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At 100, Swiss Mountaineer Ulrich Still Dreams Of Kilimanjaro

ZERMATT, Switzerland (dpa) – Ulrich Inderbinden began his ski racing career late. Very late – at 82. That was when he took part in his first championship race held among Swiss skiing instructors.

For 13 years the man from Zermatt competed in the event, until he put his skis away for good five years ago, at the age of 95.

But he wasn’t through with mountain climbing. Just three years ago, he conquered the Breithorn mountain, 4,165 metres high.

“Sometimes I’m a bit frustrated because now I can no longer climb and trek,” says the man who has just celebrated his 100th birthday. But he looks back with gratitude on an action-filled life.

Inderbinden seems to be almost as much a landmark in the alpine village of Zermatt as the Matterhorn peak which towers over it. He goes shopping in town, often attends church services and can regularly be found in the village square.

Originally from a farm near Zermatt, now a prime tourism destination and where some of the street signs are in Japanese in catering to visitors from the Far East, he can remember the times when the tourist trade barely existed.

“You had to be a mule, then you would always have some work to do,” he says with a touch of irony about his situation at the end of the 1920s, when he was a newly-licensed skiing instructor and mountain guide – but with hardly any visitors to cater to.

At that time, Zermatt had just about 800 people, with around 20 inns and hotels. Today, there are 13,000 beds for visitors, and many of the town’s current population of 5,000 were originally tourists attracted to the place.

Inderbinden got by over the years as a carpenter, mason, construction worker and farm labourer. His parents had been farmers, with four cows, 40 sheep, a few chickens – and nine children. They spent the winters in Zermatt, but when spring came, they headed for a hamlet on the slopes overlooking the town.

At the age of five, Inderbinden was put to work tending the cows. Eight years later he earned his first money, tending to a neighbouring farmer’s sheep and earning 20 “rappen” – about 13 cents – per day, which he then handed over to his father.

In spare moments, he would be found climbing the peaks around him, including the 4,478-metre Matterhorn on many occasions.

It was only much later, in the 1960s, that paying guests began arriving as tourism gained momentum. Inderbinden said he led around 370 groups up the Matterhorn. The last time was in July 1990, on the 125th anniversary of the first time the peak was conquered. He was 89 years old then.

After so many years, Inderbinden has his collection of anecdotes. A favourite was the time when, at the age of 87, he was assigned to be the mountain guide for a young German who wanted to climb Switzerland’s highest peak, the Dufourspitze.

“I am not going with this old man,” he recalls the young German saying about him. “At the end I’ll be having to drag him.”

But Inderbinden remained calm. He got the trek started early the next morning and, without taking a break, pushed on to scale the 4,634-metre high mountain in six and one-half hours.

The young German was totally limp with exhaustion, and when he returned to Zermatt a few years later for another mountain tour, he asked that Inderbinden should not be his guide. “He is too strong for me,” is what, in the old Swiss mountaineer’s account, he said.

“In the past, life was tough but beautiful. Nobody had very much and everybody helped the other person out,” Inderbinden says. “People were more satisfied than they are today, when they have everything and only think about themselves.”

While looking back on his life with satisfaction, he does admit that one dream went unfulfilled. At the age of 92 he wanted finally to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but his children talked him out of it.

“I still don’t understand why they were all against it,” he chuckles. And as he walks through the streets of Zermatt, it almost appears that the mighty Matterhorn bows towards him, ever so slightly.

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