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Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?
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Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?

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Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Switzerland, Europe

Lat/Lon: 45.97525°N / 7.66434°E

Object Title: Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?

Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 8, 1997

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Summer


Page By: hansw

Created/Edited: Mar 29, 2010 / Apr 5, 2010

Object ID: 608696

Hits: 13044 

Page Score: 95.82%  - 55 Votes 

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Backstreet Zermatt

View from Zermatt
Backstreet Zermatt.

David Robinson…
David Robinson.

A Thursday morning in a backstreet of Zermatt can be very interesting. Especially if you find a Matterhorn museum. It was an awfully quiet place this day in August 1997. Not a soul could be seen except for the old man selling the tickets. One room was dedicated to the famous first ascent of the Matterhorn. Or rather the famous first descent illustrated by a piece of the rope that broke. Four men lost their lives during the first descent in 1865. But how many people have been killed since then on the Matterhorn? I asked the question to the old man who sold the tickets. From his reaction it was obvious that he did not like my question. I tried to look serious and asked again. Without saying anything he disappeared into another room and returned after a while with a booklet containing a dozen pages. "See for yourself" he said and handed me the papers.

I sat down close to the rope that broke in 1865 and started to read. On page after page the names of the victims were neatly lined up, together with the dates and the cause of their deaths if known. The long list ended with the year 1991 and I added the number of names on each page and found the total number to be 315 persons. There were people from many countries; Germans, Americans, Japanese, etc. and I even discovered a Swede. Furthermore, there was a note saying that 24 persons never have been found despite comprehensive search operations. Reading this was not fun, but still exciting somehow.

Before leaving I talked to the old man who said that it is not possible to determine the exact number of victims, but that the average during recent years is about 10 people per year. The number heard of today is that more than five hundred climbers have lost their lives on the Matterhorn. Furthermore, I learned that only a few mountain guides have been killed. Up to 1992 a total of eight Swiss and five Italian guides had paid with their lives on the Matterhorn. After this somewhat dull arithmetic exercise it was a relief to breathe fresh air out in the street again.


In the Hörnli hut
The four of us in the Hörnli hut: Me, my film camera, Freddy and Ueli.

We did this and we did that. But who are we? The previous year I had a great experience climbing the Eiger together with the Swiss guide Ueli Bühler. His suggestion for this year had been the Schreckhorn in the Bernese Oberland but I wanted to do the Matterhorn before it was too late. Being fifty one and not getting any younger I felt it was time for the Matterhorn. Ueli also worked with an agency for climbing equipment and was not available for a training tour. Instead he suggested Freddy Grossniklaus whom I knew from 1993 when we climbed the Wetterhorn.

On my suggestion we choose to climb the Nadelhorn (4327 m) and to spend half a day rock climbing on the Riffelhorn above Zermatt to prepare for the Matterhorn. Ueli was to join us in the Hörnli hut the evening before the climb and Freddy was also to come along guiding a German client.


A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain
The Caravan.

“My mind is made up. I will ascend the Riffelberg. As usual, at Zermatt, when a great ascent is about to be undertaken, everybody, native and foreign, laid aside his own projects and took up a good position to observe the start. The expedition consisted of 198 persons, including the mules; or 205, including the cows. As follows:

Chiefs of service subordinates
Myself, 1 Veterinary Surgeon Mr. Harris, 1 Butler, 17 Guides, 12 Waiters, 4 Surgeons, 1 Footman, 1 Geologist, 1 Barber, 1 Botanist, 1 Head Cook, 3 Chaplains, 9 Assistants, 15 Barkeepers, 1 Confectionery Artist, 1 Latinist

Transportation, etc.
27 Porters, 3 Coarse Washers and Ironers, 44 Mules, 1 Fine ditto, 44 Muleteers, 7 Cows, 2 Milkers

Rations, etc. Apparatus
16 Cases Hams, 25 Spring Mattresses, 2 Barrels Flour, 2 Hair ditto, 22 Barrels Whiskey Bedding for same, 1 Barrel Sugar, 2 Mosquito-nets, 1 Keg Lemons, 29 Tents. 2,000 Cigars, Scientific Instruments, 1 Barrel Pies, 97 Ice-axes, 1 Ton of Pemmican, 5 Cases Dynamite, 143 Pair Crutches, 7 Cans Nitroglycerin, 2 Barrels Arnica, 22 40-foot Ladders, 1 Bale of Lint, 2 Miles of Rope, 27 Kegs Paregoric, 154 Umbrellas”

To learn more about this humorous and exciting expedition one has to read A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain.

