There is heaps to read about the Matterhorn on the internet, but nothing I read prepared me for the mountain. A number of months ago at a Tuesday night Patika event at Karaf in Kaleiçi, Hasan introduced me to his friend Semra who was visiting from Rize. Hasan had been talking to both me and Semra separately about a climbing trip to Switzerland. It was that evening that we started to seriously set our eyes on the Matterhorn. Like many people, I read a little about the difficulty (it’s not) of the Hörnli Ridge route and said, “yes, let’s do it.”
Upon further research I started to regret our decision. It seems the route is very crowded, there’s a pecking order regarding who can climb first at the bottlenecks, and the other climbers, well, the guides especially, don’t seem to be very friendly to those who don’t hire their services (for 1000 Swiss Francs/day (US$1045), maximum two people). We bought tickets to Geneva for late June, knowing that was a bit early for the season and hoping that it might be slightly less crowded. Expecting to generally be able to follow the hordes, I didn’t pay too much attention to the actual route description — just follow the other groups or the fixed gear that’s abundant on the route (and, as it turns out, slightly off the route as well).
Getting to the mountain is easy if you have a fat wallet. From Geneva, Hasan, Barış, Semra, and I caught the train to Zermatt (transfer in Visp) and then a teleferique from Zermatt to Schwarzsee at ~2600m. This bit from Geneva costs more than an air ticket from Antalya to Geneva. It was windy and cool at Schwarzsee and looked windier and colder up on the mountain. We set up our base camp at about 2900m in a depression sheltered from the wind, not knowing what other options were higher up. We saw a couple people walking on the trail between the teleferique and our camping spot. The views were stellar.
We rushed to get to this camping spot from Geneva in one day (the same day that Hasan, Semra, and Barış flew from Antalya; I had arrived a day earlier) because we knew we had two days of decent weather following, after which it looked grim. At ~4am we left camp and made it to the Hörnli Hut (3200m) in about 90 minutes, no longer needing headlamps after about 5am. It was June 21st, the longest day of the year. The Hörnli Hut was due to open for the season on July 1. There was no one there, and it was locked. Also, there were no groups to follow. Hmmm, which way to go?
Not far above the hut we made our first route-finding error, quickly corrected. We started to follow bolts rather than a fixed line around the corner. After the initial steep section it was easy walking on a trail though Hasan and Barış were really noticing the altitude. We were at about 3400m at that point, having come from sea level the day before. Semra and I were feeling quite well. After some lower 5th class moves on a very exposed ridge, we made the decision to split up. Hasan and Barış weren’t even feeling well enough to try to keep going at a slower pace. They turned back, and Semra and I went on. At around 9am we were still pleased with our progress, but then for us the difficulties started.
The snow became too steep and icy to climb without crampons. We’d then climb steep, exposed rock with our crampons, only to have it get too steep and exposed so we removed our crampons, only to need them again minutes later. Route-finding wasn’t hard as we looked for the easiest route on the rock and followed foot prints in the snow. I lost track of how many times I took my crampons off and on — more than I’ve ever done in one day before. Somewhere around perhaps 3700m or 3800m there were no more footprints in the snow. We kept needing to do left upward traverses (stuff that’s difficult to rappel…) on steep, exposed snow with ice underneath. An additional, small, technical axe would have been nice. We were needing to swing our normal alpine axes into steep ice with either hand (you better be good with both) to safely move our feet. These techniques are more difficult on the descent, of course.
We reached the Solvay Hut at 4000m at 12:30pm, pleased with our progress though knowing that in dry conditions parties make the round trip from Hörnli Hut to the summit and back in the same time it took us to get from the Hörnli Hut to the Solvay Hut. The Solvay Hut is incredibly situated — cliffs down on three sides and a cliff above on the other side. There’s a snowy, icy ledge to navigate around the cliff sides of the hut. Just outside the door was an area clear of snow so you could pee over the cliff without putting on your crampons. We heated some water, dropped our sleeping bags, ate as much as we could, and left at 1pm setting a turnaround time of 5pm. We knew it was light until past 10pm with enough light for easy route-finding and rappelling still at 9pm.
I put on my crampons again, left the hut, only to hear Semra saying 10m later we were heading straight up a dry rocky cliff. It was our first belayed pitch. We had made it to the Solvay Hut without using the rope though for resting we had clipped into fixed anchors many times. I took my crampons off and led the bolted pitch using just quick-draws. It was easy enough with big boots and a pack but steep and exposed. Semra left her crampons on, and I gave her a good belay up to the snow, using the cliff as an anchor. We continued up in the same manner — crampons more on than off now. It was harder though, steeper, more icy, less room for making a mistake.
