when I thought about climbing the Matterhorn, I pictured crowds of stressed-out climbers stepping all over each other and cursing as they fought to get to the summit. Then I imagined accidents in which one clumsy team pulls another one off their stance. Finally, expensive helicopter rescues, bad weather and crowded huts. All that "thinking" had a way of exhausting me so it was easy to push the idea out of my mind.
But it is a "climber's mountain," just by the look of it. And I did finally get the itch to climb it. Kris, me, the boys and Kris's parents were on vacation in Zermatt and on the second day I went for a hike up the Höhbalmen meadows that rise steeply just west of town. It was mid-June, after a very snowy spring, but the day was clear. At the trail junction where you can go north to Trift or west on balconies below the Unter Gabelhorn I sat on some rocks and starting watching the Matterhorn. From this absolutely perfect location, the Hörnli Ridge conveys the perfect mix of danger and allure that makes it seem a very worthwhile goal indeed. The summit is only five miles from town, but it is almost 10,000 feet above it. And unlike many high mountains, there is no "easy" way to the summit. But most importantly, from here, the mountain and it's famous ridge had a beauty that compels.
I'd always thought that if I did ever climb the mountain, it would be from a more difficult and less traveled route like the Zmutt Ridge. But honestly, looking at the Hörnli Ridge head on, I decided that this was the way, despite crowds. It would be worth it. I had the same feeling as looking at the North Face of Johannesburg Mountain in the North Cascades, or Mount Goode further north. Both of those mountains were seriously flawed by brush or brutal approach. But the look of them from a distance got the blood flowing. The Matterhorn's flaw was a crowd of similarly-inspired people. As I jogged down to Trift I consoled myself that if they were inspired by the same pure force that hit me in that high meadow, then these as-yet-unmet people don't deserve my grumbling at all.
For the rest of that happy family trip, we watched the mountain from our balcony. My step-dad and I wondered aloud about it as we tended the grill and drank beer. We loved how clouds would obscure the peak, then just as you got used to the truncated view, a small triangle of summit would hazily appear, looking impossibly high. That never failed to surprise us.
On our last evening, I took a few hours intending to reach the Hörnli Hütte. I knew that coming back later I'd be tempted to take the lift to the Schwarzsee, saving 1000 meters of elevation gain. So I wanted to hike that terrain at least once. But it was a sobering trip. Above the Schwarzsee I came to deep snowfields on the main ridge. The trail was completely buried. Then I was kicking steps around ribs and climbing rotten snow even as avalanches rumbled on the glacier to my right. I realized that I'd be coming back down in the dark, and the snow conditions were terrible, causing me to move very slowly. So I turned around 400 meters below the hut. But I wasn't disappointed. I'd had the whole area to myself and the mystery of the hut would wait for next time.
A concrete plan!
A few weeks later, Theron and Carlos came out to visit. We climbed and hiked in the Dolomites, having a great time in spite of unsettled weather. Near the end of July, Theron had a few more days so we resolved to climb something from Zermatt or Grindelwald. After lots of worrying about the weather we chose Zermatt. I drove down Friday after work and had a great night's sleep in the Randa parking lot. Saturday we rented gear for Theron, bought some food and starting the hike from Schwarzsee in surprisingly good weather given the forecast. It looked like Sunday would be bad, but ``summer-like weather'' (the forecast actually used this term!) would arrive Monday for a few days. Maybe we'd wait a day at the hut, we had the time.
Joking and talking as usual we hiked slowly up. My pack felt heavy because I'd brought my bulkiest Gore-Tex jacket and fleece, along with an extra shirt and long underwear. Clearly, I'd been spooked by the forecast and memories of how cold it can get. We had a light 50 meter rope, plenty of slings and a few nuts.
The woman who checked us in at the hut had a sassy sense of humor. She said Theron was talking "bullshit" when he said he left his Alpine Club membership in the car. Then I asked to buy some water and she said no. "Yes!" I said. "Okay, yes," she said. She also wanted me to only speak German because I live in Germany. I liked her, but Theron felt a little put out!
We went for a recon hike on the lower part of the ridge. I had a hard time reading the many paragraphs about the route in guidebooks. There are too many details, and you are likely to miss half of them hurrying along in the dark. The only information that seemed worth remembering was that the route is mostly on the left below the Solvay Hut, then it trends towards the crest after that. On recon, the mountain reminded us both of the Nortwest Arete on Mount Sir Donald in British Columbia. Kind of a jigsaw puzzle in the lower flanks, where it's easy to lose touch with the ridge crest. The comparison is eventually flawed though, because there is more "walking" terrain on the Matterhorn, especially approaching the Moseley Slabs at the Solvay Hut. Eventually we felt satisfied and returned to conserve energy. I was fighting a cold too, and wanted to get to bed for some more healing time.