Edward Whymper
Edward Whymper on the wall of the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt.

No crowds gathered when we left for the Riffelberg - which is not a mountain, it is more of a train stop and a hotel. We got off the train that had its terminal station Gornergrat at Riffelberg. Completely alone, we walked towards the Riffelhorn which is mountain, popular for rock climbing. The only thing that bothered us was that we could not see the Matterhorn. Somehow the famous pyramid attracted dark and ugly clouds. And there we would find ourselves in two days time. We tried to hide our concern about the weather but did not succeed. We had previously asked about the weather down in Zermatt, and even spent twenty francs to call the weather service. It will become better during the weekend, but remain uncertain for the next two days we were told.

After climbing two routes on the Riffelhorn we spent an hour on the terrace of the Hotel Riffelberg. Again we were alone except for the Matterhorn which could only be seen between the clouds for short intervals. A buzzing sound attracted our attention, through the binoculars we could see a helicopter landing at the Hörnli hut, the starting point for ascending the Matterhorn. After a while it lifted and flew towards the east face. It stopped and stood still like a buzzing hornet. Someone was winched down to pick up a human being. Had someone got into difficulties and need to be rescued? In the end, the helicopter took off in the direction Zermatt.

Main street Zermatt

Matterhorn Gipfel der Werbung
Matterhorn – the summit of advertising.

The Matterhorn chocolate
Toblerone, the Matterhorn chocolate.

Donald Duck and the Matterhorn.
Donald Duck and the Matterhorn.

Thursday at lunch time in the main street of Zermatt can be very interesting. Especially if you visit the bookshop where they have a large collection of books on the Matterhorn. Most of them fell in the category pretty pictures, a few dealt with climbing and climbing routes, some were about the history of the mountain. And the one that caught my eye; "Matterhorn Gipfel der Werbung”. It was not about the Matterhorn history, it did not describe the different routes to the summit but it dealt solely with the use of Matterhorn as a promotional items and logos. “Matterhorn – the summit of advertising” is a one hundred page book with numerous examples showing how the characteristic silhouette of the Matterhorn has been used for business purposes.

The chocolate Toblerone is probably the most famous trademark having the Matterhorn as model. There are sausages, wine, beer, cheese, yogurt and many other things to eat and drink with Matterhorn logos. Uneatable things like watches, knives, cigarettes, pens, sunglasses, stamps and skies use the Matterhorn as a trademark. And of course, both Donald Duck and Tintin have relations to the Matterhorn. And I cannot be the only one who has struggled with a thousand pieces Matterhorn jigsaw puzzle?

Dangerous so why?

Passing the Matterhorn north face
Passing the Matterhorn. The Hörnli ridge to the left.

View from Schwarzsee
View from Schwarzsee.

What is it that makes the Matterhorn so dangerous? It is not so much the technical difficulty, but rather the total length and the exposure of the climb, and the risk of sudden weather changes. It is not a perfect ridge climb on splendid rock. Instead the ground is often loose with high risk of people kicking down stones of various sizes. And of course, some people are not adequately prepared for this adventure. During the high season and ideal condition that usually occur in early August as many as two hundred climbers, from all over the world line up on the Hörnli Ridge. It goes without saying that under such circumstances dangerous situations arise when people are acting at the utmost of their ability.

Being August 8 it would normally be the peak season. But this summer in the Alps had been very poor which meant that winter snow was still lying on the Matterhorn. The fact was that the Zermatt guides this season only had guided clients to the summit on three occasions.

So why do people from all over the world come to climb the famous pyramid? There may be as many reasons as there are climbers. I met a young German from Koblentz. “Why the Matterhorn?” I asked. “Well, I want to get it over with before I get married and have children”, he answered. I met an American who expressed his motives as “I want to do something that my fucking neighbour back home in Oklahoma hasn’t done.” And there was my category being tired of answering “No” when people hear that you climb mountains and ask: Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?

To the Hut

Resting on the way to Hörnli Hut
Resting on the way to the Hörnli Hut.

The chapel at Schwarzsee
The Chapel at Schwarzsee.

The Hörnli Hut overlooking Monte Rosa
The Hörnli Hut overlooking Monte Rosa.

