The landmark of Switzerland: you admire it on postcards, you stuff it in your mouth in the form of Toblerone. Inspiration and aspiration for climbers all around the world. Climbed by thousands. Final destination for several hundreds. In summer it resembles an Autobahn and trip reports sound like nightmares. Some people sardonically call it Switzerland’s biggest pile of rubble.
I never really thought about climbing Matterhorn. Particularly not in late November.
Monday, November 7th
It all started with a typical Jaime-Marian email conversation:
Marian: Have you read the trip report from these two guys who climbed Matterhorn in March?
Jaime: With respect to Matterhorn… Come on, these guys are losers! OK, OK, we are also losers, it’s true… but anyway… I don’t see the problem… It’s not really winter yet and I think that anyway it is not that terribly difficult…
Saturday, November 12th
We take the first cablecar from Zermatt to Schwarzsee, at about 2600 m, where we arrive at 9 am. Perfect weather. The plan is to ascend to Hörnlihütte within two hours.
“Hmm, there’s much more snow than we thought….and no beaten path, yet.”
3.5 hrs later we arrive at Hörnlihütte at 3300 m, thirsty and already exhausted. Naturally, we haven’t been above 3000 m in months.
After taking a break for almost one hour we reach the start of Hörnli Ridge at 14:00. Knowing that we only have 3 hours of daylight left, we tell ourselves that we simply have to climb fast to reach the Solvay bivvy at 4003 m before nightfall. Yeah, right….
At 16:00 we’ve barely climbed 150 vertical meters, basically debating about where to go with every step. Not so easy being fast when you don’t know the way.
We rappel and descend back to the cottage where we meet two Slovenian mountain guides who are going to attempt the north face. We have dinner and discover that there’s an animal living in the pipe of the kitchen stove.
After a good night’s sleep we head back down to Zermatt, drive to Zürich and agree that we’ll climb Matterhorn in early summer.
Tuesday, November 15th
Jaime: With respect to the weekend… I have some plans, but I only can think about taking Friday off and climb Matterhorn…
Marian: The weather forecast looks good…
Jaime: Can you take Friday off?
Friday, November 18th
We arrive in Zermatt at noon, Schwarzsee at 13:00, Hörnlihütte at 15:30. The weather is perfect, not a single cloud and temperatures around -6°C. We’re in a good mood, have dinner and go to bed early. The plan is to start climbing at 6:00 the next morning.
At midnight I wake up to some noise. Something or someone is ravaging my bag with food that I left on the floor. I turn on my head lamp and make the acquaintance of our little friend from the stovepipe: a young Hermelin. It’s not shy at all and just stares at me. I put some dry pasta on the floor, pack away my food and go back to bed.
Saturday, November 19th
The alarm goes off at 5:00.
It’s very cold in the cottage and we spend a lot of time melting snow to make coffee and hydrate properly. After gearing up, we head into the cold dawn and reach the start of Hörnli Ridge at 6:45.
Knowing the first part of the climb, we are a bit faster this time. After a good hour we reach the turn-around point of the previous attempt. From here, the route follows a sharp and exposed ridge for a while, making route-finding easier. Most of the holds and horizontal surfaces are covered with snow, so we carefully climb with running belay, placing nuts and cams as we go. After the ridge, the route turns left into the east face to circumvent some rock towers on the ridge. Here, many more or less stable, steep snow fields need to be crossed and route-finding is again quite tricky. Basically, one could go in any direction, everything looks climbable and the whole mountain is littered with old pegs and sling belays.
We get higher and higher, crossing some snow-filled couloirs, always staying in the east face of the mountain. The route winds up the face below two distinct towers and a traverse leads to the lower Moseley Slab, directly under the Solvay bivvy at 4003 m. The slab is snow free and an easy scramble. At noon we open the door of the bivvy shelter and take a look inside. We deposit our sleeping bags and unnecessary gear there, take a lunch break and continue climbing at around 12:45.
