The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn is one of the most striking mountains on the planet. It commands a prominent position above Zermatt and its uncompromising symmetrical steepness attest to why it was thought impossible for much of the golden age of mountaineering. The tragic story of its first ascent only added to it's allure and it has captured the imagination of tourists and mountaineers alike ever since. Its image today is used by the Swiss for pretty much everything from chocolate to watches and it's probably the most photographed mountain in the world.

The Matterhorn

I had long wanted to climb it but been more interested in the nearby Weisshorn. Since climbing that 5 years ago the Matterhorn had become far more prevalent in my thoughts but attempting it, especially solo, required pieces to be in place. As well as needing to be fit and fully acclimatised, the real question was of which route to take. The classic Hornli can be notoriously busy which makes it unappealing as well as potentially very dangerous.  The ridge itself is more or less 1000m of sustained scrambling and exposure with harder steps followed by 2-300m of snow and mixed ground that is even more exposed, this is also the standard descent route on the mountain. The Zmuttgrat would have been my preferred option but eventually I decided I wasn't prepared to solo it. It is hard to find in good condition and is very serious and committing.

Lagginhorn Traverse

John and myself had just had a cracking day on the south ridge of the Lagginhorn. We were moving over to Randa the next day and I was weighing up my options, Taschhorn or Matterhorn. The Taschhorn would require John's help to get me over a glacier to the Michabeljoch and he fancied a day or two at Randa first. I thought the Matterhorn would be in decent condition so started planning to have a look. While planning for a likely failed attempt on the Zmutt I seen a photo that showed snow on the shoulder of the Hornli taken the day before. From this I assumed that the Zermatt guides would not be guiding which made success on the Hornli very appealing. Shortly after reaching Randa I finalised my plans and had a closer look at the route soon discovering that a bivouac could cost me a £3500 fine and the hut was only marginally better at £120 a night. I emptied out my bivy kit and planned for a long walk through the night.

Having a pizza in Tasch and getting the train, I was walking through Zermatt a little after 2000. Its familiar main street was busy as ever and the traditional view up to the Matterhorn still maintained its impressiveness. I took a slow walk through a beautiful sunset up towards Schwarzsee. The cable car had long stopped for the night so it was an extra 1000m of ascent. Not wanting to be on the route too early and with no bivy gear, I had time to kill so walking slowly made sense, this also conserved energy. Around midnight I disturbed a herd of bell wearing sheep at Schwarsee and stopped at a bench with the intention of a nap. I then discovered I had packed a half sleeping bag rather than my down jacket and mitts which were in identical stuff sacks. This changed things a bit. I was travelling light and have my down jacket in case I need it as its very light and will keep me warm in many eventualities. Forgetting it ate into my chances of success and safety margin by some bit. This however now meant that I could have an hour or two lie down in my half-bag (below the bivouac ban zone in case any Swiss authorities are reading!). I went a bit further and found a spot by the path and lay down.
Pre dawn with Zermatt's lights visible

A little after 0200 and with some broken sleep under my belt I started getting ready. I put my boots on and stashed trainers, poles and half-bag behind a rock. I walked slowly up to the Hornli hut aiming to be there around 0400. Lights were still sometimes visible up at the Solvey hut, didn't seem to be moving up or down. Passing the hut at 0400 exactly there were parties leaving and some already started up. It was thankfully quiet and it seemed that I had assumed correctly.

There was a short queue at a fixed chimney beyond the hut. After this the route is quite loose and varies between the east face and the crest. I stuck behind parties that knew where they were going. I was not in a rush and the route finding was complicated. Coming off route meant finding loose dangerous ground. Following up at a steady pace there were groups that would insist on climbing right behind and below. I'd let some pass and Would Pass others if they stopped or gestured. Some turned back early on. Most that didn't were guided pairs. The sun soon rose and I was treated to the alpenglow on the upper pyramid. Daylight made the going more pleasurable and I was enjoying the climbing.

Solvey hut

I reached the Moseley slabs and Solvay hut within three hours, it was the only section where it was a bit too busy. These slabs form technical crux of the route and are around Diff/V.Diff. The hut, at 4003m, is small and only meant for emergencies. Above the slabs came the shoulder. The group ahead of me were putting on crampons and this seemed to be a good decision. I put mine on and moved up past them. There were now only one party ascending ahead of me and the route was obvious. I picked a good quick pace and headed past the shoulder following the upper arete. I passed a couple that had come over from Italy and were cooking. Their story had involved recovering jammed ropes and a night at the Solvey.

Ridge above Moesley slabs

Upper mixed section

The final 200m of the route rises in vertical steps with fixed ropes which give access to the upper snowfield. I passed these and moved quickly up past the madonna to the summit snow arete. The sensational arete was still perfect neve and I made fast progress to the Italian summit, where the cross is located, reaching it at 0800. The team ahead of me got there just before and they took my photo for me. Wasting no time I turned around and headed down. The snow condition would now have started its daily decay and having to descend soft steep snow with such mind bending exposure was utterly unappealing.

On the Summit

Italian summit with Mont Blanc in the distance

View down the Hornli

By the time I reached the shoulder I had passed all but one team coming up which makes life a lot easier and safer. I'd guess only about 20 people made the summit which I think is very quiet in summer Matterhorn terms. I took off my crampons below the shoulder and continued the long descent. I abseiled a couple of sections including the Moseley slabs. The couple I passed that were cooking appeared to now be abseiling the whole route. Another pair were descending pretty much the east face sending huge boulders down below. I managed to convince them the route was further left (assumed they had come up from the italian ridge also) and they followed on.


About halfway down and growing frustrated with the never ending complex route finding, I was overtaken by the pair I had met on the summit. It was a guide who knew the route so I settled in behind and followed them down the remainder arriving at the Hornli hut at 1200.

After all the bad press I had read about the Hornligrat over the years I was blown away by how good a day I had. It's the best day I've ever had, even better than the Weisshorn. Much of this may be down to how quiet it was but I also went at it in good physical shape and with an open, patient mind.


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