PreludeIt doesn’t matter where you come from or whether you call it the Matterhorn, Monte Cervino or Le Cervin. The mountain is special. From practically every angle, it rises like a perfect pyramid to 4478m. It stands apart from its Valais cousins as if to selfishly claim the crown as King of the Hill. Its first ascent is one of the most captivatingly tragic stories of early mountaineering. And if you climb, it is hard to resist the temptation of ascending one of its striking lines to stand on the summit as Whymper did in 1865.
I imagine that everyone remembers their first time seeing The Mountain. For me, it was over ten years ago during a brief visit to Zermatt. I was there for a bit of hiking with a lovely European girl that I met in college the year before. I remember setting the alarm for the break of dawn so that we could catch the morning sun hit the upper slopes of the famous peak. Despite the romantic setting, it was freezing cold and I only managed to snap a few photos before we ran back to the hostel to warm up. Fast forward a decade since those first impressions and I would be making plans to climb the same mountain. This time, that lovely European girl and I were happily married with our first little bambino on the way.
PlanningHaving a capable and dependable partner would be essential for this project. Lucky for me, there was Marc. We had been climbing together for a few years and started doing some more challenging things recently. Among the various options we discussed, a traverse of the Matterhorn by way of the Lion and Hörnli Ridges seemed the most attractive. The traverse is described by Martin Moran in The 4000m Peaks of the Alps as “undoubtedly one of the finest expeditions in the Alps.” The route, approximately 2.5km long, transects the Matterhorn by the South-West (Lion) and North-East (Hörnli) Ridges. Moran describes the Lion Ridge as “a considerably finer and harder ascent than the Hörnli Ridge with several excellent and memorable rock pitches.” Descending the Hörnli Ridge would be “mentally and physically more taxing than the ascent” but it would reduce the likelihood of losing time, waiting in line at one of the many bottlenecks encountered en route. In the end, it was Marc that decided it by saying “yes, this is in the domain of the possible.” And so, in the early hours of one September morning, I picked up Marc at his place and we sped off to Zermatt in order to catch the first lift for the Klein Matterhorn station. We would have a long day ahead of us with a few unexpected surprises.
Ciao Italia!The objective of our first day was to reach the Jean Antoine Carrel bivouac hut, situated in Italy on the southwest side of the Matterhorn. Getting to the hut from Switzerland on the northeast side would require circumnavigating half of the mountain. This would involve taking a lift from Zermatt to the Klein Matterhorn station (3883m), walking down to the Testa Grigia station (3451m), taking the lift down to the Plan Maison station (2548m), hiking up to the Duke of Abruzzi hut (2802m) and climbing up to the Carrel bivouac hut (3835m). The final approach to the Carrel hut would be an AD- rated climb in itself.
Things got off to a good start. We arrived in Zermatt well before the lifts opened for the day and we managed to get to the Testa Grigia station around 10 AM. However, something didn’t look right when we arrived. The turnstiles were covered and the ticket booth was closed. The cable car, parked at the upper station, was being operated on by a man with a welding torch. D’oh! Neither of us bothered to check if the lifts were running on the Italian side. We consulted the map and considered our options.
We now had doubts of reaching the Carrel hut that day, so we figured the Abruzzi hut would be a more reasonable objective and we starting walking north toward the Theodulpass (3301m) in hopes of finding some sort of trail to descend. We managed to wind our way down to the Plan Maison station by a combination of scree slopes and game trails. On the way to the Abruzzi hut, we came across some odd-looking horned creatures that neither of us had seen before. Shortly after this strange encounter, we stopped for a lunch break.
Arriving at the Abruzzi hut around two o’clock, we came upon a group of Italians, talking and reclining on the lawn chairs outside. We walked around the hut, checking the doors, but the place was on lock-down. Strike two! I guess we could forget about staying there overnight. The Italians confirmed the hut was closed for the season and said they were heading up to the Carrel hut in the afternoon. Their cheerful attitudes must have provided the motivation we needed to go for the Carrel hut ourselves, so we started heading up to regain the 1300m of elevation we had just lost a few of hours ago.
Water became a concern at this point because we were nearly out of it and there was no guarantee that we would find any at the Carrel hut. Rather than risk being left high and dry, we drank up and refilled our bottles at a stream pouring over the trail at around 3300m. We later discovered that there was enough snow melting around the hut to replenish our supplies, but I don’t think either of us regretted the earlier decision after seeing the sanitary conditions higher up.
We also passed a few people coming down off the mountain. Some of them appeared exhausted, suggesting that it had been a long day regardless of whether or not they reached the summit. Others expressed disappointment, regaling us with horror stories of verglas-covered rock below the Pic Tyndall. Neither of us wanted to turn around and face another long day of slogging the ski slopes above Cervinia, so we would just have to hope for the best and deal with whatever came our way. With this in mind, we figured it could be a long summit day and perhaps reaching the Hörnli hut tomorrow would be the best case scenario, so we called ahead in anticipation of staying there the following night.
