream and share an adventure. “That’s really the great thing about it, the father-daughter relationship, the adventure. We’re very fortunate to do that together,” Eric said. “It’s a special thing to be able to do with a child.”
To the Top
The day before their ascent, Riley and Eric hiked to the Hörnli Hut, a base camp for the Hörnli Ridge route located at 10,700 feet.
Eric says before the climb Miles was worried if Riley would be able to make the summit, concerned her young age might add to an already challenging climb. Pulling out a photograph of Riley at about 4 years old with the image of the Matterhorn grasped tightly in her hand, Eric said, “the day before, I showed him that and said, ‘that’s your motivation, Miles.’”
On climbing day, Riley and her dad set out at 4:40 a.m. with their guides, falling in line with about 30 or 40 other climbers hoping to summit. Eric said they were the only American climbers that day, and Riley was the only young adult. She is believed to be among the youngest American climbers to summit the Matterhorn.
Traveling along the Hörnli Ridge, the Beckers scrambled up rocky pitches overlooking glaciers, and scaled the lower and upper Moseley slabs. They donned crampons and relied on their ice axes for the last two hours of the ascent, struggling through fresh snow and ice as they reached the Shoulder, a knife-blade ridge just before the summit.
A forecasted storm moved in quickly and clouded the Italian views from the summit, Riley says. After a few photographs and some smiles the party quickly turned around to begin the descent, passing a statue of St. Bernard, patron saint of alpinists, along the way.
Riley says throughout the climb there were moments of stress when climbers would bottleneck. Anxious climbers—Riley described them as “very pushy”—would shuffle each other about, and sheer drop-offs were on either side. At other times, a group climbing directly above would inadvertently kick rocks and ice down onto the party below.
She says the hardest challenge was to overcome mental obstacles. “When you’re going up there, it feels like it’s taking a while. You’re breathing hard. You just have to remember, time is time. Nine hours is nine hours, whether you are climbing or sleeping.
“There were times when I felt like I wasn’t a good enough climber, then I’d just do it, and I realized I was,” Riley said.