Climbing Matterhorn in winter… a dream or a nightmare, or both at the same time - the most beautiful combination of fear and ecstasy.
To the list of our most idiotic ideas (climbing Mont Blanc
wearing jeans, Grossglockner
with broken arm, staying 3 weeks in Alps without tent while making eight 4000m peaks solo, hitchhiking 3 days to spend few hours on the glacier and then go back…) we can finally add “Hornligrat in winter”. Stories like this one needs to crystallize until they are ready to tell. We needed to go through it many times before we were sure how it really was. That took us one year: we did not make it to the top of the mountain… we did get to the top of ourselves. This is the TR of what you can meet climbing Matterhorn in winter.
Jck and I met in here, at Summit Post, but live in the same city. Before going to Switzerland we had plans that never fired: Caucasus
, South America etc. (We are very good at planning, best ones). It was going to be our first climb together: Matterhorn by Hornligrat in winter.
It was just like that:
-How about Matterhorn next month?
Somebody may find it reckless. Trying to climb a dangerous route in winter as the first climb together? The explanation is very easy. We spent hours, days and weeks in pubs discussing our abilities, experiences and building our friendship at the same time. Now we may say that it was very good decision. Some of the feelings are similar in the city and during the climb. I.e. lack of acclimatization and hangover…
In middle of March we stood at the last station of Matterhorn Express among skiers who were surprised by our presence. I remember the feeling. The mountain didn’t look as steep as from other places in the area, but was still spectacular. Heavy shape of giant pyramid acted like it was waiting for us. From this point our route to the top looked like it wouldn’t be difficult in orientation, a logical but exhausting line. (With strong accent on “it looked like”) We thought it would be perfect for winter: no loose rocks, no avalanches on the ridge, any crowds but solid as concrete snow – moderately difficult, dreamed about winter climbing.
Before the first look at the mountain from Schwarzsee which gave us the general (and wrong as it turned out later) idea about the mountain and the route, we got the basic idea how the whole trip would be like. We spent the previous night at Furri. We arrived there very late and decided to sleep just next to the mid station of the cable car. Finding an appropriate place took a little time, but finally we found one. We put out our sleeping-mats and jumped into sleeping bags. The night was very cold but our down sleeping bags ensured us comfortable night. I was sleeping well when Brade woke me up:
-Jacek, do you feel cold from the ground?
-F**k, I was laying next to my sleeping-mat.
-Well done Radek!
Funny and pitiful at the same time…but everything ends well.
Ascent to Hornli Hut
was not as easy as we expected. Almost perfect snow conditions got worse while we were getting higher. Traverses on lower parts of rocks with ladders were unpleasant due to snow conditions. We had some difficulties when I fell into a snow pocket very close to rocks with exposition on my left so I could move neither forward nor backward. Jck solved the problem by giving me his ice axe. Hard snow was covered with powder or powder was covered with hard snow. In both cases it meant falling into deep snow holes and exhausting digging tunnel by the leader. Jck took the lead breaking trail, using all means, including crawling.
It seemed that even weather got worse with altitude – sun hid by a strange cloud-mist. The summit was spreading its snow with strong wind. We saw the mountain’s north face for the first time and a profile of Hornli Ridge. This view gave us another impression of difficulties we are going to meet. I guess we both said: “Easy, looks like lot of work, but easy”. The last steep part below Hornli Hut was full of fresh soft snow, sadly too soft. Zigzagging in powder with loose rocks under it, searching for the right route, gave as the taste of what we would be trying to climb the next day.
North face Begining of the route
We reached the hut at the right time. The winds were picking up, big snow flakes were whirling in the air. We cooked inside, enriching our menu with products left by other climbers few months ago: Slovakian soups, Polish cacao, Russian tins, Slovenian sausage – perfect meal, morale got better. Time for rest.
It was a big relief for us. We carried a tent with us because we weren’t sure if the hut is opened during the winter. So when we realized that we would spend that night in warm (around 0 Celsius), calm and comfortable place we felt very happy. The all inclusive kitchen was also a big deal. We were searching through all those products and it came to us that all the food was left by East European climbers.