Directly behind Solvay the upper Mosely Slab is waiting for the keen mountaineer. This is supposed to be the crux of the climb, but I found other parts of the route much harder. I guess this means that we were often off-route. After the slab, the climbing becomes very enjoyable, following up an exposed ridge with solid rock. Route finding is also straightforward from here on. The ridge rises up to the “shoulder”, a somewhat flatter part of the climb that leads to the summit ridge. This part was almost completely covered by ice.
It is 14:15 now, only 3 hours of daylight left. Although the summit looks so close from here, we decide to play it safe. We turn around and rappel to Solvay where we drink lots of liquids and prepare a huge dinner. At 18:00 we crawl into our thin sleeping bags, covered with plenty of felt blankets.
A long night begins. I can’t fall asleep. My heart is racing to pump enough blood to my stomach in order to digest all the food. The thin air does the rest. I can feel every heartbeat in my head and with every pulse my ears move a bit and touch the fabric of my sleeping bag, making a scratching sound. I twist and turn until I properly fall asleep at around 3:30 am.
Sunday, November 20th
The alarm goes off at 5:00.
A new day. Summit day.
We spend an hour melting snow and eat some chocolate. I don’t really feel like a hearty breakfast. After gearing and roping up we step out onto the tiny balcony that hovers over the east face of Matterhorn. Again, we already know the first part of today’s climb and reach the shoulder quickly. Here, we finally put on crampons, grab our ice tools and start climbing the ice covered slabs. After that we find ourselves on another exposed ridge that leads to the fixed ropes of the “Dach” (roof). This is a section of steep and smooth rock just below the summit snow field. We pull ourselves up the ropes, a very exhausting exercise at 4400 m. In our heads we already see us standing at the summit, thinking “and now we just have to quickly climb the snow field”.
Standing at the foot of the snow field we can’t even see the summit. And most of the protection is covered by a meter of fresh snow. This mountain just doesn’t seem to end. Some helicopters with tourists orbit the summit. They point and wave at us. I probably swear a little and keep digging through the snow.
Finally, I can see the summit ridge. I speed up, pushing with my crampons, pulling with my ice tool and when I top out I just scream. I’ve never been so satisfied to stand on a summit. Jaime is a few meters behind me and I pull in the rope. Together we stand on the exposed ridge that connects the Swiss with the Italian summit. Taking in the absolutely spectacular view, we shoot some pictures of each other and just enjoy having made it up.
It’s 11:15 now, time to go down. Immediately, we have to become serious and focused again, the second and more dangerous half of the climb lies in front of us. We carefully reverse our steps down the snow field, climb down the fixed ropes (much more exhausting than climbing up) and back over the ridge. The icy shoulder we rappel, as well as the ridge below it. At 15:15 we are back at Solvay and decide once more to postpone the rest of the climb to the next day. We barely ate or drank anything all day and now that I can relax a bit I feel how exhausted I am. I can’t really feel my toes anymore, why did I take my summer mountaineering boots on this climb? We pop some aspirins, prepare dinner with the food we have left and spend a lot of time melting snow.
In the evening, we send a few text messages to friends, telling them not to worry and not to call the mountain rescue (I instructed a friend to call them in case he doesn’t hear from me until 8 pm. Jaime took similar precautions.)
Nestled into my sleeping bag I have the pleasure to relive the previous night, but this time with a pounding headache and a dry mouth. I can’t wait to get up and get active again.
Monday, November 21st
The alarm goes off at 5:30.
Melt snow, drink up, eat a power bar, gear up, get down safely. We down-climb almost all the way, only rappelling the most iffy parts. The rope gets stuck a couple of times. At 13:15 we finally reach Hörnlihütte again, take our hiking poles and rush down to Schwarzsee to the cable car station.
It took us 3 days to climb Matterhorn in these conditions. We are certainly not the fastest climbers and certainly not the slowest. It doesn’t matter anyways. We always made the right call and stayed safe.
This was the most exhausting climb I’ve ever done in the Alps so far. It was also the most rewarding. Climbers are masochists. I anyways.
Tuesday, November 22nd
The alarm goes off at 4:00.
I get up, drink a Red Bull and start preparing a presentation about my research activities that I have to give the same day.
Life is weird.