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Matterhorn 4478m mountain focus page

Links: Summer Matterhorn course or Winter Matterhorn ascent
Ascending fixed ropes on the Hornli Arete of the Matterhorn
Welcome to this mountain focus
We are in the process of developing these mountain focus pages for many of the key peaks that we offer trips too, in order to help people prepare better for their trips. We are always editing these pages, so if you have any feedback about information we should add to the page, please let us know.
This page has largely been written by Jilly from our Windermere HQ, and it's here that most people have their first contact with us, in person or on the phone. We feel it's important that all our staff are experts on the mountains we offer trips to, so we are all involved in developing these focus pages.
History and background
Possibly the world's most recognisable and iconic peak that has captured not only the imagination of alpinists - from Whymper's first yet ultimately tragic ascent to the inconceivable two hour solo ascent by Ueli Steck - but even non-climbers cannot fail to be absorbed by its raw beauty. It has inspired artists and poets, Disney and chocolate bars and every year people flock to Zermatt to see this infamous mountain for themselves.

Its steeped history mirrors the pyramidal shaped faces all facing the points of the compass. A mountain that was one of the last alpine mountains to be climbed commands the area from Zermatt and is a sight to behold: its notorious, seemingly razor sharp ridges are flanked by its northern and eastern faces both in light and in shadow.

As Gaston Rebuffat wrote in his book "Men and the Matterhorn" '.. the Matterhorn can resemble no other peak - it is the model; similarly, no other peak really resembles the Matterhorn, the mould has been broken, there are not even any copies. The Matterhorn is unique.'

The Matterhorn stands alone straddling the border between Italy and Switzerland and soaring to a height of 4478 metres. Some 200 million years ago it began its formation and as time passed the rounded mountain of rock through freeze / thaw erosion became the pyramid of ice and rock as we know it today.
Looking back down to the Hornli Hut far below, at the foot of the Matterhorn
A word of caution
Yet despite the romanticism and the inevitable draw this majestic peak has there have been over 500 deaths on the mountain and it is important to realise this is a serious undertaking and vital that you are competent on steep ground, comfortable with exposure and are adept with ropework.

The Matterhorn is not for inexperienced ticklisters, it requires commitment, significant rock climbing experience and, as one of our clients rather candidly put it, "There's no point beating about the proverbial bush when it comes to the Matterhorn, I'm afraid. It's a serious chunk of rock and you've got to be 100% up for it. Not one of the easiest things I have ever done. But the Icicle team are brill and if anyone can get you up there they will".

As we have mentioned before, there are three key points to remember and to apply on any mountain;

1) The mountain will always be there. Do not push safety boundaries on ascents as another can be made
2) The key to success is preparation in terms of information, equipment, training, techniques and planning
3) Never set off considering rescue as an option (unless there is an accident). Do not play poker with lives.
The key climbing seasons
Summer - Our course dates start from early July to mid-September which is typically known as the high season in the Alps yet as with any mountain the weather can be unpredictable - even more so with recent weather pattern changes. We will always seek to find a suitable alternative should weather and conditions require.

Winter - We also offer a winter ascent dependent on snow conditions and we can only stress that this is only for those with relevant experience, cast iron determination and focus, skills and desire. See the itinerary here. We normally can operate winter ascents any time between December and April. Get in touch to discuss plans!
Map of the Matterhorn
Routes on the Matterhorn
With its four ridges and four faces on the Matterhorn it is an alpinist's dream with over 25 possible routes yet the north-eastern Hornli Arete to the summit- while being the most popular - is the safest in comparison and the one we have chosen as the route of choice for the ascent of this classic mountain. Here we review the two most popular routes to ascend the Matterhorn.

Hornli Arete from Zermatt
On the map above, this is the ENE ridge, from Hornlihutte to the summit at 4478m.

