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.