As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I wondered what I could do to mark the momentous occasion. It came to me one evening while I was staring into a glass of Merlot - climb the Matterhorn.
Now I'd done a little bit of rock climbing on crags in the Peak District with Glenys and our two boys, but nothing in the way of scaling mountains - I hadn't even done much hiking since I was in the Boys Scouts.
For a year since making this decision, I'd been learning to climb mountains and I'd arranged to meet a mountain guide, Steve Monks, whom I climbed with the previous year. To acclimatise, my wife Glenys, my son Craig and I had just completed ascents of the Weissmies (4012m) and the Nadelhorn (4327m). The plan was that I would climb the Matterhorn with Steve while Glenys and Craig chilled out.
22 July 2006 - Heading to Leysin
Tired from our ascent of the Nadelhorn, we had a leisurely breakfast, packed the car and left the Saas Valley headed for Leysin. On the way, I looked out for the roadside crags at Dorenaz, where I climbed last September. After a few false turns, I eventually found the place, which was a miracle, since I only guessed that we were in the right area because I saw a big waterfall across the other side of the valley.
Craig and I did a short climb (F5e), which was a bit more delicate than it looked. I must admit that I was feeling very tired and my heart wasn't in it, but Craig was very keen to rock climb. We walked around the corner and started a 3-pitch climb, with Craig leading the first pitch (F4b).
While I was belaying Craig, a couple of climbers abseiled down next to me, so I said, ”Bonjour”. His immediate response was, “I think 'Hello' would be more appropriate - sounds like you’re from Manchester”.
After introducing ourselves, Alan and I had a chat while Craig led the first pitch. I told him that I was climbing next week with a guy called Steve Monks.
"Oh, I know Steve", said Alan. "He’s a top climber - he did the north face of the Eiger when he was 20 years old."
Alan then went on to tell me that he'd met Steve in Australia when Alan had just completed a 3 day aid climb called “Ozymandius” – a week later, Steve free climbed it in 12 hours. (By now, I was even more impressed by Steve's credentials and worried if I'd be good enough...)
Craig called “Safe”, so I said goodbye to Alan and started climbing. At the belay, I carried on up the second pitch. A very delicate F5c on an Arête. The wind was howling while I was climbing – constantly threatening to blow me off balance. A thunderstorm looked likely. The rain started while Craig was half way up. Big heavy rain drops. We decided to call it a day and I lowered Craig down. We abseiled off the lower pitch and the sun came out – typical. We had a picnic lunch and headed off to Leysin.
We found our bed & breakfast apartment about ½ mile out of town, in a beautiful quiet location. I had an afternoon nap and we walked into town to have dinner - we were exhausted and in bed by half past nine.
23 July 2006 - Preparing in Leysin
We spent the morning resting, reading and sorting out our climbing gear. For lunch, we caught a cable car up to a mountain restaurant which overlooks Leysin. Craig decided to wander back down to the B & B, while Glenys and I went for a walk to look at some of the climbs on the "Tours" - the limestone cliffs above Leysin. There are some impressive multi-pitch climbs on what looks to be nice, solid limestone – maybe next time. We walked down to the B & B and chilled out for the rest of the afternoon.
Steve arrived at seven o'clock and we discussed the various options available. I was very keen to climb the Liongrat route from the Italian side of the mountain. This route is more technically difficult than the "normal" route up the Hornligrat ridge, but is still only a AD grade and well within my capabilities. To do the Liongrat route, Steve and I would have to travel over to Cervina in Italy and then spend a day walking up to the small Carrel Hut, which is perched precariously on a rocky ridge. We'd have to carry up our own food and water because there is no guardian in the hut. The route goes up steeply from there, across a near vertical wall and up to the summit - sounds brilliant.
Steve had picked up a weather forecast, which unfortunately predicted that the weather was due to get worse later in the week and he reckoned that our best chance was in the next two days. If we attempted the Liongrat route, it would take an extra couple of days in travelling and logistics, so we might not be able to make the ascent. He strongly recommended that we went to Zermatt tomorrow and climb the Hornligrat Ridge the following day before the bad weather arrives - I was disappointed, but agreed with him.
It didn't matter too much - both routes are steeped in history. Back in 1865, when the race was on to grab the first ascent of the Matterhorn, the Italian party led by Jean-Antoine Carrel went up the Liongrat route, but they were pipped at the post by Edward Whimper who climbed from Zermatt via the Hornligrat Ridge. I particularly like the story that when Whimper was standing on the summit of the Matterhorn, he could see the Italian group still climbing. To attract their attention, he threw stones down the cliff face and shouted. When he saw Whimper stood on the peak, Carrel gave up and turned back only 200 metres from the top.