This most popular and classic route is the Hornli ridge and the route of the first ascent. It can be seen from Zermatt and the angle of the route makes it even look like the most logical one to climb as it leads its way to the summit.
There is a hut at 3260m which was built in the late 1800's by the Swiss Alpine Club as the popularity and the draw of the challenge grew. The hut is currently closed due to renovation and extension works and will re-open in 2015 for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the first ascent.

With an approximate 1200 metres of climbing from the Hornli Hut to the summit, the actual ascent takes place over two days. On the first day you drive to Tasch and then take to the train to Zermatt and a cable car to Schwartzee. From here there is a two hour hike up to the Hornli hut (c. 700m of vertical climb) for an overnight stay which helps with acclimatisation and is followed by an early start to reach the summit and back the following day, based on a 4am start to avoid the afternoon clouds and storms that sweep regularly through. Once back at the hut, you trek down to Schwartzee, and take the cable cars back down to Zermatt.

Behind the hut there is a well definded track leading to the base of the mountain. There's no gradual change when you reach the foot of the mountain, to make you consider when you stopped hiking and started climbing. It's abrupt, and straight up! The lower section of the route follows the right hand side of the East Face of the mountain, below a series of towers to your right. When you go at all off route here, you'll know about it, as there's a huge increase in the amount of loose rock. Some climbers lovingly refer to the Matterhorn as the 'world's biggest cairn', and you'll see why. You gain height quickly, moving together, usually all in the pre-dawn darkness in this section.

As the dawn starts to increase the light over the Monte Rosa behind you, at this time you should be close to the Solvay emergency hut at 4003m. This old wooden refuge is very basic inside, and the toilet can be detected by your nose from quite a distance. Most climbers stop here for a quick rest, before tackling the steep slabs above, where there are fixed ropes to aid progress. On the upper section of the mountains, you will notice more fixed equipment; ropes, pig tails, metal spikes. These are all designed to aid your progress, but when using them, spare a thought for the first ascensionists, who had nothing but a rope to protect them (or not)...

The shoulder looms above, and it is here that you make the transition from the East Face to the left hand edge of the North Face of the mountain, as you move up towards the summit block. Here it is usual to put on crampons, for the final 300m or so of the ascent. By now your head torch won't be necessary, and you move up more sections of fixed rope, and then steeper snowfields near the summit. Ahead of you at the summit, you will see the statue and also the cross. There are two summits, one in Switzerland, and the other in Italy. The summit ridge between the two is sharp, though usually there is a good crampon track between the two.

After the summit photos, the descent is usually made down the same way you came up, but great care needs to be taken, as most people are not as good downclimbing as they are in ascent. The normal timings for the ascent are up to 4 hours up, and a similar though often slightly longer time for the descent back to the Hornli hut. On the descent the crampons are often kept on as long as getting to the Solvay hut.

Italian (Lion) Ridge from Cervinia
On the map above, this is the WSW ridge, from Testa del Leone to the summit at 4478m.

This route is approached from Cervinia, and only has roughly 5% of the traffic of the Hornli Arete, so is a good choice when you are trying to avoid the crowds. It also appeals to those who wish to sleep high on the mountain in the unguardianned Carrel hut at 3829m, thus shortening the summit day significantly. This route on the Italian side does have some disadvantages in that it is longer and so more physically demanding, however the grade is almost identical, though there is perhaps more exposure on this route.

To ascend to the Carrel on the first day is a great hike, that then turns into a scramble over loose ground up to the base of the Lions Head (Testa del Leone). Here you pass below the tower, and up a series of steeper steps to reach the Carrel hut. This is basic, and perched on the ridge, though is equipped with gas and cooking equipment, so you don't have to carry anything extra apart from some food. You spend the night in the hut here, and have an early start the next morning, but not so early as that in the Hornli Hut.

Above the hut the route is steep, and ascends a series of fixed ropes to the top of a steep part of the ridge. Here the gradient really stops, as you move along an almost flat section of ridge, with huge exposure on each side. At the far end of this ridge, the route steepens as you move up onto the summit block and there are sections of fixed ropes and even a ladder to aid progress in parts. Ahead of you the summit cross comes into view, and crampons are often used just for the final part of the climb.

