When you arrive in Zermatt, the Matterhorn is the mountain of the region. It stands there in the pyramidal pose at the end of the Zermatt valley. So many people here to see the mountain and so many more here to climb it. The history and shape seem to be the main reasons for the popularity. In hindsight I question this popularity.
I arrived in Zermatt and my aim was to climb the Matterhorn by the Zmutt ridge and to then descend down the Hornli ridge. After a bit of talking with the local guides it was obvious that the Zmutt ridge was not in condition and that even the Hornli ridge was still very iced over 4,000 metres.
After a spell of good settled weather John and myself decided that we would attempt the Hornli ridge route. The guides were starting to do it again so the condition of the top section was now better. We left the campsite in Zermatt and took the cable car up to the Schwarzsee at 2,600 metres. After approximately 2 hours walking we reach the Hornli hut at 3,200m where we looked for a place in the boulders to bivouac for the night. After finding a spot to stay we made dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags to sleep till 3am when we were to start the route. The night was clear but cold. At 2.30 I woke with the cold and then returned to sleep. The next time we woke was at 5.30.
We had both slept to long. The alarm never woke us or did not go off. We decided to climb some if the route but after 50 minutes were turned back knowing that we did not have the time to finish the route and return to the cable car in time that evening.
That morning we descended back to the cable car at Schwarzsee and back to Zermatt. On the way I randomly turned back to look at the mountain with the aim to return and climb. I still had 2 weeks left in Zermatt and the weather was looking settled for a while.
Two days later John left for Barcelona and I put up a notice in the campsite to say that I was looking for a climbing partner. As time went on there did not seem to be any climbers around that were not already teamed up as a pair.
The days passed and as the minutes ticked by I was thinking more of the possibilities of climbing the Matterhorn by myself. I felt that I would be able to move fast and efficient over the steep rock terrain if I climbed solo. After reading the route description again numerous times I decide that the next day I would leave the campsite at 1pm with the aim to solo the Matterhorn on the following morning.
I think that it really struck me when I was in the campsite packing my bag and there was no one else packing a bag. I walked out of the campsite with the well wishes of the other climbers that I was with and started for the cable car station. Walking through Zermatt that day felt great. I felt that to climb that Matterhorn solo would be a great achievement, an opinion that I would later dismiss.
I reached the Hornli Hut at 6pm after a steady walk from Schwarzsee and returned to the bivouac site again where I would stay that night alone. I made myself dinner and got everything ready for the morning. I climbed up the start of the route so that I could sort out any route finding mistakes that I might make in the dark of the following morning. With a feeling of déjà vu, I climbed into my sleeping bag with an added feeling of loneliness. At 8pm I was starting to go to sleep with anxious feelings for the climb which I would start in 7 hours to time. At 10.30, I was awake with the banging of thunder and the lightening. I watched the clouds move over the pointed summit of the Matterhorn and the grey storm clouds that were moving along the border of Italy and Switzerland.
I return to sleep only to wake again to the rain. I tightened up my bag and slept again. At 3am I woke again with the weather still cloudy. I decided to check it again at 4am and the weather had then thankfully cleared. I started to get ready and left my site at 4.30am. The first third of the route is very difficult with respect to finding the best and easiest route. I climbed up this region fast and without many route-finding problems. I used the guides as a method to stay on route seen as they would know the mountain so well and therefore the best route. Before long I had reached the Solvay emergency hut at 4,003 metres. I had then 480 metres of climbing till to go but I was feeling good. Above this hut there is a region of rope that is fixed to the mountain so as to aid the climbing of the mountain. This fixed rope region makes the climbing easier but leads to queues at each fixed point. As I started the fixed rope region I could see that the clouds were now covering a large portion of the mountain.
I climbed through the sections of fixed rope, clipping myself to the ropes as I went. The top slopes were very icy so I climbed with extreme caution and awareness.
At approximately 12 noon reached the top at the same time as a pair of Spanish climbers. I took their photo on the summit and they took a photo for me also. After maybe 5 minutes at the top I started to descend the aiming to get to the last cable car at 4.30pm back to Zermatt. As I left the summit, a light dusting of snow was starting to fall and the weather was starting to look very unsettled.
The descent is usually the most dangerous part of the climb and I was down climbing very carefully. A slip would be fatal with no chance of survival. I had descended to 4,200 metres and the new snow was wetting the rocks and was making the down climbing difficult. I remember that I was slightly off the route and trying to get back on route. As I was figuring out the route, I hear a repetitive thud sound from above me. I looked up to my horror to see a person falling down the East face to my left. I could see that the climber was wearing a red rucksack but the speed at which he was falling was so hard to believe. His arms and legs moved without any control and gave of the effect of a rag doll had been dropped down the slope. It was obvious that the climber was more than likely dead after the initial impact from the fall but the body was still going to fall to the end of the slope to the glacier below. As a climber I had never seen such a fall. I really did not know what to feel. Standing on the ridge I wanted to cry. There was a feeling of dread and shock that can never be described. At that point I felt so exposed and the fact that the climber was also soloing like me made me feel worst. I stood there and tried to think a logical thought but all I could think of was the dead climber and the fall.
After a few minutes I climbed up to a pair of climbers just above me on the ridge. I talked to the German guide and he asked me if it was my friend who had fallen. I told him that I was soloing and that after seeing the climber fall, I was fearing that I would reach the same fate. He asked his client if it was alright for me to go on the rope and the client had no problem with the arrangement.
As we descended, the guide met and talked with other guides and I could make out that the other guide was talking about me on the rope and why I was there. Then one of the guides who talked good English told me that he had seen me on the way up and thought that I was the solo climb that had fallen. A sobering remark.
We descend down the ridge with a good pace but not good fast enough to make the last cable car. The descent of the Matterhorn is just so dangerous. The rock is very loose and broken and was now wet from the drizzle that followed us the whole way down. The descent felt endless. I finally reached the hut with the guide and client at 6:10pm. I thanked the guide for taking me on the rope and for been so understanding of the way that I felt. We then went our separate ways.
I returned to my bivouac site and packed up my stove and belongings that I had left. As I left, I could see the helicopter over the bottom of the East Face looking for the body of the climber that fell. It hovered over and back searching the surface for clues to the location of the body.
I started the descent to Zermatt from the hut at 6.20pm and reached Schwarzsee at 7pm. I was expecting to have to walk back down to Zermatt from Schwarzsee because the last cable car had left at 4.30pm. As I arrived at Schwarzsee I could see that there were workmen walking in the cable car station and that they were getting a special late cable car back to Zermatt. I asked if I could go also and I was back in Zermatt by 7.30pm. I remember walking out of the cable car and looking back up the Matterhorn, which was now covered in cloud.
As I walked back to the campsite, the events of the last two days started to combine. I was safe now in Zermatt. The day before when I was leaving Zermatt on the cable car I thought that I would feel excited after soloing the Matterhorn but I now felt lonely. I had soloed the mountain but the climb just acted as a way of teaching me how precious life is and how quickly is can be lost. I felt like I had abused my appreciation for my life and the people with whom I share my life. I walked back to the campsite and meet the rest of the group. They congratulated me on the achievement. I feel that is was not an achievement. It was a gamble that I had made during which I was thought to appreciate what I have and who stands by me during all my life. As a climber it really has changed the way that I feel. I will always feel motivated but during my climbing I think that I now have a better appreciation of my life and the people around me. I am not proud of soloing the Matterhorn and I see the experience as a lesson learned in life
The climber who died was Austrian. He was soloing the climb and slipped while descending the icy slopes leading the summit. RIP.
By Frank Cox