As one of the most recognizable mountains, the Matterhorn is one of the most photographed peaks in the world and a prominent landmark and symbol of Switzerland.
Name: Matterhorn / Monte Cervino / Mont Cervin
Height: 4478 m (14692 feet)
Location: Switzerland / Italy
First Climbed: 1865 (Edward Whymper, Charles Hudson, Francis Douglas, Douglas Robert Hadow, Michel Croz, Peter Taugwalder, Peter Taugwalder [son])
Climb Time: 2 days
Best Time to Climb: June - September
An Introduction to the Matterhorn
At 4,478 meters (14,692 feet), the mountain is the tenth highest in the country and is just one of 48 above 4000 meters tall. In actual fact the Matterhorn spans two countries; Italy and Switzerland and as such it has different names. The name ‘Matterhorn’ is German and is derived from the words Matte which translates to ‘meadow’ and horn, translating to ‘peak’. In Italian the mountain is referred to as Cervino and in French Cervin, with both of these words originating from the Latin terms Cervus and Inus which mean Place of Cervus. A Cervus is a type of deer. You might hear either Cervino or Cervin on the Italian side as French is also widely spoken in Valle d'Aosta.
The mountain itself has four faces which face north, east, south and west, the four cardinal directions and is an attraction for many tourists. So striking is it that it has wound up being a place of interest for those on day trips, simply wishing to marvel at this vast pyramid of rock jutting out of the Alps like a skyscraper whilst sipping a cappuccino or sampling some Swiss chocolate as well as hikers, walkers and a primary attraction for climbers too. The route to the summit is not as hard as it looks, but still its not for the average Sunday rambler either - over 500 people have perished making the climb to the summit with many of the fatalities owing to lack of experience, falls, adverse weather or falling rocks and many victims of the mountain are buried in the Zermatt cemetery.
The Matterhorn is popular area with skiers, hikers, travellers an dthose looking to get som eexperience climbign a high mountain perhaps before heading of to do one of the 7 summits.
Approximately 3,000 people attempt to climb to the summit each year, but recently the hut at the start of the Hornli Ridge route has been reduced to remove the problem of people camping outside. It is hoped by officials that this will reduce the amount of climbers by a third and decrease overcrowding that is often an issue on the mountain. The majority of climbers are either climbing guides or their clients.
History of the Matterhorn
The Matterhorn has an eventful history with July 14th 2015 marking the 150th anniversary of the first ascent to the summit. An Alpine Topographer and Historian Aegidius Tschudi was one of the first people to make any mention of the Matterhorn through his publications in Prisca ac Vera Alpina Raethi which was published in 1538. The Matterhorn itself remained unstudied for over 200 years until Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Geologist from Geneva visited the mountain, but he was not compelled to climb it and had no interest in measuring the altitude. Over the following years he made a few visits to the mountain, the second journey in 1792 when he studied the mountain in detail spending three days at Theodul Pass carefully evaluating the structure of the mountain, collecting stones, insects and plants.
Emil Cardinaux created an impressive postcard of the mountain which was designed in the form of a card in 1903 and was printed as a poster to attract tourists to Zermatt in 1908 and this early example of a travel poster is considered to be a milestone for 20th century design. Nevermind that the altitude has been slightly upgraded – it’s a beautiful piece of art!
In 1950 a tramway was proposed from a small Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia but this was stopped after thousands of people expressed their dissatisfaction to the Italian government and the idea was abandoned. Breuil is now a bustling and highly successful ski-resort with the most impressive backdrop imaginable.
The First Ascent of the Matterhorn
As a mountain that was always considered too difficult to climb, the Matterhorn became synonymous with many failed attempts. That was at least until the 14th July 1865 when a British climbing team succeeded in reaching the summit. However the journey itself took a dangerous turn and the descent claimed the lives of several climbers. Only three of the seven strong team returned from the perilous trek.
- Consult this essential reading list of books about Matterhorn including History and Guidebooks.