After a rather uneventful series of gully scrambles and scree-slope traverses, we arrived at the Colle del Leone (3580m) around 3:30 PM, much earlier than expected. From there, it wouldn’t be far to the hut, but we still had a few rock steps to negotiate before calling it a day. The first step, a short chimney, was quickly dispatched thanks to the large fixed rope. Then we climbed a polished slab where yet another fixed rope aided our way. We soon caught up with a group of climbers at the base of an impressive vertical corner with a fixed chain running down the middle. There was plenty of room, so we hauled ourselves up the chain and after a few more moves, we arrived at the hut, both relieved that the day was finally over and fired up to be exactly where we planned to be for tomorrow’s traverse.
The hut was already buzzing with activity and people kept arriving well into the evening. In what served as the kitchen and dining room, folks were boiling water, organizing their gear and eating dinner. The garbage bag was stuffed to the brink of overflowing, which suggested most occupants didn’t regard the advice of packing out their trash. A couple of Austrian fellows were showing off their mini ice tools to various admirers. We would see these guys tomorrow more than once. The adjacent dormitory housed twenty bunks on each side and we counted only a handful of vacancies by dinner time. Outside, a terrace wrapped around three sides of the hut, providing a nice view of the setting sun against the Valais peaks to the north, including the Dent Blanche, Ober Gabelhorn, Zinalrothorn and Weisshorn. Earlier that summer, I had the good fortune of joining some great partners to summit the first three of these mountains. And on each trip, I couldn’t help but look over to the Matterhorn and wonder when the time would be right for that one. It was getting cold and dark, so I went back inside to get some sleep. We would have another long day ahead of us, even if everything went well.
La Cresta del LeoneThe alarm function on my altimeter watch was useless that morning. Starting at least two hours before our agreed upon departure time of 4:30 AM, people began rustling around as part of the usual preparations for departure. Contrary to my usual tossing and turning all night, I managed to get some sleep before all the ruckus began. Around 3:30 AM, I suggested to Marc that we might as well head out because we were not going to get more rest around there anyway. With a little more cajoling, he agreed to get up at 4:00 AM and we were out the door at 4:30 AM, more or less as planned.
We started up the ridge with me in the lead. The climbing began abruptly with a few physical moves that would have been considerably harder if not assisted by either rope or chain. We moved together, each with a few coils of rope, pausing along the way to either clip a bolt or belay a steep pitch. As we continued up through the darkness, I started to have a hard time seeing which way to go. It didn’t take long for me to realize that something was wrong with my headlamp. It seemed awfully weak compared to Marc’s and the blinking red light confirmed that it was a battery problem. I tried swapping to the spares, but it was no use. Strike three! I’m out. Fortunately, Marc agreed to take the lead and he did a great job of route finding with his lithium-powered uber-torch to guide the way.
Dawn was beginning to break and the need for alternative light sources was fading away, so Marc took a break from leading and I headed up the west edge of a little ice field. There was some verglas, just as we had been warned, so I tried to navigate the slope carefully, placing an ice screw at a bend in the pitch. We joked about this so-called protection. It was 7:00 AM now and the sun was lighting a ridge immediately to the west of the Dent d’Herens. It was the kind of display that is worth getting up early to see. Marc took the next pitch, another mixture of rock and ice on the west side of the ridge, and we continued until we came to a horizontal section at a shoulder before the Pic Tyndall (4241m). We would have kept closer to the crest if there had not been so much snow and ice covering the bolts on the ridge. From here, we traversed and down-climbed to a gap with the final summit block.
This is where things started to get plugged up. We ran up against a group of four Czech climbers and the two Austrians then came up from behind us. We could see a few others ahead of the Czechs. At least we were all heading in the same direction. On the other side of the gap, climbing was straightforward but tedious. There was no room to pass and only one safe way led to the next pitch. We negotiated a section or two of fixed ropes before arriving at the Echelle Jordan. We clambered up the ladder and a few minutes later we arrived at the Italian summit (4476m). It was 11:30 AM. Better late than never!
There wasn’t much room by the cross, so we first let the Czechs do some celebrating and headed down after they cleared out. We snapped a photo or two and followed the ridge to the Swiss summit (4478m). Psychologically, it would have been natural to feel we had hit the half-way mark, but actually we had only finished one-third of the climb. The descent of the Hörnli Ridge would be 1220m of elevation loss versus the 650m we had just gained. The day was far from being over. We had better get moving!
HörnligratIt was at this point when Marc mentioned that his leg hurt. This didn’t bode well for us, since we were about to embark on what has been referred to as “a scramble of enormous proportions.” We would have to move together, avoid making rappels and hope to arrive at the hut before dark. The immensity of the descent hit us immediately upon looking down the ridge from the summit ice field. Three climbers were coming up to meet us and far away in the distance below them, we could just barely make out the Hörnli hut, our objective for the day.