We got off the cable car at Schwarzsee just in front of one the most photographed motives in the western Alps; the chapel with its mirror image in the little lake. The tourists visited the chapel while we walked up to the Hörnli hut.

Suddenly there was the sound of a helicopter landing on a small plate next to the hut. It took off again and flew out towards the mighty east face, very close to it as it seemed. A man was winched down to the rocks and it looked like he picked something up. We were about ten people watching and the word was that someone had fallen from the Hörnli ridge. The helicopter that we had seen the day before had actually salvaged the dead climber. What we witnessed was the retrieving of the dead man’s backpack.

While waiting for dinner to be served I withdrew to the bunk bed. A loud noise woke me up an hour later. Rain was pouring down accompanied by lightning and thunder. "So much for that", I thought, seeing my Matterhorn climb disappear into the void. The mood was subdued among the approximately thirty people who had dinner in the hut that evening. We finally got in to the inevitable - the next day. It was decided that the wake-up would take place at five instead of at three o'clock as was usual. In this way, we would be able to start almost in daylight. On the other hand, the snow would become more soft and difficult on the way down. I was awake all night waiting for the alarm to go off at five o'clock. And finally it did, even if it took time.

Too good to be true

The very first step onto the Matterhorn Hörnligrat
The very first step onto the Matterhorn Hörnligrat.

Starting point for the Hörnligrat on the Matterhorn
Starting point for the Hörnligrat on the Matterhorn.

It was too good to be true; starlight and no wind. The only thing that disturbed the picture was a layer of frozen hail on the ground. There was a certain tension around the breakfast tables. There was one Japanese table, one American table and one mixed table including ourselves. Twenty people would try to climb the Matterhorn this August day in 1997. The first phase was to chew down a few slices of bread with marmalade.

And then we were off, Ueli first and I at the other end of the rope. The difficulties began almost immediately but we worked our way up slowly without anyone saying a word. The terrain was bumpy, with a lot of loose material. For every step you had to make sure you did not send any stones down on the people coming after. We walked on a ledge and there were also people above us. Suddenly I heard a grinding noise and when I looked up I saw to my horror a boulder the size of an ordinary washing machine start moving. During a long second, we managed to throw ourselves out of its way. The big block continued down, bounced a few times and then disappeared into the depths. Before I had time to really understand what had happened Ueli was like a mad man and we quickly caught up with the guilty ones. Ueli literally asked the perpetrators to go to hell in every language he could. I am convinced that the message got through. They were so shocked themselves by the incident that they backed down again.


On the Hörnligrat. Summit to the far left.
On the Hörnligrat. Summit to the far left.

Solvay Hut: Taking a well earned rest
Solvay Hut - Taking a well earned rest.

The Belgian Ernest Solvay was a generous man who in 1915 funded the construction of the hut just halfway to the summit. The Solvay hut, exceeding four thousand meters by three meters, is a bivouac hut to be used only in emergency situations. Looking at the hut from far below, it appears to be right above your head. I knew from experience that looking up just made the time to get there feel longer. A better tactic was to keep your eyes on the next step and fight in the small scale. The steep section up to hut is known as the lower Moseley slab. The icy condition did not contribute to make the going easier. At last we sat there on the little bench outside the hut. The ledge was a meter wide, including the bench. The pause lasted for ten minutes at most and for the first time I was given the opportunity to properly admire the surroundings. The Monte Rosa peaks were all at my feet.

Ueli looked for something in his backpack, having my video camera on top he took it out and put on the side. It began to slide towards the edge. I yelled as I saw what was going to happen and in the last millisecond Ueli got hold of the strap before it disappeared into the depths. We looked at each other but said nothing. Instead, I tried to count; 4003-3260 became 743 with some carrying over. 4478-4003 became 475 without carrying. "More than half finished", 743 meters done but there still remained 475 difficult meters to the summit.

To the summit

On the Hörnli ridge
Matterhorn climbing.

Matterhorn summit cross just visible
Matterhorn summit cross just visible.

The American Edward Oxnard Moseley has also lent his name to the steep section above the hut, the upper Moseley slab. What did he do that to deserve such an attention? Tragically he died at an ascent in 1879. As I remember the pitch directly after the hut was steep and difficult which may contribute to the understanding of what happened to poor Moseley.

