Discipline: Alpine Mountaineering Area: Expedition Abroad: Swiss & Italian Alps
Type: Mini Expedition
Distance: 1700m ascent & 2900m descent (excluding acclimatisation.)
Duration: 3-4 days depending on weather and acclimatisation
Route: Lion’s ridge and Hornli ridge (Cervinia to Zermatt)
Time of year: June-September (July and August particularly busy)
Guidebook: Summit Post
Costs: ca. £250 for train, ski lifts and refuges
The Matterhorn name actually means ‘mountain in the meadows’, due to Zermatt’s luscious green foothills. The spectacular mountain itself however, is a whole lot more hostile than the name might suggest. Its iconic status is mostly owed to its near-perfect steep pyramidal shape and isolation, however, the countless failed attempts to ascend the mountain in the 1850s undoubtedly strengthened peoples obsession with the Toblerone peak.
Matterhorn fanatic and British explorer Edward Whymper successfully reached the 4478m summit on his eighth attempt via the Hornli ridge, while racing his former climbing companion Jean Antoine Carrell coming up from the opposite Italian ridge. Carrell reports to have turned back just a few hundred metres off the summit after seeing Whymper’s figure at the top of the peak. However Carrell completed the first ascent of the Lion’s ridge just a few days later. Despite Whymper’s summit success, four of the six involved fell to their deaths on the descent, captivating the public’s fascination with this deadly mountain. Many years later, we aimed to tread in the same footsteps of both Whymper and Carrell completing the Matterhorn traverse ascending the Italian Lion’s ridge gaining the Italian summit and continuing to the Swiss summit and descending via the Hornli ridge back into Switzerland.
The Matterhorn was a new challenge for us, with much of the peak involving French mountaineering grade AD+ and rock climbing to grade III-IV. This is more technical than many of the big alpine peaks’ normal routes such as Mont Blanc’s, but moreover this physical challenge is sustained almost the entire way up the Italian Lion’s ridge to 4478m. If we were to be able to conduct ourselves with confidence and accuracy on this terrain, a place where the consequences of an unprotected slip would definitely be fatal and the available oxygen is over 40% less than at sea level, we would need to be physically strong and well acclimatised. Conveniently, Zermatt has access to a plethora of lesser known but almost as exciting peaks above 4000m so acclimatisation opportunities were plentiful.
We drove to the small town of Täsch below the pedestrianised and car free town of Zermatt and set our bivvy up for the night in a field next to the train station, eager to get going.
Day 1: Acclimatisation and the Breithorn traverse
After jumping on the first train at 5.55am next to blurry-eyed commuters, we soon caught our first glimpse of the primary objective while walking across Zermatt to jump on the Klein Matterhorn lift. The three-lift journey up to the glacier made a serious dent in our wallets but the efficient Swiss lift system is definitely beats walking and carrying your kit all that way..
Our first proper steps were straight out at 3883m where we left the security of the summer ski pistes behind travelling onto the glacial plateau below the Breithorn peaks, aiming for Roccia Nera (4075m) at the end of the Breithorn ridge
Digging steps up the 45 degree slopes leading to the Rocca Nera summit, we were abruptly reminded of the thin air and our complete lack of acclimatisation. Although a steep slog, the direct route meant getting to the top didn’t take too long and we were suitably rewarded with the clouds lifting around us, revealing some of the best alpine vistas of Dufourspitze crowning the Monte Rosa massif with Nordend, Castor and Pollux completing the picture.
Now setting our focus on the ridge traverse back towards the direction we came from, the route became a lot more interesting. Some gentle mixed scrambling to start over the heavily corniced ridge and we were down in the col and scrambling back up to the next peak of the traverse, the East Breithorn Twin (4106m).
Pleased with our progress, we set about rappelling from its summit to reach the corniced ridge leading to the West Breithorn Twin (4139m) and scrambled onto the top. A couple of longer more exciting rappels quickly got us back on the ridge
Short of time but happy with our acclimatisation, we headed down from the col towards the Italian lift system having completed half of the Breithorn traverse, an AD rated climb in itself. Dodging some mean looking piste bashers (and their winch cables), we quickly reached Testa Grigia and took a couple of Italian lifts that wizzed us right back down to around 2500m for a fraction of the price than its Swiss counterpart.
On arrival, I started to experience some delayed onset altitude sickness as a result of most of our day spent over 4000m, with a savage headache and intermittent nausea. This wasn’t a new feeling for me. Although I acclimatise well over time, I’m prone to onset of mild AMS, paying the price for Swiss efficiency. After a quick break to lay down on the grass in the sunshine, I felt a little more human again and heavy bags were back on. Slogging up to the Refugio Oriondé Abruzzi (2860m) the daunting peak of the Matterhorn (or now Cervino in Italian) shadowed over us, looking untouchable and out of reach.
Upon arrival, my temporary sickness subsided and we were warmly welcomed by the friendly staff. The refuge has more of a hotel feel than other mountain huts and we were granted our own room with electricity and en-suite bathroom - a rare indulgence in most mountain accommodation. The five star Trip Advisor reviews were supported when hearty dinners were served and we toasted to a successful day with a round of large beers.
