Icy conditions on the Matterhorn
In 2005, my sister Jenny was doing an exchange program in Grenoble, France, so I decided to visit her for three weeks in the early summer and do some backpacking through the Alps. We hiked the Walker's Haute Route, which is a 14-day trek through the Alps from Chamonix to Zermatt. Each night we would either stay in a high mountain hut or descend into a small village, which was a really great European hiking experience. The hike ended in Zermatt, so we planned to climb the city's famous mountain, the Matterhorn. (This meant that we had to carry our heavy mountaineering gear all the way from Chamonix, which made the frequent 1,800 m daily elevation gains and losses tough!).
So after two weeks of hiking, we arrived in Zermatt. We spent an afternoon being tourists, stayed in a youth hostel, and the next day headed up to Hornli Hut, the mountaineers hut 10,700 ft high on the lower ridge of the Matterhorn (it costs 38CHF/night). The weather forecast was neither great nor bad. We had to fly home in a few days, so we decided to at least climb to the hut and attempt the climb the next day if the weather looked decent.
The hut was full of tourists who had hiked up (or more likely taken the cable car up) for the day. They seemed completely happy to spend 7 Swiss francs (about the equivalent of $5-6 US dollars!) on a can of pop or a liter of water. We immediately filled our nalgenes and pots with snow and stuck them on top of the wood-burning stove, determined not to buy any water.
That evening the view from the hut was amazing. We could see Zermatt down in the valley to the north, and the Briethorn across the valley to the south. The clouds below us and the evening light made for some nice photos.
By evening, the crowds in the hut thinned, leaving only a small scattering of climbers. All of the other climbers were part of guided parties, except for two guys from South Africa (named David and Jason). To pass the time, we played cards with them. At 8pm, we went up to the climbers' quarters and dove into our sleeping bags.
We woke up at 3:30 am to clear skies, and decided to attempt the climb. It had been a rather cool early summer, so the rock still had a lot of ice and snow on it, so we were forced to wear crampons from the beginning. This made scrambling up the usually-class-4-easy-class-5 rock rather tough. But we continued on.
After the sun rose, the clouds began to move in. By 1,000 ft above the hut, the weather and conditions had worsened to the point that all the other parties had turned around, except for David, one of the South African fellows we had met the night before. David teamed up with us and we continued the climb. We began to set belays as we climbed the icy rock and snow. The conditions were certainly not ideal, but we did not want to give up since we had no extra days to wait around for better conditions.
By the time we reached the emergency shelter Solvay Hut at 13,130 ft, visibility was down to a couple of hundred feet and the rock was coated in ice and snow. It had been 6.5 hours since we left Hornli Hut. My sister was pretty freaked out, and it was obvious she did not want to continue the climb. Always driven towards the summit at all costs, I wanted to continue, but given that my sister did not want to continue and continuing would also add about 4 hours to our climb (2 hours to the summit, 2 hours back to the Solvay Hut), we decided that the best decision would be to descend back to Hornli Hut. (I was almost jealous of the two Chinese climbers who we found in the emergency shelter on their third day of waiting out the weather. They seemed to have no plans to head down anytime soon, even though staying in the shelter for non-emergency reasons is not allowed.)
So at 12pm, we headed back down. With the poor visibility and snowy conditions, it was at times difficult to locate the fixed rappel slings, but we always managed to find them, having to leave only one of our own slings to back up a sketchy-looking sling we found.
Eight hours and countless rappels later, we arrived at the base of the climb near Hornli Hut. We had spent over 16 hours on the mountain, and were pretty tired. The weather cleared up just as we arrived back down, giving us a nice view of the valley. The other South African climber Jason met us at the base, handed us a giant bar of Swiss chocolate, and offered to carry our packs back to the hut.
We were too tired to hike the 5,300 ft back down to Zermatt, so we paid the 27 Swiss Francs ($22 US dollars) to stay another night in Hornli Hut. I think we even splurged and bought a liter of tea.
The next morning we awoke to sunny skies again. We kicked ourselves that this weather had not arrived a day earlier!
We left the hut rather early since we needed to catch a train to the airport. As we were hiking down, the clouds were on the attack again. A typical day on the Matterhorn!
All and all, climbing the Matterhorn was a great experience in dealing with adverse climbing conditions. Someday, I will go back and climb it all the way to the summit. It seems like it would be a fun climb under better weather and conditions!