- Read this article about Edward Whymper's South American climbs
The British climber Edward Whymper was joined by three guides and another three climbers, on the expedition to the summit. The group passed by the Hörnligrat and then up to the north wall. Whymper was the first to reach the top followed by the rest of the group. The group’s achievement was marred however by the events that unfolded as the group descended back to civilisation. As the climbers embarked on their journey back down to their starting point, the four members of the front rope team who were in front fell over the north wall to their deaths. The bodies of Michel Croz, Douglas Robert Hadow and Reverend Charles Hudson were later recovered a few days after the tragedy on the Matterhorn glacier but the body of Lord Francis Douglas has never been located. After the incident the Queen of England at the time, Victoria wanted a ban put in place to prohibit individuals from climbing the Matterhorn as she would never again allow 'English Royal Blood' to be wasted on the Matterhorn mountain. At the peak of the Golden Age of Mountaineering, the very sport was suddenly brought into question by this controversy.
Matterhorn Route Guide
Many climber's dreams are fulfilled with an opportunity to climb a mountain such as the Matterhorn and it is one of the most popular mountains that you could climb. Very few mountains are as recognisable or as spectacular as the Matterhorn and it is certainly easy to understand why it is on the list of every climber or mountaineer. Before you attempt one of the routes to the top of the Matterhorn, there are some fundamental guidelines that you should follow to ensure that you are adequately prepared and equipped for the journey ahead.
The most popular and easiest route is Hörnli Ridge. However it is still important to ensure that you are suitably experienced to attempt the climb because the route can be quite demanding, graded at AD+.
The climb itself is moderately difficult in terms of technicality but due to the length of the climb, the altitude and exposure to the elements, it does require a high degree of skill in terms of technique and movement along with efficiency, commitment and endurance. Even though the Hornli Ridge is one of the most popular routes, it is still demanding but the views and scenery are spectacular.
As with any mountain climb it helps if you are knowledgeable about the kind of terrain that you will encounter and what sort of preparation you need to complete. On this route you should be comfortable handling exposed AD ridge terrain and on this route in particular it is crucial that you can navigate well and find the right route through complex alpine ridges. In addition you should have the necessary rope skills and be able to make good decisions quickly. As long as you are fit enough and accustomed to taking on a route such as the Hornli, you will complete a safe and enjoyable route to the summit importing the climb with the necessary preparation it can save you a massive amount of time, in some cases over twelve hours. Some recommended routes to acclimatise yourself to before attempting the climb of the Matterhorn include; Traverse of the Aiguilles Marbrees, the Cosmiques Ridge and the Aiguille d'Entreves Traverse. Due to the popularity of the Hornli route Zermatt guides have created a set of rules to avoid queuing. Guides often leave the hut first followed by other mountain guides and then lastly independent climbers.
Zermatt guides progress up to the Hornli Ridge and are very familiar with the route up to the summit. Finding suitable routes on this journey can be difficult which is why it is advised to take a guide who is familiar with the area.
The ascent to the summit through the Hornli Ridge route takes approximately two days, leaving from Zermatt. It takes around a day to reach the Hornli hut and a further day to climb to the summit and return to Zermatt. To climb the mountain successfully, the route needs to be in good condition and relatively free from snow. To maintain a high level of safety and optimum energy levels, it is recommended that you should ascend from the hut to the summit in less than six hours. The descent takes approximately four to five hours but does require extreme care and attention particularly over any exposed rocks. During the climb there should be one climber to one guide to ensure that each individual on route is as safe as possible. The Matterhorn route is predominantly a rock climb with some steep snow and climbers should aim to complete the climb in good time while progressing at a careful and steady pace.
With a good guide and a fit walking team, the round trip can be completed in seven hours but in heavy snow it can take significantly longer than this, as long as 17 hours.
- Click here for a list of the best Guidebooks for the mountain walker or climber looking to visit the Matterhorn area.