(Greetings to Bulgarian Team: they had to spend few days in the hut because they wrote a day-schedule i.e. 10 o’clock- waking up, 10:30- getting up, then bouldering…. we couldn't stop laughing).
The next day we started with first sun rays. Because we were alone on ridge and there were no tracks on the route, we thought it would be better for us to climb with day light for better orientation. It was my first time on Matterhorn, Jck had already tried soloing Lion Ridge
but returned at 4000m due to snowfall, so we didn’t know the way. We both had an idea of playing it safe, not fast. If it would be necessary, we were prepared for bivy on the route. We took only the most necessary equipment: down sleeping bags, down jackets, cooker, food for 4 days, single 60m long rope, a few long slings, carabineers, ice screws, nuts, pitons and a hammer (just in case). Despite reducing equipment to minimum, the backpacks seemed to be a little too heavy.
First step was steep perfect rock covered with huge amount of powder snow, which we did fast and got the satisfaction from a good start. We could see thin old ropes on this pitch that were frozen to the rocks but mainly hidden under the snow. A short walking part and I did it again…fell into small crevasse hidden under the snow. Partner helped me once again. We reached the upper part of the ridge by an unpleasant chimney full of lose stones, covered with fresh powder snow. We realized that there is almost no ice and hard-as-concrete snow which normally would keep loose rocks in its place. The snow cover was definitely unstable.
Our tactic was discussed once again: climbing straight the ridge line as long as possible, with a minimum passages and traverses, maximum on rocks for any possibility of belaying points, me on lead all the time. In practice it looked like we were climbing rock almost all the time and sometimes in steep unstable snow. The points we were using for belay climbing up the ridge were probably normally used for rappels so rocky pitches were rather steep, exposed and bit more difficult. The rock was of very poor quality with many lose stones, unfriendly hand holds and steps. Climbing it with heavy backpack and with crampons wasn’t as big fun as we had expected. It took us a lot of time but climbing difficult rocks was much safer than changing direction to the regular route traverse into East face. We climbed another very steep powder snow slope and put it behind us, reaching an airy ridge rock section.
Jck climbing Hörnligrat
The major problem was finding the right route. We knew that we were climbing the ridge by variants and the normal route sometimes only. We had photos of the route and studied many topos before leaving, but had no use of them in these conditions. The conditions forced us to do the ridge in our way. We stopped many times guessing which way to go. The difficulties of the climb held the same level almost all the time. The route seemed to be very irrational and finding the right one wasn’t fun. The line definitely wasn’t a logical one. The only thing we were sure about was that we were gaining altitude. The snow up on the ridge was deeper than we expected to. Climbing required maximum focus on every movement, we had the worst tempo ever. Like in nightmares it started to snow too, so now we had two more problems added, more powder snow and worsening visibility. Despite bad climbing weather, the giant step and exposed parts of ridge was a great pleasure (good rock quality). I was getting bad feelings about the climb, due to the extreme snowfall and winds picking up. We discussed the possibility of retreat twice, but remained on the way up. Solvay Hut was close and we were determined to reach it, without bivying on the route.
One of the most nightmarish parts I remember climbing, were the passage on the north face with no chances of belay. We were traversing steep, exposed terrain with huge loose rocks that were hidden by powder snow and rolling down the north face with every single step. Like on snow minefield – no mistakes possible. You definitely would not want to slip here with those boulders.
Another nightmare happened much higher up. I became stuck while climbing a difficult rock part with the last belay very low down. I had to climb down and place it in very poor rock rappel point from a piton. I was absolutely not satisfied with the sound it was making while hammering. I clipped into the rappel which wasn’t pretty. Luckily I made it safe down to the bottom. (My EX found that piton in Tatra Mountains.
