By Sarah Tanner
Since 1865, over 500 people have died climbing the Matterhorn. Dr. Floyd Hayes was almost one of them. From August 24 to 26, the Pacific Union College professor and resident rock climber took on Europe’s 14th highest peak, only to be caught in a near-whiteout snowstorm on the way down.
Hayes teaches biology and environmental studies at PUC. In conjunction with quarterly classes, he also conducts student trips to locations around the world including Alaska, Micronesia, Fiji, Panama, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Paraguay, and Kenya. It is safe to say the professor is quite the explorer. Along with former PUC professor of mathematics, Roy Benton, Hayes expanded his travels this summer when he flew to the town of Zermaat in Switzerland in preparation to climb the Matterhorn.
Hayes and Benton have been climbing together for years, and the decision to climb Matterhorn came naturally to the two adventurers. To prepare for the roughly 14,700-foot ascent, the professors made a number of solo preliminary hikes as well as a joint two-day ascent of Switzerland’s Breithorn shortly before their Matterhorn ascent.
As part of his training, Hayes explained, “I climbed Mount St. Helena with a backpack and books. It’s about a 10-mile round trip. I also spent the night at 12,000 feet during a 15-mile round trip hike up White Mountain Peak in eastern California.” He smiled, “After this, I think we were in shape.”
Rather than employ a guide, the veteran climbers decided to tackle Matterhorn on their own. Though confident in their ability to scale its summit, the two, Hayes admitted, tended to veer off route. However, these brief diversions from the trail proved to be the least of their worries as they neared the pinnacle of the famed mountain.
On the morning of their first day, the pair made their way to 10,696 feet via a combination of cable cars and normal hiking.
“The next morning we started climbing at 4:30 a.m. and after seven hours, we made it to the top,” Hayes recalled. And that is when it started to snow.
“At 11:30 a.m. just as we reached the summit, the snow started falling. It wasn’t supposed to happen for another three hours, so we thought we had time.” He explained that after weeks of following conflicting weather reports, they had purposely planned to summit the mountain on this particular day because the chance of storms had dropped to a mere 20 percent.
“We spent nine hours descending and did 24 rappels during the storm. It was well below freezing and we could barely see the ropes in front of us, much less the side of the mountain.”
He explained in addition to the inherent danger of the conditions, rappelling in itself is a significant challenge.
“We were afraid the hanging rope would get caught as we were coming down. We have a lot of experience and know how to survive. But accidents happen. You have to be prepared,” Hayes warned.
As the last shreds of daylight slipped between the peaks, Hayes and Benton made their last rappel to the emergency hut stationed at 13,000 feet.
“We slept fully clothed under six blankets and still shivered.” Hayes continued, “The next morning we had to wait for some of the snow to melt before making our way back. This time, we only made two rappels before downclimbing the rest of the way.”
Hayes captured the entirety of the climb, blizzard included, in a video using a small camera he attached to his gear.
“Out of all the climbing videos we’ve made, this is by far the most spectacular.” he grinned, “I wasn’t very happy about it at the time, but looking at it now is incredible.”
Undeterred by the complications on the Matterhorn, Hayes is hopeful about his future adventures. Having already scaled Grand Teton in Wyoming, Mount Shasta here in California, and various locations in Colorado, he hopes to tackle Washington’s Mount Rainier next.
“My experience is mostly in rock climbing, not mountain,” Hayes explained, “I still have a lot of locations I haven’t tried.”
Students who want to learn more about rock climbing are welcome to talk to Hayes, who has insight about a fledgling club at PUC. He also mentioned a climbing class using the rock wall in the gym is in the works.
For those interested in his Matterhorn adventure, Hayes has posted his video to YouTube, which you can view below.