24 July 2006 - Travelling to Zermatt
Steve arrived just after eight o'clock, bringing a short 25 metre rope and an extra-light ice axe for for me. He'd rung the Hornli Hutte and had been told that, unfortunately, it was fully booked. We had a quick discussion and Steve reckoned that there was a chance that there would be some spaces if someone cancelled - he would just keep ringing every couple of hours and hopefully we would be able to get in. If it was absolutely full, then Steve had brought a four person bivvy tent and we'd sleep outside on the scree slope - we'd be up at four o'clock anyway.
We drove to Zermatt, parking the car at Tasch and catching the train for the fifteen minute journey to Zermatt town. On the way, Steve managed to book us a place in Hornli Hutte, thank goodness. It was a short walk to the gondola, getting our first glimpses of the Matterhorn - very exciting. The Schwarzee Hotel is at the top of the gondola and has very impressive views of the Matterhorn. After a quick bite to eat, Glenys and Craig stayed at the hotel, while Steve & I walked up to the Hornli Hutte which is at 3,260 metres - a pleasant one hour hike.
The Hornli Hutte is a huge three storey building which can accommodate over 200 people. Climbing the Matterhorn is not as difficult as it sounds - it's a major tourism industry with hundreds of people climbing it every day. The majority are inexperienced and are dragged up by Zermatt guides. I've read reports of bottlenecks on the route where there are long waits while the guides pull their clients up the major obstacles. This is another reason why I was more interested in doing the Liongrat route.
After checking in, Steve left to climb the first part of the route to check it out. He's done the Hornligrat ridge quite a few times and just wanted to make sure that the route hadn't been changed by rock fall. A little later, I wandered up a few hundred metres and I could see how the first part of the route could be very confusing, especially in the dark.
There's an obvious pecking order in the Hornli hut - guides, un-guided climbers and then guided clients. The Zermatt guides are (in their opinion) higher up than the other guides. I must admit that I wouldn't like their jobs - some of these guides spend a week at the Hornli Hutte doing the same route every morning and meeting a new client in the afternoon - it's a money-making machine.
In the evening at dinner, the guides all sit at a separate set of tables and the rabble eat alone. Even Steve conformed to this protocol, which I found a little strange - at other huts the guides always sit with their clients.
There's also a very strict rule that no-one is allowed to get out of bed before four o'clock because that 's when the Zermatt guides (a.k.a. self proclaimed gods) get up and have breakfast with their clients before setting off. The unguided rabble have breakfast at a second sitting after the Zermatt guides. Steve told me that we'd be missing breakfast and I was to meet him on the patio at five minutes to four - but to move very quietly...
25 July 2006 - Ascent Day
I climbed out of bed at quarter to four, and sneaked out of the room and onto the patio where Steve was already waiting with some chocolate croissants and orange juice. We could hear the Zermatt guides gathering for breakfast inside the hut and could already see the head torches of a few parties on the route.
We walked behind the hut, heading into the dark to the first minor obstacle which is a 20 foot high wall that has a fixed rope on to making it very simple and quick. After that there was a confusing set of paths as we traversed the east face, which is very easy walking with sections of scrambling. There's plenty of loose rock around and I could see that it would be very easy to get lost on this section. Half an hour later, I looked back and could see a snake of head torches weaving their way up from the hut.
Steve maintained a steady, remorseless pace and I was glad that I'd trained for this as well as bringing minimal, lightweight gear. We arrived at the Solvay Hut at five o'clock. I don't remember much about the route up to the Solvay Hut because it was mostly scrambling up past the odd tower and ledges, so here is the guidebook text for the first part of the route.
It's about 1,200 vertical meters with an estimated 1,700 meters of climbing from the Hörnli Hut to the summit. A certain amount of variation is possible, but generally when one gets off the main line a great deal of loose rock is encountered. There is enough traffic up and down that getting too far off route should not be an issue, but it does happen especially on the lower part of the route where some fairly long traverses are made on to the east face.
From the Hörnli Hut one walks horizontally to the first step on the ridge. This is climbed upwards to the left, usually with a fixed rope or chain. From this step a traverse is made left to a small shoulder which is climbed a short ways before traversing left again on to the east face to the second couloir which is climbed for about 25 meters. Then on to the rib to the left, which is followed back to the ridge crest. The ridge crest is followed for about 100 meters before another detour on to the east face via a ledge in yellowish colored rock. From the end of the ledge, one climbs back to the ridge under a large tower where the remains of an old hut are located.