Day 2: The Matterhorn: Refugio Oriondé Abruzzi - Carrell hut (3850m)
Weather conditions looked to be poor over the next couple of days followed by a small window of sun before a bad weather system was due. With enough food to keep us going we decided to head for the high mountain refuge, the Carrel hut (3850m), which elegantly sits halfway up the Lion’s ridge. The hut is renowned for getting busy, and as a completely unmanned hut adopts a first come first serve rule for the limited mattress space.
With that in mind, we were up at 6am and gone after after a big breakfast. Making quick work of the first few hundred metres of our 1000m ascent day, we set into some of the more hands-on scrambling sections. A lot of other parties were coming down past us, retreating in fear of the bad weather forecast. With plenty of food and confidence in the weather, we decided to crack on through the cool and foggy conditions, happy to wait out the weather in the hut if needed be.
Only slightly bemused by the number of people coming off the mountain, we continued on as the snow set in and visibility reduced down to a few meters.. Despite having a vague route description, we managed to miss the start of the traverse path to the Colle del Leone which was now covered in snow. Finding ourselves climbing over loose and unpleasant rock, we’d overshot the col and summited Testa del Leone (3715m) by the time we realised our rookie mistake.
I had a rattling near miss over a steep face but managed to keep my cool and we descended back to find the traverse path, feeling rather foolish. Back on track, we continued the day’s route with some physical slab climbing in the wet snow and moody skies. The technical terrain and near-bottomless drops on each side of the exposed ridge reminded us that we were indeed climbing the Matterhorn!
The fixed ropes in place were undoubtedly a help on snow covered rock slabs but hauling ourselves up was still surprisingly strenuous. Just a stone throw’s away from the hut, we skirted uncomfortably close to the bottom of the drop toilet and unpleasant frozen chunklets - perhaps a fitting metaphor for our humbling mistake earlier.
Although pleased to get inside the cosy shelter in an otherwise desolate and exposed part of the Alps, it was clear we needed to take more care route finding if we were to avoid any mistakes on summit day.
Day 3: Refuge Life The Carrel hut, named after the man who first scaled this ridge is an impressive feat of Alpine engineering. Hanging above both Switzerland to the North West and Italy to the South East, it’s certainly not for the faint hearted.
Despite our earlier concerns on bed-space, we found the refuge almost completely empty as most groups had retreated. It was however an absolute mess and we got to work cleaning the hut out, pleased to have a task to kill time but a little disappointed in our follow climbers for leaving it in such a state.
Before too long the boredom set in and with the snow showers coming and going, our mountain sanctuary felt a little more like a survival tool than a mountain paradise. Our intention to scope out the start of the route while we were waiting were dampened by the deepening snow. Through sporadic phone signal reception, the forecast remained hopeful for the following day so we sat tight got an early night and prayed for sun.
Our alpine serenity didn’t last long though, with an influx of new arrivals streaming through the door all day. Most of whom were friendly and chatty, exchanging route descriptions and their most recent weather predictions despite language barriers.
We befriended two thoroughly entertaining Swiss climbers, Flo and Lucas, who kept us laughing for much of the day. The bustling but relaxed atmosphere didn’t last however with the distinctive sound of a helicopter flying close by. Reports from eye-witnesses soon arrived that someone had sadly taken a fatal fall just before the col, only a couple of hundred metres below the hut.
Although the mood became temporarily heavy, and some of us who happened to be outside couldn’t help but watch the recovery of the body down the valley, I was taken aback by the apparent apathy towards such a close experience to death. Whether right or wrong, it was soon business as usual. We all take some calculated risks but our friends and family rarely have a choice in the matter, my thoughts go out to them. By bedtime, the Carrell hut was heaving, with all three floors well over capacity and some latecomers sleeping in the kitchen area.
Day 4: Summit day
Roll on the 4.30am alarm and as expected the hut was a quiet carnage of shuffling climbers gathering their equipment in the lightless mêlée. Woken earlier than I’d planned, I took the time to inspect the beautiful clear skies and take some long exposure photos, noticing the route was pretty quiet.
“Psst, Ed… There are lots of people milling around but few look ready to leave, if we go now, we may get ahead of them” I whispered to Ed who nodded silently into action.
Despite skipping a proper breakfast, we missed our window by only a few minutes which cost us dearly.
The route out of the refuge begins with a testing overhang step, taking climbing parties a long time to get over. Our best efforts to be ready quickly left us in fourth position behind a Russian climber struggling and failing to get over the step. A typically unsympathetic response from most groups behind - “if you have problem, get off route” mentioned in broken English by one of the Ukrainian climbers. After a second swinging fall he was left to hang on belay whilst groups passed him. Once I’d scaled the steeper section of the wall, I clipped myself into the fixed chain and offered my physical assistance to get the poor man up but his leading partner decided they would have to withdraw and accept defeat.
