Climbing Matterhorn

Roy Lachica, August 12. 2012, Oslo

This page was written for others who are thinking of climbing Matterhorn. In particular it was written for people who are not hard core mountaineers. It will hopefully be helpful saving you time preparing.

Terms

By reading past this point you agree that I cannot be held accountable for any deaths, injuries or loss as a result of using the information found here to plan your climb. Please note that the conditions on Matterhorn change all the time and other factors may have changed since I was there.

Sections

Introduction

Back in 2011 I was planning a conference trip to Switzerland. I knew that Switzerland was famous for its hiking and mountain climbing possibilities so I looked around for some must-see sights and soon found the Matterhorn. It did not take a long time before I had started investigating if climbing Matterhorn was an option.

After reading lots of web-pages about climbing Matterhorn I decided to pursue the idea further. This would be a big challenge as I had limited climbing experience.

Buying a guided ascent was my only option since none of my friends had the level of climbing experience needed, or the fitness and the motivation to do something this extreme. A solo climb was out of the question with my level of climbing expertise.

Preparations

For a guided ascent you need to book a guide in advance. You should start to plan your travel, get insurance, accommodation and a guide several months in advance.

Decide to use a local guide or not. A local guide will get you faster up and down Matterhorn but a guide from your own country may provide better service so you get a better experience.

Training and testing of gear also needs to be started months in advance. All gear must be tested thoroughly.

Make sure you get experience with crampons on snow, ice and rocks. A few alpine climbs are highly recommended.

Relevant training will prepare you mentally so you are not all stressed out on Matterhorn.

You should carefully plan your acclimatization and training in Zermatt. The lifts are expensive so it’s a good idea to figure out how much you will be using them while in Zermatt. If you will be using them a lot there are several options for half price tickets etc.

The mountain and route

The summit is at 4478 meters. The normal route for non-expert climbers is the Hörnli route which starts from the Hörnli hut at 3260 meters altitude. This means a sheer 1200 meter climb. You go the same way down. The climb up and down takes from 7 to 12 hours. If you use a local guide, have lots of climbing experience and are super fit you'll probably use about 8 hours if you want to enjoy the climb and not stress too much.

Most of the climb is fairly easy. Mostly AD / level III grade climbing but all the hazards makes it a relativily dangerous climb.

Dangers

The best weather conditions for climbing are between July-August which is the summer holiday for most Europeans. This means that there are a lot of climbers who take on Matterhorn at the same time. This is what makes this climb so special. In the high season there is a queue up the mountain and the guides are pressing on because the weather on the mountain gets bad later in the day.

You also want to make it back down in under 10 hours or you will miss the last gondola lift down to Zermatt. If you miss the last lift you have to sleep out or walk for another two hours all way down to Zermatt which is not fun after having climbed Matterhorn and having walked for two hours from the Hörnlihut down to the lift at Schwarzsee.

Training

Matterhorn should not be attempted without mountain climbing experience or if you are not in superb physical shape. I only had a few outdoor climbs and perhaps 20 indoor climbing sessions some 10 years ago so I was not exactly a hard core mountain climber.

To get more relevant climbing experience I decided to do a guided alpine climb here in Norway and one in Switzerland just before the Matterhorn climb. This last training climb (Breithorn traverse) would also be used for acclimatization.

My training for Matterhorn was carefully planned and consisted of a progressive plan starting 5 months before the climb. To motivate myself for training I signed up for various endurance competitions. As part of my training I signed up for a forest marathon, a 10km street run and an 8 km off-road race.

From my experience you should be able to complete a 10km run in under 45 minutes and a Marathon in under 4 and a half hours.

If you are an excellent climber you do not need to be a world class athlete since a good outdoor climber will conserve his energy by moving much more fluently etc.

The training amount gradually increased from two times a week to about 7 times a week. The training was topped two weeks before the climb and from there I gradually replaced training with rest to get the peak physical and mental shape at just the right moment.

Training consisted of mostly various cardio and VO2 max training. Everything from biking, running, cross country skiing, steep uphill walking, scrambling, hill intervals, 30km walks, running in stairs to doing weights at the gym.

As the date closed in training sessions got longer and I could do fast steep hill walking with scrambling for 5 hours two times a week.

Carbo loading and complete rest was started 2 days before the Matterhorn climb. Extra intake of salt was done in the morning of the climb and the night before.

For training in Zermatt there is a fitness test designed by the Alpin Center guides. You will find a big sign a couple of minutes walking distance from behind the Gornergrat subway station a little bit up in the hillside on the trail towards Ried. If you use under 45 minutes running from here to Sunnegga you are in good shape for Matterhorn.

Gear

Make sure you can take your crampons out of your backpack in under 20 seconds. If you have your jacket in the backpack this can make retrieving the crampons more difficult.

If the temperature is above freezing you should start without your outer jacket. Make sure to pack your jacket in a way that makes it easy to pull out. Don't make the mistake of pulling out the jacket and having bottles, food and other stuff fly in all directions and fall down on climbers below.

Checking my gear before leaving for Switzerland.

Head torch must have good batteries. Extra battery and perhaps even an extra light bulb can be a good idea if the equipment is old.

If you plan to take photos of record video make sure you test your gear in as realistic situations as possible. Calibrate and prepare formats for the target media. If you plan to publish video to YouTube record in 1080p 30fps.

