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Cats' Adventures & Travels 17

Mountain-climbing cat


Schwarenbach, Switzerland

Tomba, mountaineering cat of the Berghotel Schwarenbach, Switzerland

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Tomba was a long-haired cat from Switzerland, based in an Alpine hotel in the canton of Valais, who during the climbing season would follow mountaineers on their ascents and so reached a number of impressive summits. We're not talking of small hills here, but pinnacles of up to 3700 metres (more than 12,000 feet)! He seemed to thoroughly enjoy his outings and would wait eagerly for the next group of climbers to make their preparations. He didn't live a long life, succumbing to feline AIDS at the age of about 4½ — but it was certainly an adventurous one.

His exploits have been recorded in a lovely little brochure by the Peter Stoller Family, who run the Berghotel Schwarenbach, near Kandersteg, from where Tomba went out on his exploits, and we're most grateful to the family for kindly sending us copies of the brochure. Rather than paraphrasing it, the text has been translated directly from the original German and is reproduced below. The original text was written by Hedy Sigg, and the photos were taken on an ascent of the 3453-metre (11,330 feet) Rinderhorn on 6 September 1989 — when Tomba was just over a year old — by Max Pfiffner.


It was on a stormy autumn evening at Schwarenbach in 1987 that we saw a cat running up to us. Perhaps she sensed that snow was going to fall the next day. This lovable creature felt very much at home with us and we were happy to take her in. The next summer, Tomassa received a male visitor. Feline love may not be able to move mountains, but it can certainly conquer them!

On 7 August 1988 a little kitten came into the world — a youngster born under a lucky star, but also a cause for concern, since the mother mysteriously vanished shortly after his birth, leaving us to fear the little one would die. Fortunately Tomassa returned after five days and then she wouldn't let her son out of her sight for another second, hissing and spitting at every passing stranger. Tomba, as we named him (partly after his mother and partly after the renowned alpine ski racer Alberto Tomba), thrived beautifully under such devoted care.

Tomba on the Rinderhorn, Valais, Switzerland, 1989 When barely old enough to walk, Tomba started making off straight away across the hills and ridges. He journeyed up the Spittelmatte, the Schwarzgrätli and the Gällihorn, across the Gemmi Pass and even down the Gemmiwand rock face towards Leukerbad. Time and time again we became worried about him, so we would set off out into the wind and rain with the intent of bringing the kitten back into the safety of our home.

However, when we learned that 10-month-old Tomba had escorted three mountain climbers up to the 3453m-high summit of the Rinderhorn, we knew that we were dealing with a real mountaineer, who would be able to find his own way home. A few days later, the alpinists were amazed when Tomba went with them to the summit of the 3699m-high Balmhorn.

Many times he repeated these tours, and in good weather conditions tomcat Tomba would not even return to Schwarenbach, waiting instead by the edge of the glacier at the roping-up point for his next 'clients'. He was always pleased when mountain climbers came to stay with us and he would sniff around their rucksacks, choosing his guests the night before so he could show them their route early the next morning.

Mountaineering cat Tomba, Switzerland, 1989 One day he led a rope team to the summit and then set off on his return route, only to run up again with another group (he always had his crampons on him!). By doing this, he could receive his reward in the form of sausage and cheese from several lots of mountain climbers. It was evident that he took great pleasure in preening himself afterwards, savouring the view and then commencing the descent together with his guests.

Once, when Tomba was en route with a young married couple, he was suddenly reluctant to go any further and he took himself off the path behind a large rock. The couple were curious so they followed him, believing he had discovered something there. Just then, an avalanche thundered across the path they had been climbing up ... Tomba had actually saved them both from disaster!

Tomba escorts us up the Rinderhorn

The night before our mountain tour on the Rinderhorn, Max and I stayed overnight in the dormitory of the alpine Hotel Schwarenbach. At a quarter to five the other climbers left the hotel, and we started out at five o'clock. It was pitch-black and very soon we heard a rustling sound. In the beam of our helmet lamps we saw the eyes of a cat light up. I was reminded of the answer my landlady had given me the previous evening when I asked whether anyone else might like to climb the Rinderhorn, too? 'If anyone will, the cat will,' she replied. The cat would only follow us part of the way, we thought — perhaps for a share of our supplies?

Tomba, Rinderhorn, 1989 We marched along the Gemmiweg hiking path to the lake of Daubensee, branched off from there and zigzagged along the really steep scree slopes, using our lamps to find the way. When it gradually became lighter, we noticed that the cat was still following us. It was freezing cold and on the upper part of the slope the snow was frozen solid. We sat down on the col of the Rinder for something to eat, to fit our crampons and to get roped up. Tomba immediately jumped onto my lap, no doubt to warm up his paws. We offered him some of our snack but he seemed not to be hungry, so it was evident that he wasn't following us on account of the food. Assuming that he would now turn back or wait for us there, I laid down a woollen scarf for him on the cold rocks. I could not have been more wrong, as our little escort got up when we did and followed us out onto the glacier. Staying nice and close to the rope linking Max and me, he padded up the steep firn slope. We couldn't help but be amazed. Tomba followed effortlessly, paused when we did, climbed onwards when we did. Over the summit ridge along the extreme edge he pranced, with his tail held aloft, fawning all over Max and evidently content. He had reached the summit, which was 3453m high.

Tomba, Swiss mountaineering cat, on the Rinderhorn, 1989 Max wanted to carry him on his rucksack on the descent, but this offer was proudly turned down. Every time Tomba slid on the ice on the steep glacier, he would 'adjust his rudder' and immediately bring himself back on track. On the lower part of the scree slopes he then became tired; but if he dropped back a few metres behind me, he would immediately start to meow. So then I was obliged to wait and let him go ahead of me, as he wanted to walk behind Max.

Back on the Gemmiweg path a couple of schoolchildren came towards us, and could not believe their eyes when they saw two mountain climbers with rope and ice-pick and a pet cat walking by! Tomba felt uneasy with this attention and made himself scarce behind some stones. We returned to the alpine hotel alone; the cat didn't drift in until night-time. Our four-legged friend had accompanied us for almost nine hours and given us the most unforgettable experience.


Tomba, the Swiss climbing cat, died in 1993 of feline AIDS If you were ever to look deep into the eyes of this remarkable creature, you would be inclined to think of reincarnation and suppose that a long-dead mountain guide was living on in his feline soul.

Tomba lived a fulfilled life and his fame extended far beyond the borders of Switzerland, where he gained a lot of publicity. A mountaineering yearbook in Japan dedicated a double-page spread to him, complete with photographs; a South African weekly told his story; and in New York also he became almost a household name. Tabloids across Europe wrote reports about him; Swiss TV came to Schwarenbach to film and they subsequently broadcast a fascinating report with impressive footage.

Our 'summiteer' stayed on with us for over four years — from spring until autumn at the alpine Hotel Schwarenbach, and then in winter we took him with us down into the valley to Frutigen.

On 27 January 1993 Tomba drew his last breath. He and his mother both had to be put to sleep; they were suffering from the immune deficiency syndrome known as feline AIDS.

Note: More about the Hotel Schwarenbach, which has quite a long and chequered history, can be found at a page by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, Frozen ghosts haunt Gemmi Pass.

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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.

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