I left one fixed anchor onto steep, exposed ice, only to come right back, and tell Semra we were belaying again. Once on belay I started to cross the ice more quickly (less carefully) only to slip. My axe held, and of course I was on belay, but it reminded us how little room there is for mistakes up there. The ice led to a fixed line which I prusiked up while still on belay. I belayed Semra up the vertical section so she didn’t need to bother with the prusik. But a fixed-line traverse followed, starting as an overhang. We both had a very hard time getting the prusik set up at this overhang. Semra went first which was a much more difficult task because the rope was so covered in ice. Moving the prusik was very difficult. Since it was a traverse, a carabiner would have worked here as well, but the rope was too thick to clip in with a carabiner. I’m still not sure what the correct technique there should have been.
Clearly we’d been moving slowly for a while now. We didn’t climb a lot above these fixed lines. We had been in the clouds. All day it had been windy to the right side of the ridge, and we had had some snow showers a few times. However, the clouds cleared occasionally, and we knew we still had a long ways to go. We turned around at about 3:30pm, somewhere between 4200m and 4300m. Descending back to the Solvay Hut took longer than climbing up that section. Route-finding was more difficult, the rope work was time-consuming, and we had to be very careful reserving the traverse sections. In addition to lots of careful down climbing, we guessed we did about 10 rappels to get back to the hut. On the final one, just meters from the hut, the rope got stuck. Semra belayed me again up that section to retrieve the rope.
It had been 14 hours since we left camp, and we were wasted, I more so than Semra. She made some pasta, and I tried to eat and drink anything I could. In all my clothes in my sleeping bag, under blankets, I couldn’t warm up. It must have taken me 10 minutes to catch my breath after lying down. This was perhaps only the second time in my life I’ve slept above 4000m. I had a horrible headache, made a huge effort to get out of bed, take some drugs, and do some aerobics to try and get my blood moving. Semra slept through my heavy breathing which sounded like a sick truck.
In the second half of the night I slept quite well while Semra was awake listening to me snore. In the morning I was immediately nauseated by the cliffs when I went outside. I was tired of the constant exposure. The weather was stellar — better than the day before. We looked at each other, knowing we were missing a summit opportunity, but we didn’t have enough food, enough fuel to melt snow, enough good weather to descend the next day, and most importantly enough energy to safely climb. Instead we took some gratuitous climbing photos, ate as much as we could, and took our time descending.
It took eight hours to descend 800m to the Hörnli Hut, an hour more than it had taken going up. We estimated about 10 rappels and were always amazed and a little scared that we had climbed up all that stuff without ropes. Route-finding was difficult, the rope got stuck again, and we always had to be very, very careful. We were more than half-way down when we ran into the only other people we saw on the mountain, two Polish climbers who abandoned their climb after talking to us. “Does it get harder?” they asked. “Uh, I don’t think the hard stuff has started yet…”
Lower down we started to follow a trail. It wasn’t always clear, and at one point I was traversing steep loose rock, not realizing the trail was 2m above me. A rock the size of a small fridgerator started to move when I grabbed it. Suddenly the rocks I was standing on were moving. I dove to rocks that also looked terribly loose and scrambled up to solid ground as boulders banged down the cliff side. I was shaking, maybe crying, also laughing. Semra was also scared, came and gave me a hug. Uff, I was so done by this point, but we still had to be careful. As the day warmed up, rockfall increased as did the avalanches coming down the steep north face next to us. It was all rather disconcerting. (It’s now been three weeks since our climb, and my left knee has finally recovered from that life-saving dive onto the rocks.)
The final fixed line (there had only been two of them) led to the snow above Hörnli Hut where workers were being ferried by helicopter back to Zermatt. We walked quickly down the good path to camp and ate again. Hasan and Barış showed up an hour or so later after their ~30km hike. Sometime in the night it started to snow. I slept poorly and was anxious to get out of there in the morning in the snowstorm. What was it like at 4000m that morning? Our camp was at 2900m. There’s no way we could have descended in that weather with the difficult route-finding and all the care we had to take on the rocky sections when they were dry.
Back in Zermatt we ate some Swiss chocolate, and I said goodbye to Semra, Hasan, and Barış who were continuing on to Interlaken. I took the train back to Ferda who was waiting for me with our bicycles in Geneva.