Is it ok she doesn’t know it saved my ass?) The right path was 40m on our left! Weather was really bad at this moment. We both were rather cold. Wind were picking up once again. I had a feeling that not much depended on our climbing experience, but on the mountain’s mood. Every step we did, we did with maximum care. Snow conditions were tragic.
We both agree that it was the most difficult pitch. Brade was fighting with difficult rock cracks, while I was belaying from a very steep snowfield. The protection was good, but my position was not. Standing for 45 minutes only on front teeth of crampons was killing my calves. I was shaking because of the cold (I wore only a jumper, the rest of my clothes was in backpack) and swearing at Brade, what did take him so long? I didn’t realise that he was in a much worse situation.
Then the whiteout was gone for a moment. When we saw Solvay Hut
some minutes later, I felt extremely tired. Knowing the direction, we climbed last section to the hut much faster. We found 3 iced belays on this pitch. I was so exhausted that I had not enough power in my hands to gather in the rope from my closing partner with the right speed. My gloves were so much damaged that I could see my white fingers trough the holes. I was bleeding but could not feel it. When we were standing at Solvay’s balcony, it was snowing heavily again. I said not a single word while I untied the rope and entered hut, leaving my partner outside in blizzard to gather in the rope. Never before felt so tired. We had been climbing about ten hours with very short breaks, half way in still worsening snowfall, me leading all the way up. We were almost totally out of energy because ate only one power bar and drank only 0,5l water for two during action. It was too much for me, a safe place made me sleepy. I ate some food prepared by Jck, drank, rapidly vomited and fell asleep – it was the end of the day. End of the test – we both passed.
For me it was little bit depressing- seeing Brade so exhausted. He was the father of our successful climb to Solvay Hut so I had to become his mother in the hut. I gave him something to drink and to eat - after that he gave me alternatives: Jacek, I’ll lose consciousness or I’ll puke. He chose the second option and that was very specific way to say “good morning” to our new home for next three days.
Monte Rosa Group
Breithorn's North Face
You would not like to be there...
It was snowing all night long. We both woke up in absolute darkness when two massive avalanches one after another were shaking the mountain. Sound of snow and rocks rolling down the face was pretty scary, like earthquake. Despite hut made noises and vibrate we felt safe in our warm down sleeping bags. We knew that there would be no chance to attack the summit, no chance to descend. We were imprisoned. Solvay Hut
became our place for next tree days… very long days. So far from home, so far from life we know.
After one avalanche I started to think: is it better to fall down during the climb or is it better to be blown away with the hut like this? Pros for the first option were simple: you would have a great view! But analyzing all the cons I decided that our situation was quite good. During the sleep, in warm and comfortable sleeping bag…we were just lucky guys. Paranoia.
We got up with a hangover caused by height and it was still snowing. The terrace was covered with half meter of fresh snow. Going outside even on the balcony was dangerous. Powder lied on ice. The good side of our situation was that we could collect soft snow for cooking without leaving the hut. We started to cook - that’s how two hours passed. The cheese was frozen, the sweets too. After the meal we went to sleep again, like children.
Our rest was interrupted by sound of a helicopter. That meant the weather had got better. We were too lazy to check it on sight and got up later. We both knew that the day was already lost. Outside everything was white, blinding sun was reflected in powder snow. Views were great: Monte Rosa
looked much bigger than in summer, because snow covered everything and the entire glacier became a piece of it. We were admiring the shapes of Dom
, we didn’t know them from that angle. The heavily corniced north face of Breithorn
amazed us with it’s similarity to the wall of Broad Peak.
The Italian side seemed to be quiet and absolutely deserted. Looking far in that direction made me peaceful; looking down on the route –nervous; inside the hut - simply angry, but looking up… well, no comments. Leaving for the final summit push was like a dream. There was a remote chance that we would reach it without killing ourselves.
