There is something primal about the Matterhorn that stirs the soul of the mountaineer. Whether it's the seemingly knife edge ridges or the imposing North Face, the mountain has a visage that inspires lust and fear in equal measure. I knew from the moment that I first laid eyes on the mountain that I would have some corner of my brain that would gnaw at me until I had climbed it. Despite it's popularity and the relatively moderate nature of it's primary routes there are few other mountains in the world that appealed to me as much as the Matterhorn.
I first saw the Matterhorn in person earlier in the summer when the Mrs and I had hiked the Haute Route. At the end of our trek we spent two days in Zermatt and I saw the Matterhorn from a number of different angles, each aspect reminding me of why I get so excited when I am in the high mountains. I had booked a guide for the Matterhorn about 9 months before I climbed it and it seems that there was little else on my mind during the run up to my trip. Whenever the Mrs and I would go hiking that year I found each hike we did motivated me more and more for climbing the Matterhorn.
The build up
Finally in September I flew into Geneva to begin my excursion in the Alps. I acclimatized for the Matterhorn by climbing the Breithorn and Pollux. I was originally going to be climbing the Matterhorn with Kevin the same guide I had used for the Breithorn and Pollux. However, Kevin asked if it was okay if one of his friends, Jonny, guided me instead. That was fine with me so Kevin drove me to Tasch on Tuesday morning and we met Jonny in the parking lot there and we caught a taxi to Zermatt. Jonny was a Scottish aspirant guide who was just about qualified as a fully certified IFMGA guide. He had done the Matterhorn 6 times previously and seemed pretty keen for this attempt.
After arriving in Zermatt we caught a ski lift to the Schwarzee hotel and built up some energy with a bowl of pomme frites for lunch. From there a signpost indicates that it is a two hour hike to the Hornli hut. We set off at a pretty good pace and made it there in an hour and a half. The hut was fairly empty when we got there but we could begin to see more people coming up the trail and some people trickling down the mountain.
I talked to a few American guys who had just come down and they said that the route was in excellent shape and they only had to use crampons at the very top of the mountain. This was stellar news as the mountain had been in pretty bad shape just a few days previously with lots of verglass on the rocks. Jonny had even had to turn back with some clients when they reached the Solvay hut because of the ice.
I sat out on the veranda for much of the rest of the afternoon studying the mountain and finding myself much impressed (and a bit scared) with its profile. It was really starting to sink in that I was actually going to set foot on the mountain the next day. Throughout the afternoon more and more people started arriving at the hut and it was obvious that there would be a fair number of people on the mountain the next day. Dinner wasn't until 7:00 that evening so I had a bit of time to kill.
Unfortunately I hadn't brought a book with me up to the hut so I mostly just lounged in the dining room of the hut and talked to a few of the other climbers there and called the Mrs on my mobile. Dinner finally rolled around a few hours later to a packed dinning room. It wasn't too bad a meal considering we were staying in a helicopter serviced hut. Jonny and I stayed up until about 9:00 and then headed to our room which we had to share with 4 other guys. I didn't sleep at all that night, I kept thinking about the next days climb and I'm a border line insomniac anyway. I found that as the night progressed I was getting more and more excited about the climb and not quite believing that I would soon be ascending the Matterhorn's storied slopes.
We finally rolled out of bed at 4:10 the next morning and got our gear ready and joined the throng for breakfast. After breakfast we kitted up quickly and made it out of the hut at 4:45. As soon as we started we could already see a number of headlamps shining pretty high up the mountain.
Traffic jams at 14,000 feet
On the Swiss summit, with the Italian summit behind
As soon as we left the hut we had too join a queue (which would be a pretty familiar experience the rest of the day) at the base of the cliff wall at the start of the Hornli ridge. The cliff was about 30 feet tall and had fixed ropes leading up it. We had to wait for about 4 other parties to climb the cliff and then we finally got started on the route proper.
From here onwards we had to deal with severe congestion on the route. The early stages didn't have many fixed ropes but the terrain was fairly steep and the ridge quite narrow so it was difficult overtaking people. I had heard a lot of stories about how the route itself is pretty loose and not that all that much fun but I found the rock to be quite stable and I really enjoyed the scrambling.
Our goal was to make it to the Solvay Hut in three hours or less. The Solvay hut pretty much sits on top of a cliff (about 1000 ft below the summit) so when we got near the base of it we had to wait a good twenty minutes or so as there were about six groups in front of us and each guide was belaying their client to the hut. But we eventually got our turn and made it to the hut 2.5 hours after we left the Hornli hut. We had originally planned to take a break at the Solvay hut but we decided to push on ahead to see if we could beat the crowds.
The sun had come out just before we reached the Solvay hut and the view down the Hornli Ridge was pretty impressive. The exposure was tremendous and even though the terrain wasn't the toughest the exposure itself makes the route feel bigger and harder than it is. After the Solvay hut we had to climb along airy ledges and aretes above the North Face of the mountain. At this point we were beginning to see more and more snow.