The hut was packed. Dinner was pretty good too. There was a party of Americans, and they convinced us to indeed get up at 3 am with everyone else. We were thinking of hanging around until dawn, apparently that can be a good strategy for crowd control. But confidence to buck the system was low. Climbing without a guide felt faintly scandalous in the hut environment. A newspaper article was pasted up listing many deaths in a short span. Someone pointed out that no one ever died with a guide, "it's all the guideless climbers. They get lost, they are too slow." Everyone we talked to seemed to think going it alone would be very foolish indeed. I think there were a few others, but the vast majority had guides. We toasted our Japanese table-mates and went to bed.
Apparently I snored, and 3 times just after I fell asleep my French bed-mate poked me awake. Finally I gave him ear plugs in exchange for leaving me alone. "Do you have more for my friend?" he asked in the midnight-black room. As a matter of fact I did. So finally even I, the snorer, could sleep. It's never fun to start a climb feeling short of sleep. If you find yourself tormented by snorers like me, the best solution is to bring earplugs...they work you know!
A welter of noise and confusion a few hours later, stumbling down the hall, fumbling contacts into my eye-sockets. We were served bread, butter and hot water. It had snowed during the night, and we wondered what lay in store for us. But others are leaving. Let's go!
An eager journey in the dark, right behind some people, or right ahead of others. We came to the end of our recon point very quickly. Over-eager, I went up a steep cliff then had to come back down. Later, we followed some French-speaking climbers into a hideous gully. Despite serious rockfall they pressed on. We waited under a ledge then as I was about to enter the danger zone Theron noticed smarter people coming up below and smartly turning right on a ledge to get out of the gully. "I think I can traverse over there," he said. "Thank god," I muttered as I followed and heard more rockfall and yelling behind me.
This is something Theron is really good at. He is patient early in the climb when I'm over-eager to put ground below me. By keeping his eyes open, he'd saved us time and more importantly, possibly a climb-ending injury.
So we followed this smart group (guides are nice after all!) for a good while on or near the crest where the rock was pretty good. It started to get light and we eventually passed, but there were always more groups ahead. Eventually we settled into our place in line for a while, and my impressions of the climb in here have more to do with the nature of the guides and clients around us than the mountain. I felt bad for a Japanese man who couldn't understand an instruction from his guide to keep the rope behind a flake of rock as he climbed past. The guide was exasperated, and lectured his smiling client like a child. Later, a guide ordered a Japanese woman to climb, and she responded immediately, only not in the right place. She lost balance and started to fall down the slab. I was right there so I gave her a push on the butt and she got up. It was all kind of funny. What a mix of motivations, misunderstandings and desires we all are together!
But on the whole, the groups moved fast for the conditions, in my opinion. I had to respect both the guides and their clients, who moved along well. We put on crampons several hundred meters below the Solvay Hut, and wouldn't take them off until late in the day. Judging from pictures I've seen, we had very snowy conditions.
At the Moseley Slabs, things really slowed down. Clients scraped their feet uselessly, and generally made it look pretty scary. Theron led this pitch very nicely when it was finally our turn. We'd reached the hut and looked inside to see people eating. We decided to keep going immediately and stop for food higher up. It was 8 am, we'd been on the go for almost 4 hours. "You are too slow, you should turn back," said a guide nearby. He was breaking the news to his clients that they were turning back here. They looked at us heartbroken, so he had to really pour it on for them: "These people going up will be coming back in the dark. It is unsafe. We go down now."
I couldn't believe it would be as bad as all that. I did ask a guide how long he thought it would take to the summit from here. "For you, three hours." As it turned out, he was exactly right. "Thanks!" I said, and we started up the steep upper Moseley Slab. I led this pitch, which I found really fun, though stuffing my wet gloves into my shirt to pinch some slabby holds was unpleasant! Overall, our gloves were our most important piece of equipment, as the rock was so snowy and wet sometimes, that without very good ones, we'd have given up a long time before.
Above the Solvay Hut, the focus of the climb returned to the mountain. We were pretty much alone, gradually catching up to the few parties who'd also continued on. There weren't many. The Americans and their guides had descended a long time before. The weather was holding fine, and the climbing was interesting scrambling on enjoyable, solid rock. Theron felt I was a little lax about threading the rope around horns, and I strove to improve. Anyway, now there was time to enjoy the climbing and it was fun finding the numerous chances for natural protection.
By now, we'd seen the whole circus of artificial protection the route is festooned with. Bolts, pitons, fixed ropes, little corkscrew rings, good old slings, and steel bars to hook the rope around. I'm tempted to say no one should fall off this mountain, but I know it happens.
We reached the snowy Shoulder and kicked steps up to the ridge crest. The altitude was definitely slowing us down by now. We were at 14,000 feet and it took a long time even to cover "easy" ground because of it. I got a picture of Theron on a super-scenic blocky segment of ridge crest, with the Obergabelhorn in the background. The scenery was just mind-boggling in here and we were loving every minute.