We stood in the opened doors when one more heli hanged very close in front of us. It was full of Japanese tourists photographing us. I guess they were as much surprised as we to meet someone up here. After one minute the helicopter headed for the Matterhorn’s top. That was sad and depressing. We dreamed about reaching the summit and they could see it without any effort. During our stay in Solvay Hut
we had at least ten visits like that. Some of them we ignored, but when we were in a better mood we posed to photos, having fun of the company. Those were rare moments. We were rather dominated by feelings of disappointment, anger and boredom. In cases of boredom we were acting like children and try to oversleep it. The sad truth is we went Matterhorn to sleep, not climb it.
I was in a better mood than Brade. We had contact with our friends and families by mobile phones. He was sending SMSes to his girlfriend and family describing the whole situation but not mentioning some more or less important facts i.e. that we were imprisoned there, we didn’t know how to get down in these conditions etc. The replies he received contained care and love. My situation was slightly different. This littlle difference was that nobody from my family knew that I was attempting Matterhorn. I told my parents that we’d go to Italy to do some hiking. Also some of my friends didn’t know, so one day I got message: How is your sightseeing trip?
The most enthusiastic moment came when I received another message: You passed the exam. (In the day of our departure I was writing an exam at my studies.) After that for few moments we were cheerful and little bit more optimistic.
Receiving info about passed exam when you are trapped on Matterhorn in winter at 4000 meters - priceless…
Using the toilet at Solvay Hut
was mere fun. It is a hole in the floor with unforgettable view of North Face. I guess that normally things go out through the hole, now the snow came in through it. The strong wind turned the snowflakes inte bullets, shooting up from the hole, straight at our poor exposed ends. Sitting or standing next to it was great challenge we had to undertake.
When there was no storm at night we could see lights of Zermatt. I wondered if someone from the city those days thought about two guys being trapped on the mountain he was looking at. Were they able to notice our headlamps? These city lights were so close and far at the same time – watching night scenery I felt our loneliness much stronger. This remote hut seems to be specially designed for observing romantic panorama of Zermatt by night. Check this out in winter.
From right: Alphubel, Täschhorn and Dom as seen from Solvay Hut
Weather was unstable, temperature too. Perfect sunny sky turned into whiteouts and into sunny sky, one after another. We both suffered because of cold – probably it would be easier to handle low temperatures if we had any serious reason to move (despite preparing food). Luckily my reheated hands got better. We were spending the time waiting for the snow to get heavier, melt or wind blown, so we could move up… or down. That was like waiting for spring to come, but we couldn’t wait that long. We needed to be back in the valley on time – our friend’s car was going to pick us up and take us home. Pressure of time was annoying.
(Hope this chapter was as boring as these tree days. For better understanding of our situation please read The ‘Vegetating’ part three times, this will help you to feel right.)
After spending three long days doing nothing, except worrying about descent, the final decision was made: if the weather lets us, we are going down. Matterhorn did not allow us to summit it, this time. We hoped that snow would be stable enough to make a smooth and good styled retreat. But it was still too soft and neither of us were content with descending in such conditions. We started with the first sunrays. It was quiet, no helicopters, cold wind and deep snow only. Before making the first step of our journey down, Jck noticed a black butterfly and two black crows a few seconds later, finding it funny to have such company. For me it meant something different “Two signs of death at the same time? What the f…? Butterflies don’t fly at 4000m in winter. No way. We are doomed”. It seems funny while sitting at home but then, on ridge, I felt cold iron on my neck.
Traverse of E face, Matterhorn Hornli Ridge. Jck during descent
Leaving the hut was very tough, we both remembered how difficult was to get here. We knew that our statement to make it “safe not fast” was best idea to solve problem of descent. Soft snow was tricky, first steps reminded us about the horror of our ascent. This time it was much worse. Every move we made on any side of the ridge was a beginning of small powder avalanche. None of us was willing to slip with masses of fresh snow mixed with loose rocks to the bottom of East face. The Mountain was searching for our weaknesses. With every breath I tasted fear in cold thin air. Safest and the most logical way of descent was to rappel. Finding good abseiling points on Hornligrat in winter, after three days of heavy snowfall, have not much to do with the fun we call mountaineering. It is rather like hard work on mine field.