From the rock tower, another swing onto the east face is made to a point more or less directly below the Solvay Hut. One then climbs steepening rock to the base of the famous Moseley Slab, which leads almost directly on to the "balcony" of the Solvay Hut.
We had a few minutes breather and looked at the fine view, but we were aware that the hordes of people behind us would soon be catching up. There were only a few groups ahead of us, so if we kept pressing on, we wouldn't have any waiting at the notorious bottlenecks. Also, there were some ominous looking thunderclouds building up to the south and we didn't want to get caught on the Hornligrat in a storm.
The route from here became more interesting and more technical with sections of real climbing. The guidebook text for the second part of the route is:
From the Solvay Hut, move left and climb the Upper Moseley Slab directly back to the ridge crest, which is then followed closely (turning any difficulties to the left) to the top of the Shoulder and the fixed ropes. Climb the fixed ropes or very near them and climb the final steep slopes from the top of the ropes to the summit.
Climbing the Upper Moseley Slab was fairly straight forward and fast because there's lots of fixed protection - bolts, fixed ropes and steel posts to hook the rope around for running belays.
We were lucky when we arrived at the Shoulder and the fixed ropes because we only had to wait a minute or so while the group in front of us quickly climbed. This gave us time to put on our crampons - we could see the snow slope leading up to the summit and Steve told me that there's nowhere level above the fixed ropes suitable to put on crampons.
The fixed ropes are huge - about 1.5 inches in diameter - very similar to the climbing ropes that you probably had in your school gym. The climb up is almost vertical, but there are convenient ledges every twenty feet to have a little rest. It's always a little fraught climbing on rock in crampons - you have to be very precise - placing your crampon points and then not moving your foot while putting your weight on, otherwise the crampon points can slip and you end up making a horrible scrabbling noise while you try to find another foothold - not cool at all.
Once past the fixed ropes, we were faced with an icy snow slope, which we kicked our way up. By this time, the relentless pace and the altitude had caught up with me - my legs had turned to jelly and I had to have a couple of rest stops. We walked up onto the summit at half past seven, only three and half hours after we left the Hornli Hutte. There were only a couple of other groups on the summit and one of those had come up the Liongrat route from Italy.
The view from the top was stunning - blue skies and no wind, a perfect time to be on the summit of the Matterhorn. We took the obligatory summit shots and stayed for ten minutes, before heading off down.
By the time that we arrived at the fixed ropes, hordes of people coming up the ridge had congregated and it was chaos. There was a huddle of people at the bottom of the section and at least one person on each small ledge on the way up. Guides were shouting to their clients to hurry up and no one was bothered with the concept of waiting in turn. I waited for a couple of people to come up, but it was apparent that no-one was going to "let" me descend, so I grabbed hold of the rope and started to descend as soon as the next guy came up.
It was mayhem. Everyone had crampons on and some of the less experienced people were slipping, so there were sharp crampon points flailing in the air. Each pair of people were roped together and ropes were getting tangled. Steve and I both managed to get down without serious injury or having a fist-fight.
The remainder of the route was very straight forward with running belays, down-climbing and sections of abseiling. The descent is usually harder on the legs than the climb up and this was no exception. In the back of my mind I was remembering the tragic tale of the first ascent by Whimper, where one of the party slipped and dragged three others off the mountain to their doom.
We arrived back at the Hornli Hutte at half past ten - 6½ hours for the round trip which was pretty good in my humble opinion. I collapsed on a bench on the patio with a big glass of coke & a Mars bar and dozed in the sunshine while we waited for Glenys and Craig to arrive an hour later - they were surprised at how quick we'd been. After showing them the first part of the route, we all wandered down to the Schwarzee Hotel where we had a nice big lunch with a few beers and then I went to bed to sleep for the rest of the afternoon - exhausted.
A huge thunderstorm hit in the afternoon, bringing snowfall up on the Hornligrat ridge, so I was glad that we'd pushed on and not been trapped in the storm. A few days later, there was a huge landslide and the Hornligrat ridge was closed for several days while the Zermatt guides checked the safety of the mountain.
In retrospect, climbing the Matterhorn is not particularly challenging provided that the weather conditions are good AND you know the exact route - especially at the lower half where it is very easy to find yourself off route. If I was going to climb it un-guided, I would spend one day going up to the Solvey Hut and back to the Hornli Hutte to work out the best route - this would help acclimatisation as well. The main attempt could be started the next morning at four o'clock.