Tackling the Matterhorn Dream

Text Laurent Grabet / Photo Thomas Crauwels
Date of publication Winter 2018-2019

The Matterhorn is one of the world’s most famous and most beautiful mountains. It’s also one of the most deadly. helvet takes you along for a climb that was undertaken this summer by a team of international alpinists.

Every summer, between late June and late September, some 2,500 alpinists try to scale the Matterhorn. About  40% of them will pass via the Hörnli Ridge, the route of the first ascent and the most frequented of the four classic routes that reaches the summit. This past July 7th, an international group of 26 alpinists got up at 3:45 am and attempted tackle the Hörnligrat. They came from all corners of the globe: Switzerland and France, yes, but also Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Hungary.

600 Deaths in 153 Years
This route features an almost-vertical wall of rock, located directly behind the cabane. Most of the climbers already notice it the night before, examining it with a glance that’s half-distracted, half-evocative. This mountain is responsible for over 600 deaths. It’s one of the deadliest mountains in the world, as a multitude of metal plaques drilled into the gneiss along the way will attest. Luckily, the majority of climbers today know it’s best to hire a guide, as trying to find the path in a maze of unstable boulders on your own is practically a lost cause (and can possibly be deadly).
For our ascent, the mercury drops to – 2°C and a sea of clouds seems to separate the world below from this exceptionally icy universe; a world of its own. The Alpine procession moves forward slowly as the sun finally makes an appearance on the horizon, illuminating the thousands of glaciers that pepper the surrounding landscape. One cannot help but be humbled; the feeling of smallness is overwhelming here in the face of such immensity.

No Traffic, Lots of Snow
There are few volunteers for this morning’s ascent. While this does mean the usual morning traffic is not an issue (sometimes there are over 130 people trying to climb at the same time!), this morning’s progress is made difficult by abundant snow that obliges climbers to put on their crampons much earlier than usual. After almost three hours of upward trekking, roped together, the Solvay cabane finally appears. At 4,003 meters, this 20m2 shanty sits perched on the edge of a cliff, like a security guard with a watchful eye over all those who attempt to pass. Safety is of utmost concern and, as a rule of thumb, local guides will turn back with any client who cannot reach the cabane within three hours.
After pausing to take in the breathtaking panorama it’s time to continue. Thick, hemp robes permeate the most difficult parts of the route (a modern day luxury that Whymper and his team were not able to enjoy when they first climbed the Matterhorn on July 14th, 1865). Permanent metal pins, drilled into the rock, provide checkpoints for rope safety along the way, relieving guides who would otherwise have to improvise or “sling a horn.”

A Long and Dangerous Descent
Altitude accentuates all things, fatigue being no exception. On the way up the going is slow, one’s breath is shallow and one’s muscles burn painfully. The last 150 meters require leaving the ridge and heading straight for the summit along the snowy slope of the north face. It was near here that Géraldine Fasnacht made history in 2014 for being the first to base jump in a wing suit off the Matterhorn. Just a few steps from the top, an almost-eerie statue of Saint Bernard, patron saint of alpinists, welcomes weary adventurers. Less than a minute later, one is at the summit with a magnificent 360° view, 4,478 meters above the world below. Now is the time to hug, high-five and take photos, all hands raised in victory. This is what it means to “take the path less travelled by.” Another five to six hours of descent await already-weary climbers before they arrive back where they started, 1,200 meters below. Only then can the dream of climbing the famous Matterhorn finally (and fully) come true.