ZERMATT, SWITZERLANDThe summit of the Matterhorn pierces the sky like a medieval spear. Standing on its tip, my crampon points biting into a rim of blue ice, I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by the sky. The plunging emptiness gives way to nearly endless views of Switzerland to the north and Italy to the south. – by Mark Jenkins
The actual climb to get to the top of this icon is so delicate and difficult—5,000 feet (1,500 meters) of crumbling spires, overhanging walls, and slick, down-sloping ledges strewn with rubble—it’s hard to imagine that the mountain was first climbed exactly 150 years ago.
Long before the world became consumed with Everest, mountain lovers were obsessed with the Matterhorn. At only 14,690 feet (4,477 meters), it’s a runt compared to the super peaks of the Himalaya (barely half as tall as Everest). It isn’t even close to claiming the title as Europe’s tallest mountain, a title claimed by Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters).
It isn’t even the tallest Alp—Mont Blanc is nearly a thousand feet taller and was climbed as early as 1786, owing to its gently sloping incline, which doesn’t require refined technical climbing skills.
Conversely, the Matterhorn rises as an unforgivingly steep pyramid with four ridges and four walls. To climb it you must actually climb—gripping miniscule ripples of rock with your fingertips, placing your feet on the thinnest of ledges, and pulling your body straight up.
The rock is a crumbling gneiss that, combined with the severe angle of incline, forces you to constantly maintain perfect balance, prepared for a hand- or foothold to give way at any moment. It is a mountain that demands climbing competence, courage, and mental stamina.
Because of these factors, climbing historians consider the first ascent of the Matterhorn the beginning of modern mountaineering. And just like Everest, the story of its first ascent is a plot thick with ego and ambition, passion and betrayal, bravery and death.
Race to the Summit
In the mid-1800s, two capable, deeply ambitious men were desperate to become the first to stand on the summit of the Matterhorn: Jean-Antoine Carrel and Edward Whymper.
Carrel had grown up in Valtournenche, a French-speaking town at the base of the Italian side of the Matterhorn. Like his father, Carrel was a professional hunter of the chamois (the region’s goat-like antelope) and had spent his youth exploring every valley and ridgeline of the region’s rugged terrain, including the flanks of the Matterhorn. In 1860, after serving in his region’s military during Italy’s Second War of Independence against Austria, Carrel returned to his home and “his mountain” filled with patriotic ardor and determined to climb the peak. He made his first serious attempt that summer, reaching a height of 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) on what is now known as the Italian Ridge.
Meanwhile, Whymper, an Englishman, also had followed in his father’s professional footsteps and become an artist and wood engraver. In the summer of 1860, when he was 20 years old, Whymper was commissioned by a London publisher to make sketches of the great peaks of the Alps in Switzerland, Italy, and France. It was during this trip when he began to learn mountaineering. He made several first ascents, and he came under the spell of the Matterhorn. From that summer onward, he, too, was determined to become the first to climb that awe-inspiring peak.
Click to read more of this fascinating tale of bravery and tragedy on the the Matterhorn by Mark Jenkins in the National Geographic
You can watch the movie ‘Death on the Matterhorn’ on Amazon below.
How to climb the Matterhorn
There are four routes up the Matterhorn which are climbed relatively regularly. All can be climbed from Zermatt. By far and away the most frequented is the North-East or Hörnli Ridge (AD III-). This was the line of the first ascent and it is not unusual to see 100 mountaineers per day attempt it in the summer season.
The other three routes are the South West/Italian Ridge (or Lion Ridge) AD+ III, the North-West or Zmutt Ridge D III+ and the classic North Face or Schmid Route TD. Reports BMC
Experience of using crampons is essential as the top third is often snow covered and can be delicate in descent.
Being ‘determined’, ‘strong willed’, and ‘not a quitter’ are no substitute for fitness. Mountains are a great leveller and the Matterhorn doubly so. Make sure you have put in the groundwork by going on long runs/hikes/scrambles.
You don’t need a large rack to climb the Hörnli Ridge. Perhaps a few quick draws and the odd cam but otherwise a 40m single rope is enough.
The Hörnli Ridge can be an intimidating place to be, surrounded by guides jostling for position. If you are unconfident or your techniques are not refined you will be left for dust (and therefore ‘going against the flow’ as they all climb back down on top of you as they descend).
The ‘season’ is normally early July through to early September. Snow puts the route out of condition (dry rock is needed to move efficiently) and the local guides at the alpincenter-zermatt.ch are a good source of up to date information.
To read more by Sarah Sterling click here…