The descent is made by the same route, so if you wanted to travel a bit lighter, you could leave some items in the Carrel hut in the morning, and collect them on your way down the mountain. The descent is long, all the way down to Cervina, but keep in your mind the record from the summit down is just under one hour! It's unlikely anyone will beat the record soon, as it's held by ski mountaineering and trail running legend Kilian Jornet.
Ascending the fixed ropes above the shoulder of the Matterhorn
Guiding ratio and grades
The guiding is always on a 1:1 ratio on the Matterhorn, which helps you not only move at speed but gives you the best possible chance for summit success. Despite the Hornli Arete (also known as the Hornligrat) being the most popular this does not mean it is by any means easy and anyone thinking of signing up for this should be fully prepared for sustained climbing (Alpine AD / Grade ll Ice / UK Severe / US 5.9) on this long route. The Matterhorn is not for inexperienced ticklisters, it requires commitment, significant rock climbing experience. The grade alone does not give a real impression of what the mountain is really like. It's often described as a hard scramble, or an easy rock climb, but nothing prepares you for the amount of loose rock, and it's then that your experience moving on steep broken mountain ground really kicks in. The ascent is not too technical, but it often beats people who are good climbers technically, but who aren't mountaineers. The top section always requires crampons, so before any course, you should have sufficient experience on steep snow / ice too.
Preparation & Acclimatisation
An ascent of the Matterhorn should not be underestimated, and you should arrive for this course in good physical condition as the climb will probably be the greatest physical exertion of your life. Please don't ignore this issue... We highly recommend that you read our training page (click here) for details on how to prepare. If you are worried about acclimatisation, which is a real concern for anyone attempting the Matterhorn, we highly recommend that you book on an Acclimatisation Weekend before your course.

As mentioned previously we require our clients to have specific experience, skills and fitness before attempting the Matterhorn. While not the most technical course we offer it is important to be able to move quickly and adeptly up and over rock. Indoor climbing while great for building up strength and balance is not a substitute for rock so head to the Lakes or North Wales: a couple of days getting used to uneven terrain and gritty rock is a perfect way to improve your skills never mind escaping those sweaty gyms and having a douse of fresh air to invigorate your training.
Those that have not had much experience with crampons could still attempt the Matterhorn if they have appropriate rock climbing experience as it is only the final summit block that usually demands crampons. We also expect you to have the required levels of fitness for such a demanding route not only for bettering your chances of summit success but also for your own safety and well-being. Please follow our training plans and, once you think you've reached the physical peak required train even harder!
FREE Podcast: Climbing the Matterhorn... view website course page
If you've ever wondered what it is like to attempt the Matterhorn, the skills required, and the suggested training for this peak, then this podcast answers it all
Download the podcast MP3 (2.92 MB) See all the Icicle podcasts
The summit block of the Matterhorn appearing through the cloud
Summary and postscript to the focus page
This page is constantly updated as a result of changing techniques, conditions, and latest news. Please don't use this page alone as the research you undertake for an ascent, and it does definately not attempt to offer any of the instruction of techniques which you will require. Details of many other sources of information have been provided, which you should consult before an ascent. Remember that to climb Matterhorn is really a privilege, not a guarantee. If you found this page of use, and have any other information that others may find helpful, then please e-mail us. We will post any useful extra information on the page, and you will be cited. It is this sharing of knowledge that makes the climbing community so close, and this extra knowledge will increase your chances of summitting.
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Matterhorn 4478m
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Any further questions?
A key part of choosing a company is being able to come and talk about your plans with an experienced course advisor face to face. In an increasingly virtual world, we know our clients value speaking to real people, getting open and honest advice. The vast majority of our clients are British, and our office and outdoor store is based in Windermere in the English Lake District.

Get in contact to arrange a meeting, and come in for a coffee to discuss your course in person with a trip advisor.

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