We climbed along the ridge, we found ourselves on famous places such as the Red Tower, the Shoulder and the Ceiling. When you are in the middle of it all it is easy to lose the sense of the outer world, only what you have at hand is important.

After the Shoulder there was a small traffic jam at the start of the thick fixed ropes. Ueli climbed quickly upwards without using the ropes between the belay points and I was performing at my best succeeding to pass people who had problems. One guide was pulling hard on his rope yelling to his client; “Es muss gehen! Es muss gehen!”

In the heavy wind Ueli finally exclaimed, "Well done!", and when I looked up, only fifty meters remained to the summit ridge. Up there, I saw the familiar narrow ridge. A few minutes later we stood on the highest point. Once there, I sensed for the first time how tired I was. Frankly, my first thought when I stood on the very summit on the Swiss side of the Matterhorn was "Get the hell out of here!" However, I tried to pull myself together and feel that it was the journey that made the goal worthwhile.

The Italian summit with its cross was just a few meters away. So close but still far away. "What time is it?" I asked but nobody answered. Two figures with hoods folded came stumbling in our direction along the ridge. "Don’t I know you from somewhere?" It was Freddy, humorous as always. He and the German had apparently been on our heels the last bit towards the summit. After one look straight down to the south side into Italy and one to the north side right down into Switzerland, we turned around and began the descent.

The descent

The Decent of the Matterhorn
The Decent of the Matterhorn by Allan Lyall.

Rock fall on the Hörnli ridge
The triangle of 1500 m3 rock that dislodged from the ridge in July 2003.

Even if I could not picture exactly where the rope broke in 1865 we must have passed the steep place. The tragic first descent of the Matterhorn and its aftermath creates interest even in our days. Allan Lyall has written almost seven hundred pages of the decent only.

After many tiresome rappels, we stopped for the first time at Solvay hut. There I had the most delicious apple I ever have eaten. Tossing the apple core down the east face does not make me proud to tell. Again followed a number of rappels. I heard Ueli’s voice saying "Lean in the Rope!" when I sometimes hesitated. It is one thing to rappel down steep terrain and quite another when the ground is a mixture of small snow fields and large blocks. The terrain was very tiring and awkward to negotiate wearing crampons.

The tempo dropped since it would be stupid to risk anything now, half an hour more or less made no difference whatsoever. The Hörnli hut came closer slowly, too slowly.

Coming down having less than an hour to go we took a little break. As I was looking down on the last awkward sections a guide and his client passed by. Without hesitation the guide made a move that I thought impossible when he went around a smooth outward leaning rock. How did he do that? Trying to repeat it later I discovered after a while a tiny little knob where he had put his finger to balance the overturning gravity component. On the other hand, having done that probably fifty times it was no big deal – for him. This little finger hold is lost for ever since 1500 cubic meters of rock dislodged from the ridge taking it down the east face on July 15, 2003. Dramatically 84 climbers were trapped and had to be air-lifted off the mountain from above the rock fall.

The rock fall of 2003

Down at last

Matterhorn Diploma
Matterhorn Diploma.

Fatal accident on the Hörnli ridge
Victim identified.

When we finally made the last rappel down to solid ground and we were only a hundred meters from the hut I looked for the first time at my watch. It read half past three making our climb nine and a half hour long. Not so bad when the standard time is said to be ten hours.

I just stopped and had a beer at the hut terrace trying to feel the victory. What I felt was nothing but fatigue. With a couple of minutes margin we made it to the last gondola from Schwarzsee.

Over a cup of coffee among all the tourists down in Zermatt Ueli gave me a diploma as evidence of the achievement. "Ascension of the Matterhorn", signed, sealed and everything. Normally I am not much of a diploma man, but for once I felt it appropriate to be a little vain.

I noted that the view from hotel window that evening did not include the Matterhorn. I was saturated with impressions, and I had had more than enough for the day.

At breakfast next morning I read the local newspaper. My eyes fell on a line saying, "Opfer identfiziert". The man who had been killed on the Matterhorn three days ago had been identified. He was a young Czech climber who fallen from 3900 meters on Hörnli ridge, one hundred meters below the Solvay hut. I raised my head and looked out of the window. In the upper right corner I saw a dangerous acquaintance, a 4478 meter high dangerous acquaintance.

Nobody asked: “Mountaineer - really? The Matterhorn - of course?” But I answered “Yes !” anyway.