'Slow and safe'
Rappeling giant step
Downclimbing- East Face traverse
For me, the most memorable moment of our way down was the rocky chimney (not on the normal route we guess, it’s much closer to the ridge- classical route goes through the fields of East face in that place)- not very high but below it was a very steep snowfield- if you fell you would stop at the bottom of East face. No possibility of placing a belay or abseiling point (we rated that chimney about IV/IV+, so down climbing it with heavy backpacks and crampons wasn’t easy). I dug my ice-axe in fresh snow, trying to wedge it in the rocks below the snow surface. It didn’t work so I put all my body weight on the ice-axe making illusory protection. Brade is much better rock climber than me so I hoped he wouldn’t fall. He also knew that in case of fall I had minimum chances of stopping the fall. He made a sign of the cross and started to down climb the chimney. After few minutes I heard him yelling from the bottom of the chimney: Shit…that was the hardest thing I’ve ever climbed…
Great motivation for me…
Staying calm while climbing down in the unstable snow was as important as finding safe rap points. We needed hundreds of these because our rappels couldn’t be longer than 30m. When we got to point with ’no idea were to go’ I lost the way and abseiled a rope length into North Face and had to climb back one a pitch. Escaping from North Face caused stone/snow avalanche, but it gave me an unforgettable feeling of touching this side of Matterhorn in winter. These were longest 100fts in my life because it’s giant drop made me feel really small. Beautifully place. After reaching the ridge and saying “wrong direction” I made the same mistake by losing the way by a rappel on East Face. It was a total waste of precious time and energy. That part of route leads straight on an airy ridge.
Luckily weather was much better than during last days. It made me sad because it was also good day for the summit. We had no time to make it to the top. We needed to descent and be on time in Tasch. We had almost no chance to talk descending hour after hour after hour.
When we are talking about whole the way down we cannot count all the problems we met. In my opinion it would be enough for five more trips. But the more problems you solve, the stronger you are. I think that also helped us during the descending.
Standing at the top of huge step preparing for rappel Jck lost his figure 8. The sound it made falling from height on powder snow covered rock was brilliant. From that place all the way down Jck was using half hitch knot. We had some more problems… rope frozen and untying knots was almost impossible. “We’ve got to get off this mountain.”
One of the scariest passages for me was the rappel on the North face (we definitely weren’t at the right way). East side of the mountain was too prone to avalanches, the ridge was very narrow and the rocks were very rotten in that place so we decided to lower on the North face- it was steeper than East so there was less snow. We threw the rope down and started to rappel but the rope was too short so we had to untie, climb few meters placing front teeth of crampons in a narrow vertical crack on almost horizontal rock wall, without belaying and good hand holds - just balance, like the tight-rope walker. Definitely too difficult for me…
If you look down from the ridge you will see just the next step. You don’t know how far is to the hut. All the time I came to edge of the next step I hoped that I would see the steep snowfield after which is the final rocky part above the hut. So when we passed all the characteristic points at the upper part of the ridge (i.e. high crack with fixed old rappel ropes) we were a little bit confused: maybe this ridge never ends? The sun was lower and lower, we also felt that we were lower but we couldn’t spot the end. Each step was teasing us with the vision of the hut just below…
Small figure of Jck during our descent of Hörnligrat
Climbing down was a kind of a deep trance. Every movement was studied inside to make it in safest and optimal way. We still had difficulties in finding right way, none of our tracks was left after the snowfall. Our hopes to live through it in one piece, was restored any time we reached a recognizable point. It is still hard to remember right sequence of route parts because we both were focused on each step, not views. For me descending was to give myself into hands of my basic instincts and experience, listening to body, not mind. Jck was so concentrated he didn’t notice losing one glass from his sunglasses. Who knows how long he would be abseiling without it if I didn’t notice it.