We'd caught up to some other folks, passed them, then ran into more on the fixed ropes below the summit snow slope. It's too bad they are there, but these fixed ropes were nice to have. It was so snowy and icy that the 5th class climbing would have taken another hour without them. I guess because this part of the mountain is rarely in "optimal" conditions, the powers that be decided it was smart to fix this area. Part of me is sad to see that, but despite all of these aids it's still a challenging climb, and we didn't feel in any way that the ascent had been made too easy for us to enjoy it. But I don't pretend to be a "mountain hard man" either!
Now we had our last unpleasant "people" encounter. We'd heard about this problem in the hut but didn't really understand it. The issue is that you are straining your way up a thick rope and someone else with crampon points in your face is shimmying down! "Hang on, hang on hang on!" is the typical conversation in here. Most of the summiters were coming down, and there was no such thing as turn-taking. We waited a bit, somewhat intimidated by the sharp crampons of the descenders, but finally realized we'd have to muscle our way through to get anywhere. I remember taking the rope, shouting "I'm coming up!" and generally being an annoying person in order to get a turn on the ropes for us. The "pitches" were only about 20 feet long, so I could usually power up quickly before my heart started pounding too hard.
Whew. Now for the somewhat intimidating final climb. After the fixed ropes we felt "naked" on this high roof of the world. We kicked steps in the snow carefully and sometimes found a metal bar to wrap the rope around. We passed a statue of Saint Benedict (?) right below the summit, and tiredly (for me anyway) climbed to the high level ridge that marks the Swiss summit. Wow. It had been a big climb. Normally we shake hands heartily. This time Theron gave me a big ol' hug. "Congratulations man!"
Theron never got the video camera out until now, and we finally used it. In the 7 or 8 hours of climbing it took to get here, we were too busy all the time. Later, I read some books and felt embarrassed about our time, which was almost double what it should take. But what can I say? I don't know to what percentage acclimatization, crowding and lots of snow contributed, but they were all factors. We'd been passed by about 12 summiters, so we calculated that out of maybe 50 climbers, 28% (including us) made it to the summit.
The view was amazing of course. We didn't bother with the lower Italian summit just a short walk away. After only a few minutes of joy we were thinking about the long descent. Books tell us that the way down usually takes longer than the way up. And of course we both have the tragic story of the first ascent burned into our heads -- the slip by a tired, uncertain climber, pulling three other people off the mountain to their doom. It was only 11:15 am when we started down, and the weather was still fine. Safety was the important thing since we still had 10 hours of daylight.
Theron led down the snow carefully, then the fixed ropes. Below the shoulder, I went first. Here we met a party of really nice Romanian people. They were making rappels. We did two, but then realized we need to keep down-climbing because it's (paradoxically) faster. Now we descended the really solid ridge-crest rock I remembered enjoying so much on the way up. After another eternity, we made one more rappel down the upper Moseley Slab to the Solvay Hut.
We went inside and ate some sausage and cookies. It's kind of a grim hut though. It would be awful to get stuck up there in a snowstorm. Shudder!
Another rappel, then lots and lots of down-climbing. Finally we could take off our crampons. Lots of snow had melted since the morning, though it was still wet and slippery, we had to be careful.
At one point we got lost, and traversed back and forth across a rubble slope looking for the way. As usual, once we found it we couldn't understand how we'd lost it or why we'd been so sure on our wrong-way-path!
Somewhere around 6 pm we felt like we were down, and gave ourselves a nice rest on the ridge crest, looking down at the hut and a cloud over Zermatt. But then we got mixed up again and wasted 45 minutes trying to get back on track. Finally rappels from slings left by similarly bewildered people got us near the right way again. Definitely tired now, I was just mad because dinner is served at 7, and I doubted they'd let us eat if we arrived at 7:30.
We got down, and only a few minutes in the even-more-packed hut convinced us to leave. We gathered our things and consumed a liter of beer and a liter of water while we repacked outside the hut. The beer was surprisingly good, and somehow really woke us up for the hike down. We had a good time talking with a friend of the Romanians, still high up on the mountain. "The guides always turn their clients around at the Solvay Hut. They want to make the lift down for coffee!" he griped. In the hut, all eyes seemed to be on us, perhaps wondering what conditions we'd had. But nobody asked, so we said goodbye to our Romanian friend and hiked down. We were both surprisingly energetic after the 15 hour climb (7 hours up, 8 hours down!).
We reached the Schwarzsee Hut and were so happy they had a room and some dinner. I did not want to pound down to reach a shut-up-for-the-night Zermatt! Dinner was amazingly good, and after a scalding hot shower I collapsed utterly spent and happy.
So! Was it worth the crowds? Definitely yes. Though they were a big part of the experience below the Solvay Hut, they couldn't destroy the feeling that it's an honor to climb this very special mountain. One feeling I have, which is uncommon for me, is that I'd like to do it again. I think there is so much to take in that my brain would like another scan through.
Thanks to my boon companion Theron. Thanks to the weather for not hosing us too!