This episode and the queues to follow had cost us well over an hour so far and we were still trailing multiple groups slowing us down that proved difficult to pass. It was now beginning to come light making route finding easier. We managed to overtake a couple of groups who were using overly time-consuming rope techniques, that in my opinion left them unlikely to have time to summit.
Our way up the ridge for the next hours alternated between steeper climbing sections and technical graded scrambling with little to no protection. Frustrated by our slow start, the three of us maintained good progress with very few breaks for even food or water until we reached Pic Tyndall (4241m) via a steep section of snow and ice climbing.
The distinctive peak was named after eminent Irish geographer and physicist John Tyndall who was first to reach the crest in 1863 using Carrell as a porter and guide. This was a key milestone in history, but also for us in our very own ascent. We took our first proper pause for water and food and enjoyed the warmth of the rays of sunshine finally emerging over the mountain’s shadow.
With just over 200m of ascent left, the remainder was expected to be near vertical and present awkward sections of mixed rock and ice. Moving well over the 4000m mark meant the whole-body climbing left you gasping for air and an intense muscle ache while gripping on with all your strength, above an ever exposed drop on either side of the ridge.
Once we’d scaled the overhanging Jordan’s ladder, we knew the Italian summit was imminent. Although getting to this point had taken much longer than we’d anticipated, we were elated to be taking our final steps onto the narrow snowy crest onto the Italian summit. I was relieved to be finished with the intensely physical and daunting ascent but the exposure was far from over.
The snowy summit ridge is extremely narrow in places with snow cornices overhanging the Italian face. Only roped in together and no practical protection, each footstep was taken with extreme caution. After some quick pictures at the cross that lies between the two summits, we continued to the true Swiss summit and started our descent knowing we had a long way to go before the climb was over, well into the afternoon now.
As we started descending the Hornli ridge, a bitter wind loaded with cutting spindrift battered us as we lowered ourselves down the icy slope. The weather up until this point had been surprisingly pleasant, but these were the savage conditions I’d associated with the top of an alpine peak. After an hour or so of suffering and extreme cold we reached rock again, aided by quick abseils we were quite efficient at despite our fumbling cold hands.
Though the Hornli ridge was clearly less technical than the one we’d come up, descending with tired bodies was slow going, and it was soon clear we were unlikely to make it completely off the mountain in what remained of daylight. Well aware this isn’t an unusual phenomenon for those attempting the Matterhorn traverse, we accepted our fate with a pair of helpful Russians that we would likely sleep in the emergency shelter, the Solvay hut at 4009m. In an unusual but welcome Russio-British collaboration, we tied both of our ropes together offering full 60 metre rappels over the steep and rocky faces. Soon enough, one last rappel lead us to the door and we piled into an already busy shelter, happy to take our crampons off and be sheltered.
Though I’m confident we could have soldiered on in the dark, the posibility of losing our way or making a mistake were not worth the risk. With the knowledge the next morning was due to be clear and sunny, we cosied up with all our down on (sadly no sleeping paraphernalia) and settled in on the floor for the night. The social dynamics of this international small room were no less than fascinating. There were over 20 people staying inthe 4 berth hut. The Chinese group were insistent on keeping a dining table that a Czech guide was (justifiably) determined to move outside to make more floor space for climbers still on their way down. Despite the group finally seeing reason, a handful of climbers still had to sleep outside for lack of room.
Day 5: The Final Descent
Sleeping on a wooden floor without a sleeping bag at 4000m was never in the plan, but it did make for an adventure and stunning sunrise views when we stirred at first light. With our water and food supplies totally depleted by now, we agreed to get going in search of sustenance.
After a few hours of down climbing, I was relieved to be off the route and onto some easier terrain. Now moving into celebratory mode, we decided the most sensible thing to eat or drink would be three beers for breakfast before a quick lake dip and returning to Zermatt. Bumping into our Swiss friends once more, we grabbed a pizza together and shared stories of our experiences before parting ways. Given the Matterhorn’s shape, the crowds are naturally channeled into the two main ridges, Hornli and Lion, making them particularly crowded in peak season.
Despite its overcrowding and potentially deadly risks, we had a fantastic experience. On the drive home to Chamonix, it didn’t take me long to reach for my 4000ers guidebook to look for our next challenge, indeed our love for alpinism has only intensified.
Our Top Tips:
Acclimatise well beforehand - you will thank yourself when climbing strenuous slabs above 4000m.
Although passing groups was problematic for us, the Lion’s ridge is a far finer route if you’re up to the physical challenge.
Arrive at the Carrell hut early to bag your spot. Or even better, go a day before you intend to summit to give yourself extra acclimatisation time at 3800m.
Pack light where possible. Climbing grade IV without a bag is one thing, it’s quite another when 10kg of kit is actively pulling you backwards off the wall.
Accept it’s a busy mountain. You’re rarely going to find a clear day without lots of fellow climbers, so the sooner you accept this, the more fun you’ll have. It’s the Matterhorn