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Arben Bivouac anniversary: Celebration time for the people of Zermatt and their Dutch alpine companions

On 20 July 2012 Zermatt will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Arben Bivouac. Back in 1977 the Royal Dutch Alpine Association (KNAV) gifted the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) a mountain hut in Zermatt – the Arben Bivouac – of which the club is very proud. At 3,224 m, it opens up the access to the most beautiful climbing routes in the Valais as well as to the Obergabelhorn, the Wellenkuppe and the Zinalrothorn. The Arben Bivouac anniversary will be celebrated with a concert.

Hard gneis and a stunning view of the Matterhorn North Face. The 700 m high South Face of the Obergabelhorn and of the Arbengrat ridge are dream routes for the mountain climber. The Dutch have a long tradition of being obsessed with mountains and this was confirmed when they were the ones to open up this climbing area with the Bivouac.

The university-trained mountaineers who founded the Dutch Alpine Association (NAV) in 1902 were especially active in Switzerland. Dutch climbers have long preferred extended crossings. During the 1930’s Dr. Abraham Verslys, known as the “Flying Dutchman”, crossed the Zmuttgrat ridge on the Matterhorn more than twenty times. The Britanniahütte, Allalinhorn, Alphubel, Täschhorn, Dom, Lenzspitze and the Mischabelhütte – all in the one day. He scarcely had any time to secure himself and, back in those days, this was considered to be particularly daring.

Systematic mountain hut polic
At an institutional level, the club was committed to acquiring the right to hospitality and so, from 1933 onwards, it invested generously in Swiss mountain hut projects. Hence the NAV became the very first Alpine club to be granted the right to hospitality in SAC huts. In the late 1970’s, when the KNAV – with the word “Royal” (K for koninklijk) now heading up its name – was preparing to celebrate its 75th anniversary it decided to make a statement. It approached the central association of the SAC and offered to donate CHF 75,000 to build a mountain hut. At the time Bern was busy providing support to the SAC section Zermatt, which had just separated from the Monte Rosa section. So the central association decided to give this new section the opportunity to build its first mountain accommodation all on its own.

SAC section Zermatt and its first hut project
The person entrusted with the building of the bivouac was August Boyer, an architect who as construction manager was responsible for all the SAC huts in Switzerland. Along with Jean-Pierre Perreten, hut manager of the Arben Bivouac from 1977 to 1992, and while maintaining constant contact with the Dutch, Willy Hofstetter, president of the SAC section Zermatt, rolled up his sleeves. The local community made the construction site available free of charge and the architect waived his normal fee. 30 volunteers from the Netherlands camped for three weeks at the Arbengandegge and laboured on the “Holländerkehre”. The Dutchmen along with tradesmen and locals from Zermatt all got stuck into the gruelling task. A spell of bad weather set in and this meant that an extra 1,000 hours of work which had not been budgeted for were required to build the walls. Hofstetter had to write a letter to the KNAV in which he explained that the total costs had overrun the budget by CHF 30,000. However the Dutch had decided that as far as they were concerned, when they gave a gift there were no half measures.

Climbing up to the Arbengrat Ridge (Ralf Gantzhorn)

The Arben Bivouac today (Ralf Gantzhorn)
Zermatt’s mountains, firmly in Dutch hands
It was July 1977 and what a festive week it was! More than 300 Dutch mountain climbers laid siege to Zermatt, including the ambassador to Bern, Baron Collot d'Escury, and his entourage, all born a metre below sea level. There was a mass ascent of the Riffelhorn. On 7 July 1977 there were 150 Dutchmen at over 4,000 m.a.s.l. as they scaled the Breithorn and the Alphubel with a small group tackling the Nordend. A dozen journalists from the Netherlands were flown in from the Schwarzsee for the official inauguration of the Arben Bivouac. The ambassador lowered the Dutch flag while the former president of the SAC, Otto Meyer, hoisted the Swiss flag. The speeches were broadcast by wireless to the festive area on the meadow below the Arbengandegge. The SAC, represented in large numbers by delegates from each of the sections, presented the Royal Dutch Alpine Association with a painting, the "Obergabelhorn", specially painted for the occasion by Bernese artist Edmund Wunderlich. And so it was that the Arben Bivouac came to bask in the benefits of the partnership forged between the coastal dwellers and the mountain people.

Altered landscape
Nowadays, you can climb up to the Arben Bivouac across the Arben Glacier without encountering glacier ice – so much has the glacier receded. There are firmly mounted chains in the uppermost section, but even so, this not a jaunt for mountain hikers but a route more suited to experienced climbers.

Anniversary celebrations with a concert on 20 July 2012
At 8 pm on Friday, 20th July 2012 at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, the SAC section Zermatt and the NKBV will be celebrating the 35-year existence of the Arben Bivouac with a concert by the Dutch Frommermann Ensemble.

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