Thanks to Ueli Bühler and Freddy Grossniklaus for excellent guiding.

Thanks to desainme and isostatic for comments on the original text.

The movie


Passing the Matterhorn north faceThe amazing MatterhornOn the Hörnli ridgeDonald Duck and the Matterhorn.The Matterhorn chocolateRock fall on the Hörnli ridgeIn the Hörnli hut
Tintin and the MatterhornMatterhorn DiplomaA Tramp Abroad by Mark TwainMatterhorn Gipfel der WerbungThe Decent of the MatterhornFatal accident on the Hörnli ridge


[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 21-32 of 32 « PREV 1 2 NEXT »

hanswRe: Another great page.


Hasn't voted

Glad you liked it. No, not unroped. It is very little space on the summit ridge. We were about 25 persons that day. Imagine how the situation is when 200 persons are on the mountain.

No, I am more into one-dimensional things these days. With a walking stick:)

Posted Apr 5, 2010 4:14 am


Hasn't voted

Excellent review of a difficult climb. This brought back wonderful memories, as I too ascended the Matterhorn a few days later that year (August 11th). An acquaintance of mine owns Air Zermatt, and a local pharmacy (I'm also a pharmacist) & now no longer underwrites rescue insurance for this climb. "Lloyd's of London", he says. My climbing friend and I had the services of his personal Italian guides & we made the summit in 4 hours. The decent took 30 minutes longer, & we were just adhead of another weather front. I also have my certificate framed & hanging on the wall.
Posted Apr 4, 2010 6:38 pm

hanswRe: Matterhorn


Hasn't voted

Funny, we almost met! I am glad I made you remember old days.
Posted Apr 5, 2010 1:30 pm

hanswRe: Another great story of yours


Hasn't voted

Yes small world indeed. I contacted Freddy a couple of weeks ago when I started to think about writing this report. He took a lot of pictures on the climb but had lost them somehow. He had promised me to look for them and now they would fit fine in the report. Sadly he hadn’t found them. Except for not keeping track of pictures:) I have only good things to say about Freddy. It is pleasure to climb with him, easy on easy ground and serious when the going gets tough.

In 1999 we did the Zinalrothorn together in not so easy conditions. I will try to write about that later. I have just 10 seconds of video film from the summit. In addition I had Freddy to tell about our ascent afterwards which is very entertaining to watch and listen to.

Posted Apr 5, 2010 3:35 pm

Luciano136Really enjoyed it!


Voted 10/10

Read this over a beer last night. Great read!! So, what rating would you give this route overall? (class 4, 5.x?).
Posted Apr 5, 2010 11:45 am

hanswRe: Really enjoyed it!


Hasn't voted

I am glad you liked it.

In my language AD. Using the fixed ropes at the summit blocks III-, mostly II. Not using the ropes there are pitches of IV and IV+. But most of all the route is long, and one of the hardest 4000er ordinary routes in the Alps.

III = 5.3 and IV = 5.6 according to the grade page by mvs for converting between different scales.

Posted Apr 5, 2010 5:02 pm

ezaGreat read!


Voted 10/10

Thanks for telling us about your Matterhorn climb, Hans. I enjoyed it, you made me feel as a third man in your rope.
Posted Apr 6, 2010 6:27 am

hanswRe: Great read!


Hasn't voted

Glad you enjoyed reading it.
Posted Apr 6, 2010 1:50 pm

Nyle WaltonFifty five years ago.

Nyle Walton

Hasn't voted

Your account takes me back to my own ascent of the Matterhorn in August of 1955. Very entertaining. I wish I would have had a video camera back then or even just digital photography.
Posted Apr 6, 2010 11:01 am

hanswRe: Fifty five years ago.


Hasn't voted

I am glad I have brought back memories of your own Matterhorn climb. What about you writing about it?
Posted Apr 6, 2010 4:01 pm

Nyle WaltonConsult the climbers's log

Nyle Walton

Hasn't voted

You will find a description of my climb in the Matterhorn climbers log. It is probably the longest and most detailed account of an ascent of the old tiger in the log.
Posted Apr 7, 2010 10:55 am

hanswRe: Consult the climbers's log


Hasn't voted

Nice to read your Matterhorn account especially as several of your experiences were similar to mine more than fifty years later.

Matterhorn 55 years ago
Posted Apr 7, 2010 11:25 am

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