The summit ice field was as steep as advertised, but we walked down it just fine with the help of a nice boot track. We passed the three climbers about mid-way down the slope and I wondered if we would see them again. The next section involved a series of steps with the first one more or less vertical. I climbed down the first step while on belay, using the fixed rope as an aide. After negotiating two more steps, we came upon the Shoulder (4250m) and stopped for a break.
The three climbers we crossed higher up now passed us at this point, speaking Spanish. We figured it would be good to follow them, so we got on our feet and started moving downhill again. The next section followed the ridge crest, moving to one side or the other at different times. Somewhere in here, we decided the route finding was straightforward enough and passed the three climbers we had been following. After negotiating the Upper Moseley Slab, we stopped to take a peek inside the Solvay hut (4003m) and found a couple of French climbers shooting the breeze. It was 4:00 PM.
At first, it wasn’t clear what these guys were doing. Were they just taking a break like us or were they planning to spend the night? Marc chatted with them a bit and it soon became apparent that they had come up earlier that day and planned to go for the summit the next morning. This seemed like a logical thing to do for anyone wanting to get a leg up on the others coming from the Hörnli hut, but the Solvay was supposed to be an “emergency bivouac hut” only to be used in case of emergency. I understood enough French to know that these guys were not having an emergency but were rather using the hut as a kind of advanced base camp. It’s hard to imagine how someone could spend a night there anyway, considering the tiny room is filled with the stench of the adjacent pit toilet. We continued down.
We almost missed the Lower Moseley Slab by climbing directly below the hut instead of continuing around the porch that surrounds it. This is where time began to pass as if we were in an alternate universe. Besides Marc’s leg, we were both feeling the effects of fatigue. It had been over twelve hours since we started that morning from the Carrel hut, something that seemed like an eternity ago. The down climbing and traversing that followed could be summarily described as an endless scramble. We continued to move together with varying lengths of cord between us. At one point, I tossed my coil of rope on the ground out of contempt for having to carry it all this way. It symbolized an enemy, seeking to impede our progress by choking me around neck and depriving me of the oxygen needed to survive.
From time to time, we would stop momentarily and look around just to be reassured that we were still following the ‘right’ way. This process was hopeless because there were so many variations, almost all of which were feasible, that we were just fooling ourselves. The only point where we really had doubts was near the top of a steep tower. We correctly followed the crest to the edge of the cliff, but we didn’t see the chimney until after an extended search. Once we found the right way again, everything clicked into sequence: couloir, fixed rope, tower, chimney, couloir, slabs and bang! We were at the hut. It was 8:00 PM and sunset was giving way to twilight. We stopped outside at one of the picnic tables, dropped our packs and took a few moments to gaze back up at the ridge we had just descended. Scanning the dark mountain, I saw three headlamps flickering in the distance, still high up on the ridge, and quietly said a prayer to myself, hoping that these guys return safe and thankful that we had come down just in time.
The MatterhornThat evening at the hut, Marc and I enjoyed a hearty dinner and some much needed rest. Before turning in for the night, we went outside to collect our gear and take one more look at the mountain, now faintly illuminated by the moon. We could still see the headlamps, now lower on the ridge and some other lights were flickering on the trail below the hut, presumably heading back down to Zermatt. It felt so nice to be done for the day with only a short hike down as our objective for tomorrow.
We both slept well past sunrise and moved rather slowly through the course of the next morning. Both of us were feeling the cumulative effects of two longs days, but Marc was hurting considerably more than the day before. We took our time on the hike down to the Schwarzsee lift station, occasionally stopping to snap photos or talk with passersby. Each time we stopped, I looked back at the mountain, reflecting on what we had done. And each time, I felt a wave of mixed emotions. It was great that we accomplished what was for us a challenging goal. Yet at the same time, it all seemed a bit silly.
Another friend of mine that did the traverse a few years ago said it was “like one big via ferrata.” I laughed the first time I heard this, but now I can see there is some truth to it. The mountain is well developed and for good reason. Without all the fixed ropes, chains, stakes, bolts and bivouac huts, most of us would not even consider climbing it. The paradox is that these manmade devices add to the safety of climbers while at the same time subtract from the wilderness experience of it all. For a mountain as popular as the Matterhorn, safety will understandably come first and climbers looking for something wild will be better off going elsewhere. Personally, I am glad that our experience on the Matterhorn went exactly as it did. We managed to get up and down despite facing some adversity. Marc deserves a lot of credit for pushing through the ordeal in spite of his injury and our wives deserve at least as much credit for tolerating our three-day absence for such an absurd pursuit.
Earlier this summer, I returned to Zermatt with the family and some friends. It was the first time I had been back since the climb and I was anticipating some sort of reconciliation to occur between me and the mountain. While hiking in the hills, we enjoyed panoramic views stretching from the Matterhorn to the Weisshorn, but my perspective toward these mountains and alpine climbing in general was somehow different. Priorities had changed since becoming a father. The Matterhorn didn’t evoke the same desire to conquer as before. Instead, I saw it as what it was…a special mountain, indeed, but still a mountain nonetheless.