Vail Daily columnist Allen Smith: Happiest summit on Earth
Vail, CO, Colorado
By the time the kids were let out for summer vacation, the climbing window for summiting Mt. Everest had already come and gone.
I promised Shimmel that I would take him and his 8-year-old sister, Toiba, to the top of Mt. Everest to celebrate his circumcision, but none of the guide companies would have anything to do with a middle-aged, sedentary writer and his two irascible children.
So we shifted gears and made plans to climb the happiest peak on Earth — the Matterhorn. Not the legendary mountain in Zermatt, but the steel and cement behemoth located in the center of Disneyland.
At 147 feet, the Matterhorn towers high over the violent border between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. It’s riddled with dangerous roller coaster cars, screaming kids and half the year is covered with spilled soda and sticky cotton candy.
Since it opened in 1959, hundreds of climbers have plunged to their deaths after underestimating the complexity of the Matterhorn’s North Face — the only route yet unchallenged. That was where we were headed.
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Being so late in the season, we had trouble securing a spot at base camp. The only thing left was a small site in Pixie Hollow, along with Tinker Bell and her fairy friends. While that was better than having to spend the night inside Sleeping Beauty’s castle, it meant we’d lose valuable time, backtracking to the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor on Main Street for our supplies before beginning our ascent.
We met up with our sherpa on the Tomorrowland terrace. Ichabod worked days on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, but agreed to guide us to the summit of the Matterhorn at night just for the challenge of leading an out-of-shape cubicle dweller and two children to the top — that and $10,000.
Getting to the top posed a number of risks. We were planning on a fast ascent without supplemental oxygen, so there was always the chance that one of us would come down with hypoxia or cerebral edema once we got higher than 100 feet.
There was also the Park Police, who patrolled the mountain at night looking for intruders. It wasn’t going to be easy. If we were to successfully summit the Matterhorn, we’d have to leave Pixie Hollow no later than 6 p.m.
Fast ascending without supplemental oxygen meant that we’d be able to skip spending the night at Tinkerbell’s breakroom. Instead, we could scurry up Goofy’s Revenge, paralleling the left bobsled track.
With the cars tucked away for the night, the only hazard we faced were the homeless who camped along the bottom of the mountain at night. Each evening, hundreds of Anaheim’s down and out rummaged around the base of the Matterhorn for french fries, candy and change — anything they could find that fell out of tourists’ pockets during the day.
On Wednesday night, we made our move. Ichabod darted over and under the bobsled rails, slithering behind a series of man-made waterfalls. It was almost impossible to keep up with him. The wheels on my Samsonite kept getting caught on the edge of my garment bag.
By 11 that evening, we had successfully made it to the halfway point, so we decided to take a break. While the menfolk passed around a pizza, I sent Toiba back down to the car for more beer.
If we were to successfully reach the summit and get down before sunrise, we’d have to leave the top no later than 1a.m., which left the kids tired, cranky and complaining about the crampons I made them wear over their flip flops. They perked back up when I reminded them of how hard they trained for the trip and that I hadn’t given them their allowances yet.
As with Mt. Everest, the final 10 feet of the ascent were the toughest. We had to circumnavigate gaping holes left over from when the park abandoned the Skyway Tram in 1994.
Dealing with the kids’ tantrums on the way up left us only 15 minutes to savor the summit of the Matterhorn.
We were on top of the world. Or at least pretty high up in Anaheim. We could make out the Mark Twain river boats, It’s a Small World, the Santa Ana Freeway (already loaded with morning commuters) and an Arby’s on South Harbor Drive. Then it was time to hightail it back to the bottom before the lines to the ride started to form.
Most alpinists will tell you that the descent is always worse than the way up to the top. Our trip was no exception. Daylight had dawned and the lily-white skin peeking out of my lederhosen was searing under the Southern California sun. By the time I got to base camp, I had a nasty sunburn and doubted I’d be able to make it back to Splash Mountain, where the park wanted us to do an interview with the host of “Disneyland Today.”
Apparently, we were the first family of three ever to scale the North Face of the Matterhorn without supplemental oxygen during the middle of summer vacation.
The interview ran late, setting us up for the most dangerous part of the journey — the Santa Ana Freeway back to LAX during rush hour in a rented Hyundai Accent.
After being bumped off our flight seven times and watching our gear fly off to Ohio, we finally made it home to Colorado to a crowd of excited well-wishers.
The airlines promised our suitcases would absolutely, positively be in Cleveland by morning. We could pick them up there.
The ascent to the happiest summit on Earth changed our lives forever. While none of us had to hike over frozen climbers who had given their lives to the mountain, the sheer size of the lines to the rides made us thank God that we were some of the fortunate ones — we started early, so we’d be going home.
Thousands of other tourists stuck in line wouldn’t be so lucky. But that’s another story.
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” and “Ski Instructors Confidential.”