(I left these sunglasses in Hornli Hut- if somebody has found them, please let me know…)
When we reached the last step, the sun was coming down. Remember chatting few minutes for the first time that day, admiring our clothes covered with snow and ice, broken glasses, sundown. Rappelling last meters from over hanged rock was one of the most beautiful feelings in my life. “We did it, we descended”. I landed in deep snow laughing and lied in it, waiting for my partner Jck. Sky was red at the moment. Descending from Solvay Hut
to Hornli Hut
took us 11 hours while normally it is about 4 hours from the top.
We both need that chat. There were so many feelings that we would like to share with each other about the climb, but the dominating thought was: “yep, done”. We were wrong, badly wrong…
During the night storm hit once again. Fresh powder snow carried by howling wind was covering everything. We were imprisoned once again, but had no time for it - only 24 hours were left. We decided to descend when it would stop blowing heavily, so we could find the way. At noon weather was good enough to leave, but visibility was still average. Snow was deeper than the day before and some formations were up to a chest.
The Mountain didn’t let us off so easily. The steep section below Hornli Hut was true horror. Jck’s breaking trail efforts were futile. We were unwillingly slipping down the slope, afraid to cause an avalanche. It would be pretty sad to die in such way after all the things we survived. We had to traverse and downclimb a lot in dangerous deep snow, to reach safer terrain. Full body climbing with joints aching and pulsing red warning light in ones head. This part was so scary that we changed our plan. We wanted to avoid traverses in the lower parts of the shoulder secured with ladders. The reason was that we were afraid of the big avalanche potential we were sure to meet there too. “Swimming” in soft snow we continued our descent straight down to the ski slope.
We discussed that part few months after the climb concentrating on our motivation. What made us to do it without thinking “what if…?” Traversing through a very steep snowfield with fresh snow up to your neck is not the thing you would likely prefer to do. You have to do something with your mind - focus on one thought to let your body work, without being paralyzed by fear. Brade told me that he was telling himself: If Jck could do this without problems I could do this too… We were laughing when I told him that I was thinking the same way: I must go, because he’s behind me and climbing so well in these conditions…
The North Face of Matterhorn after our descent of Hörnli Ridge
We really enjoyed ourselves through all the suffering and pain we met on ridge until Jck fell between giant boulders, badly injuring his leg. “Matterhorn got us on the last meters!” He had to suffer a little more, but the great satisfaction at the end of a day compensated. We reached a ski route at sundown, having it all for ourselves to descent in, as all skiers were already in Zermatt. It was high time to say it loud: “We have been cheating death for last seven days” and cry, we survived but didn’t make it to the top. Bittersweet glory.
The problem was quite simple - after making it all the way down, reaching peaceful snowfields made us less concentrated. Nothing bad could happen there. We just made step after step heading down to the ski trail visible few hundreds meters below. I didn’t take into consideration the fact that I had twisted the knee a few times- last time just two months before our climb. And I didn’t think about the rocks under the snow so it had to end that way: I heard my right crampon cracking on the rock and felt pain in my knee. Brade would like to help me with descending, but he knew that he couldn’t. He did what had to be done: ran through all those snowfields finding the best way for me to descend while I was crawling following him. I was thinking about Joe Simpson- he is the guy, without the doubts!
Finally we pushed on through severe conditions to a successful descent of Matterhorn’s Hornli Ridge during the winter of 2006. That cost us damaged gloves, sunglasses, leaving piton, carabiner, slings, losing figure 8, friend #2 and 10 up to 15% of our bodyweight, the Mountain gave us a good mountaineering schooling and some new answers for standard questions instead:
“Your best climb ever?
Matterhorn - Winter
…and the worst one?
Thanks toLolli for correcting whole the text.
Dow Williams- for good intentions.
Pilot and Mały for sending us weather forecasts.
Agnieszka for info.
Żaba and Patryk for transport.
Ania for support.
In memory of...
In memory of three Polish climbers who died on February 8, 2007 during their second winter attempt of Hornli Ridge, Matterhorn and three Bulgarian climbers who died on Matterhorn few days before Poles' tragedy. That was also their second attempt...