Walking in the Matterhorn Area
For those not quite ready for the strong winds and lofty alpine heights of the summit of this iconic mountain, there are plenty of opportunities to walk int he surrounding region. The tour of the Matterhorn is a long distance walk which takes around 10 days and rewards the thru-hiker with views of all 4 faces and the differing scenery and cultures of the Swiss and Italian sides. On the Swiss side the walk encompasses the German and French speaking Valais and in Italy the Valtournanche, a steep valley in the Valle d'Aosta region. In terms of terrain this picturesque walk take sin meadows, forests of the deciduous larch, potential glacier crossing and snowfields as well as balcony trails. It also includes the famous Theodul Pass, mentioned in so many nineteenth century accounts of early mountain travel, linking the valleys of Zermatt and Valtournanche.
Equipment, Guides and Other Considerations
As with any climbing expedition it is crucial that you go equipped with the right kit. Good boots are essential particularly for the Hornli route. When the conditions are good, the route can be completed at least up to the shoulder without the need for crampons which is almost three quarters of the way to the summit. B2 boots are the best ones to purchase for this type of expedition.
Ice axes are very useful and required on the summit ridge, so too is a lightweight harness and strong helmet. A 40 meter single rope is also recommended. A list of equipment you should bring includes;
- An adequate 35 to 45 litre rucksack
- Weatherproof trousers
- Weatherproof shell jacket
- Two pairs of suitable gloves
- A warm hat
- A cap to protect against the sun
- Sunscreen with a minimum of factor 30 and lip balm
- A pair of sunglasses
- Two fleece jumpers and vests
- Lightweight and thin sleeping bag for use in the hut
- A good pair of climbing boots (suitable for crampons)
When climbing the Matterhorn, whether you start the journey at all very much depends on the weather and the available window of opportunity. Furthermore, the route is unsuitable if there is fresh snow. As a general guide if Swiss guides aren't venturing up the mountain it's generally advised that you shouldn't either.
If our guide so far has increased your interest in climbing the Matterhorn the first step that you need to take is to decide which route you are going to take. Although there are a number of different routes, 25 in total, the other routes including the Horligrat on the Swiss side as well as the Liongrat the Italian route, the Zmuttgratt which is one of the classic climbing routes, the most difficult route, the Furggengrat and Da North Wall which is also a challenging route.
Should I use a guide?
Many less experienced climbers will ask this question and the answer in the majority of cases is absolutely. Unless you have experience climbing more challenging mountains such as the Weisshorn then a guide is essential for a successful round trip.
When you climb the Matterhorn in the summer, temperatures can plummet to -10 Celsius and afternoon thunder storms and blizzards are commonplace. This is the reason why it is important to need to move along the route at a steady pace. In many places along the route, you will find that rope work is already in place which will make things a little easier. The speed at which you can progress along the route is everything for this climb and it has been known for guides to turn people back at 8am if they feel that you are too slow. If you want to know whether the route is suitable for you there are climbs such as the Grossglockner the highest mountain in Austria or Studlgrat, once you have progressed to the top in five to five and a half hours you know you should be able to tackle the Matterhorn.
For those inexperienced in winter climbing the summer is the best time provided that you complete the route with a suitably experienced guide. The summer season runs from the end of June through to the middle of September. It is also important to consider the risk of avalanches but this often depends on the specific conditions each day and your guide will be able to advise you further. It is recommended that you spend a week or two in the Zermatt to acclimatise yourself before attempting the ascent of the Matterhorn.
Good mountaineering skills and stamina are two things that you need to climb Matterhorn successfully. The journey to the top can be a gruelling 12 hours with a challenging 1.200 vertical meters to climb. In order to complete the course you should be able to achieve between 3 and 4 alpine peaks in over 4000 meters, climb without difficulty a5.7/4C V Rock in top rope, the ability to climb one or two multi pitch and exposed alpine routes and run 10 kilometres or 6 miles in an hour and a half or less.
To get the most out of the climb, you should be provided with a flexible itinerary because the climb route and difficulty often largely depends on the weather and your individual preferences. It is difficult to say how long exactly you will spend in axed at and on the mountain itself so many climbing itineraries include lodgings, meals and the cost of lifts.