A couple of months ago I returned from an unforgettable trip to Zermatt. Hereby I would like to share my experience of the preparation, unforeseen delays and ultimately, after 3 years, the success in reaching the summit of the Matterhorn at the age of 58 in the company of my two sons. I had visited Zermatt for more than 30 years in the winter. During the multiple visits for skiing, I often wondered how difficult it would be to climb that impressive pyramid rising to 4478 m above the valley. The climb would demand top physical preparedness and appropriate climbing experience. Moreover, mountaineering reports stated that most of the 500 fatalities over the years have occurred on the route taken by most climbers to the summit, the Hörnli ridge. These fatalities were mostly due to mountaineers inexperience, exhaustion, sudden weather changes, rock falls, and any combination thereof.
My decision to proceed in preparing for the climb was made at a not too-young age of 54 so it would take me many months to develop top physical conditioning. My endurance training began in the spring of 2001 and consisted of vigorous hikes, bike-riding and swimming followed by a weekend of rock-climbing with a close friend at the Bugaboos [Canadian Rockies] in July 2001. The plan was to proceed to Zermatt a fortnight later for additional training and the Matterhorn climb. Unfortunately, the medial meniscus of my right knee was torn while climbing in Canada so I had to spend several months recovering from arthroscopic surgery.
One of the difficulties in planning a trip to climb the Matterhorn is deciding when to go in order to avoid delays or cancellations due to stormy weather. We carefully reviewed weather patterns and found out that there is usually a short period of 3-4 weeks starting late July when conditions for high Alpine climbing can be quite good with many dry days in a row. Therefore, for my second attempt I met my sons Christoph (aged 21) and Alexander (aged 19) in Zermatt in early August 2002. To our surprise, the time of arrival seemed like winter since it was snowing in town! Higher up, more than 50 cm of snow had fallen on the Matterhorn: it meant that climbing the Hörnli ridge during our week long stay was out of the question. So much for the predictability of weather patterns!
The next year was also out of question for me because colon cancer was diagnosed in December 2002 and it required intestinal surgery and chemotherapy. After recovering from cancer treatment, I increased my aforementioned endurance training during the winter and spring of 2004 including many weekend hikes up steep hills near my home. Once again, I met Christoph and Alexander in Zermatt early in August for a fortnight stay (to allow for any weather-related delays). After several days of rock-climbing with guides on the Riffelhorn we attempted to climb the Zinalrothorn [alt. 4222 m] but bad weather forced us to abort the climb about 200 meters below the summit. Nevertheless, it was necessary training and acclimatization for us prior to the Hörnli ridge attempt.
On the evening of Aug. 9 we met our three hired local guides for the climb at the Hörnli hut [alt. 3260m]. The weather was quite unstable when we arrived at the hut but clear skies were forecasted for the next morning. At the hut the guides checked our backpacks and allowed us to take on the climb only absolutely essential (but very light) clothes and equipment. At 4 o’clock in the morning the lights were turned on in the hut and there was intense activity to get ready. The climb started at 4:15 by a crowd of eager mountaineers all rushing up the ridge. Each of us had his own guide to expedite the long ascent and minimize risks. We arrived at the Solvay hut [alt. 4003m] at 6:45 after vigorous scrambling and some technical pitch climbing but mostly each roped to the guide in a “moving belay.” The ridge above the “ Shoulder “ was covered with snow from the previous day’ storm so we had to use our crampons.
The climb of the very steep summit block was facilitated by fixed ropes but overall, the entire ascent was very tiring rock-climbing all the way to the top with a snow path covering the rocks at the end. At about 9:15, we made it to the knife-edge ridge leading to the Swiss summit, a spectacular site with sheer drops in all directions. Mt Blanc and other noteworthy Alpine peaks were seen in the distance all around us, an unforgettable sight. After some needed rest, we descended for another very long 5 hours but were rappeled by the guides in many sections. Finally, at about 14:30 we arrived at the Hörnli hut, quite exhausted but very happy while outside the weather was changing for the worse.
I would like to emphasize that using a guide who is very familiar with the route is absolutely essential for the Matterhorn and it is very important to maintain a very fast tempo during the entire ascent and descent. The local guides really push you with very few stops for snacks because they try to be back at the hut no later than noon. Most weather changes occur in the afternoon; otherwise, too many stops or delays can transform an exhausting but easily manageable climb into a potential tragedy. On the night before our climb we witnessed climbers without guides arriving at the hut almost at midnight because they had taken too long for their climb and had great difficulties in finding the route on the way down.
To summarize, after more than 3 years of preparation and delays, on my third attempt I realized my life-long dream. I was able to enjoy the triumph with my sons who I hope will continue to mountaineer for many years. As far as I am concerned, I don't know how much longer my 58 year-old knees can take additional abuse. Indeed, after returning home my left knee was operated for a torn meniscus but maybe I will be able to continue mountaineering in coming years. Nevertheless, I learned from the experience that any worthwhile goal is achievable at any age with time, effort and most important, perseverance!