Aug. 19, 2007 — When the late Blanche Sasso and her sister Grace Sparks embroidered the first Virgin Island flag 90 years ago, little did they imagine that it would fly 14,693 feet atop the famed Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps.
They could hardly have known that a former visitor to these shores, one who has made St. Thomas his home, saw fit to put two dreams together early this month.
"I made this place my home 20 years ago," says Brian Morrison, "and that's why I brought the flag. And for the last 10 years, I've been thinking about the Matterhorn."
Morrison, president of Specialized Comminations, a St. Thomas-based telecommunication company, says he visited the Virgin Islands with his family for years before moving here. "I always wanted to live here," he says. "My family still comes down to visit often."
Morrison, 42, comes from Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains. "There's great mountaineering there," he says. "Initially, I started out camping in the Boy Scouts."
Morrison is an all-around athlete. "I do lots of training, cycling, running, swimming, surfing, wind surfing," he says. But, where would one train here for the Matterhorn? Certainly not at 1,547 foot Mountain Top.
Morrison and his older brother, Eric, who accompanied him on the climb, have years of climbing behind them. "We've climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington," he says. "That's more like an alpine mountain, more glacier related. We've climbed in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and on Enchanted Rock in Texas near the LBJ ranch."
The Morrison brothers timed their climb to the last minute, after spending some of summer touring Europe. "We climbed on August 1, Swiss National Day, so there would be fewer people on the mountain. Between July and September is the best time for the ascent, but there was lots of rain in Western Europe this year, snow and ice."
But, August 1 proved to be the ideal day, as they had planned. "We climbed the Hornli route, that's the original route that Edward Whymper climbed in 1865," Morrison says. "We stayed at the Hornli Hut, and got up at 3 a.m. You have to start that early in order to get back down in better weather."
Hornli Hut, itself, is more than three-quarters up the alp, climbed on the day before. "You have a good load of gear, and 4,000 feet of ice and rock to climb," Morrison says. "What we did is called protective climbing, which is with ropes and shocks, devices that you put the ropes through. One person belays the other."
Belaying is a means of controlling the rope fed out to a climber. Literally, the climber holds the other climber's life in his hands.
Though Morrison does not elaborate on the dangers he faced, an Alpine climber's guide says, "The challenge on this peak is to keep to good time while climbing carefully and smoothly. In technical terms the difficulties are not extreme, being only about 5.6. But this route is very exposed and entails thousands of feet of steep 4th class rock that must be climbed quickly and surely, more than 4000 feet of steep climbing from hut to summit, which must be descended as well."
The challenge was worth every breath to Morrison who arrived in 10 degree weather. "It was very cool, it was hard, but worth it," he says. "We were burned out. No kidding. But, it was really good, a beautiful God sort of thing. It was a very epic day."
He says they stayed on the summit for about half an hour, eating peaches and mango Swiss chocolate after planting the V. I. flag. He says he doesn't know how long the bald eagle, clutching a laurel sprig and with a talon full of blue arrows, will fly over the Alps.
"The wind was blowing about 40 miles per hour," he says. "That's why the summit isn't covered with flags."
If Morrison has Everest in his future, he isn't letting on. "I don't want to talk about the future," he says. "I'll take it as it comes — the Caribbean way."
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