Matterhorn peak in summer, photo by Heidi M. Kim
Matterhorn peak in summer, photo by Heidi M. Kim

2015 is the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the famous Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland. Since that time, the mountain has claimed more than 500 people who have tried to reach its summit.

In 1865, countries were assembling teams of climbers who were competing to be the first to plant their flag at the top. I recently learned about the various people in the first summit party. Each had their role in the rope line and in the climb overall.

One of the most incredible jobs was that of the foot-setter. A Swiss guide had a young son who was familiar with climbing and with the Matterhorn. His main role was to carefully go on ahead of the group. At difficult parts of the route, the foot-setter would literally set the feet of the others, placing them in secure spots of the icy and rocky terrain when needed. This meant that at the most precarious parts of the journey, his job was to be sure-footed enough to help others set their feet on stable ground while at the same time risking his own life.

Who would opt for such a role?

It turns out that the group that earned the honor of being to the first to summit the Matterhorn has a tragic story. With seven people, it was a large and unwieldy group of English, French, and Swiss climbers who had not worked together before. Not all of them even spoke the same language, which is stunning since communication in this situation seems critical.

Although they were the first team to reach the summit of the Matterhorn, only hours later during the descent, the rope broke between some of the climbers. As one slipped, he took three others down with him. Four of the seven in the party fell to their death. More than a century later, this great human achievement of reaching the summit is marred by death and blame.

Broken rope from the first Matterhorn ascent team, photo by Heidi M. Kim
Broken rope from the first Matterhorn ascent team, photo by Heidi M. Kim

What does this have to do with writing?

Lately I’ve been thinking about this transition from writing/editing into querying agents and ultimately finding an editor and home for my manuscript. I’ve gotten a lot of advice on how to pursue agents and what the path to publishing can be like in practice. I’ve heard about amazing advances and crazy debut-deals and whopping first-time author launch campaigns. As I hear talk of first-time authors reaching for the proverbial stars, it’s made me ask myself, what is it that I really want from an agent? An editor? A publishing house? A writing career?

I did some soul-searching about what it is that I’d really like in an agent or an editor as well as from the experience of publishing a novel.

Standing in a pop-up museum in downtown Zermatt, as I listened to the story of the Matterhorn ascent team, my brain made a crazy connection to writing (of course) and I realized that in my heart what I am craving is not necessarily a ‘rockstar’ agent or editor who could move mountains for me. What I crave is a team of people—a highly functioning team—of people who all have the same goal, who communicate really well, who are willing to set my feet on solid ground when the path gets tricky.

Together, hopefully, we will be able to make it to the top with my manuscript. And if we don’t, then together, hopefully we will be able to return safely to base camp to try again another day.