Eventually we reached a point were we had to put on crampons as the snow was getting pretty steep. There were quite a few other people that were putting crampons on near us but fortunately we got ours on first and ended up passing about 5 parties at the snowfield. We then had a slog up the snow slope until we reached the upper fixed ropes. At this point we ran into some traffic again and it was pretty difficult to pass people. We also had some local guides catch up to us as we were waiting in the queues to climb the ropes. It was chaos at a few of the points on the ropes. We would be trying to pass slower parties above us while some of the local guides would catch up to us at our belay stance and wrap their rope around the metal stanchions above ours.
On the summit with views of the Breithorn
After a couple of hundred feet of fixed ropes we made it to the crux section which was a 15 foot overhanging cliff. Normally this would be a piece of cake but with crampons on and a pack it raised the pulse a little to climb up the rope. It didn't take me long though and pretty soon we passed the last fixed rope and were on the upper snow slopes to the summit. From here we must have climbed about 10 or 15 minutes and I saw a statue of the Madonna in the snow. This got me pretty excited as I assumed the summit must be pretty close. And indeed a few minutes later we topped out onto the summit after 4.5 hours of climbing.
The summit ridge of the Matterhorn is quite spectacular and worthy of the route. It is very narrow and falls a good vertical mile or so on all sides. You would think that after climbing such an awe inspiring peak that you would stop and enjoy top for awhile but we soaked in the view for only about five minutes and then started the descent to see if we could avoid some of the traffic. I didn't even reflect on the climb and what an accomplishment it was when we were on the summit but I guess this was because I was already thinking about the descent as this would be just as challenging as the ascent.
We made it down the upper snow slopes pretty quickly and only encountered a couple of other rope teams in the upper sections. Once we made it to the fixed ropes Jonny and I simul-climbed to save some time. It was much faster going down these ropes than it was ascending them. Surprisingly, we didn't meet any other parties on the ropes and sooner than I expected we were down the ropes and at the base of the snowfield where we had first put crampons on. We decided to leave the crampons on for a while longer and continued our descent.
Pretty soon we made it to the Solvay hut and again kept on moving without taking a break. Below the Solvay hut we ran into some local guides on their descent. Jonny happened to know one of them and we pretty much followed them down the rest of the mountain. We really had to pay attention on the way down as a slip could produce quite a long fall. But for good or bad there is a lot of iron pounded into the Matterhorn and we kept a running belay off of the many stanchions that litter the route.
It had been dark earlier in the morning almost all the way to the Solvay hut so I was surprised about how different the route looked to me in the daylight. One thing for sure was that the ridge looks awfully impressive on the way down as you really get a sense of the steepness and exposure of the route with every step you take. We kept plugging along and eventually made it to the first fixed rope which we got down pretty quickly. We untied from our rope at the base of the fixed rope and had a short hike back to the Hornli hut.
It took us just under 3.5 hours to descend so all told we did the route in 8 hours which is a pretty good time especially considering the amount of traffic that we ran into. Jonny thought that we would have done it in less than 7 hours if there hadn’t been so much traffic, the guidebooks estimate about 11 hours round trip so we were both pretty happy with our progress.
The veranda in front of the Hornli Hut was pretty crowded when we got there but we were able to grab a picnic table and sort out our gear. It was really hot at the hut but fortunately I had brought a pair of shorts with me so I changed in these for our hike back to the ski lift. While we were changing an elderly American guy asked me if I had made the summit I happily told him yes, and then he told me that he had climbed it 40 years ago. We had a chat for a few minutes and then Jonny and I headed out. We descended from the hut at a pretty fast clip and made it to the Schwarzee lift about an hour later. Normally I hate man-made intrusions into mountainous areas but I sure was thanking God for the ski lift that hot day, I would not have wanted to hike the additional 2 hours down into the valley! Once we reached the valley we had a celebratory lunch of Zermatter burgers and beer at the Brown Cow pub and then made our way back to the taxi station to catch a ride back to Jonny's car.
Thinking back on the climb I have two points of regret. The first was that I hardly took any photos especially on the descent. I was so preoccupied with the climbing that I missed out on what could have been some spectacular shots on the way down. The second was the amount of people that were on the mountain. The day we climbed there were over 100 other people on the same route. This made for a harried ascent and I wasn't quite as able to enjoy the ridge as much as I could have.
But all told this was a superb climb. The weather was all that we could ask for, brilliant sun with hardly any clouds. Jonny indicated that this was the best climb he had had up the Hornli Ridge and that the mountain was in the best shape he had seen it for a long time. I was pretty chuffed that I made the climb and I thought the uniqueness of the position, the length and exposure of the route and the history of the mountain made this a classic climb that won't be easily surpassed. Crowds be damned, in the end when you climb a route as spectacular as this one you can forgive some of the frustrations along the way.
One thing is for sure though, mountaineering gets in your blood and doesn't let go, particularly when you climb something like the Matterhorn. The mountains must be a narcotic of sorts to me because as soon as I have summited a mountain like the Matterhorn all I can think about is what the next one will be and can I find one even more fulfilling. Well the next one was Mont Blanc. But the one that really captured my imagination while I was in the Alps was the Weisshorn. Hopefully when the time is right I will have a chance to tackle that mighty peak.