A photo camera needs to be easily accessible at all times if you plan to use it. It cannot be stored in your backpack or inside a pouch in your jacket because you must be able to pull up the camera, shoot and put it back in seconds. This can obviously be a challenge to prepare for if it rains or if it is very cold. The best arrangement for a photo camera is probably a compact camera stored in a small pouch on one of your backpack front side shoulder straps.

Gear list

To wear

In back pack (25L)

In jacket, pants or back pack top compartment

At hut

There is no tap water at Hörnli hut. You may ask for cooked water. Remember to buy drink or bring your own to the hut.

Costs

Many have asked about the price for doing a Matterhorn climb so here's a rough summary of what may be a typical expedition. The price is based on a stay for two weeks. The price will obviously depend on what comfort level you prefer. You may also stay for a shorter period but that may result in you not being able to do the climb because of illness (e.g. poor acclimatization) or bad weather.

Flight $1,000
Train (Zurich - Zermatt round trip) $150
Lifts/Gondola $100
Hotel $1,500
Food $1,000
Climb (guide matterhorn + training climb) $1,900
Hornli Hut (you and guide) $150
Total $5,800

Do keep in mind that Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world.

Acclimatization

Acclimatization is really important. My plan was to acclimatize fast to avoid spending too much time away from my wife. This was not a good idea. I also thought I could compensate for bad acclimatization by being in better physical shape. Not so.

We went up to Klein Matterhorn summer ski center (3900m) for an hour the first day in Zermatt. After just 10 minutes or so we could feel the altitude. We started getting a bit dizzy but this quickly passed when we got to a lower altitude.

The next day we went on a slow walk, taking photos. We walked from Blauherd to Stellisee and on to Rothorn (3100m). This took us about 4 hours. We got some really beautiful pictures here.

In the evening of the next day I went back up to Klein Matterhorn to sleep over before doing a guided Breithorn half traverse (4100m) the next morning.

This night was terrible. During the evening I developed altitude sickness. I got a headache and nausea. I lost my appetite and woke up every 15 minutes suffocating.

Acclimatization for Matterhorn should be done gradually over many days. Read Rick Curtis’ Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses for good info on how to acclimatize.

What was it like

By now you probably want to know what it was like on the mountain. I can say it was awesome but hell at the same time, even with all the preparations and training. This might be due to several factors such as my lack of mountain climbing experience, me moving slower because I was filming and possibly having a guide with a hurry.

Often it felt like a war situation and as if the mountain was to be hit by an atomic bomb in 8 hours. It was as if I was in an action movie and we had to get the f out of there. Maybe I was just unfortunate with the guide I was assigned.

Even if I completed the climb in 7 and a half hour, which is a pretty good time, the guide kept pushing. We passed several other climbers both on the way up and down. The weather forecast was perfect so I did not understand why he was pressing on so hard. Maybe he had a bet with his colleagues or something.

After being pushed for three hours I was kind of on auto pilot, brainwashed to move as fast as possible. He kept saying 'don't stop', 'come on'. He was even dragging me by the rope.

There was barely time to stop to eat. With the cold temperature and my heavy breathing I was almost not able to chew my energy bar.

I was not even able to drink. I forgot to take the Camelbak drinking tube out of the backpack and there was no time to stop and pull it out. After two hours there was finally some time but guides below started getting pissed off when I stopped. I tried to find the drinking tube under my jacket inside the backpack while moving. When I finally got the tube out I was not able to suck and drink because I was breathing too heavily because of the fast pace and thin air.

You may think this sounds like madness, and yes it was. It might just be one of the craziest situations I have been in. The mix of speed, exhaustion, vertical drop, and crowd made it very special, or should I say extreme.

Thinking back it was really insane but at the same time very exciting. A full day adrenaline rush.

I do not regret signing up, but I do think it would have been a better experience if I had more time to appreciate the view, to take some pictures and just enjoy the moment.

One hour before we were down I asked if we could stop to take a photo. He replied by saying I would have to climb down with one of the other guides. I was shocked and said I could take a photo when I got down instead. We continued down now with both of us in a sour mood. I was set on complaining to the Alpin Center later but I never got around to it. Just by looking at their offices, a big house in the middle of the main street you just know they are making a ton of money with their guided tours. He was probably fed up with me, an inexperienced climber filming, and I was provoked by what I felt as poor customer service after having paid a great deal of money for the two climbs with the Alpin Center.

From other stories I have heard this treatment was not really surprising. But, it probably all depends on the guide you get. There are more than 50 mountain guides in and around Zermatt so my experience might not be representative.

In defence of the guides, it's understandable that they want to limit the time on the mountain. For every hour spent on the mountain the risk of accident increases. The guides are risking their lives each time they take a visitor.

The climb

It all started with a gondola lift the day before from Zermatt to Schwarzsee. From there it was a two and a half hour walk. I walked very slowly and stopped for breaks as I was told by guides to walk very slowly to stay fully rested for the next day. My backpack was a bit heavy since I was not informed that I would be served both dinner and breakfast. I brought lots of food and drink so I had to walk even slower to not begin sweating too much.

I arrived at the hut at 18:30. I signed the log book and was told to take a seat at a specific table already packed with Japanese climbers. It is always interesting to chat with someone with a very different culture. I must admit that I was a bit perplexed by the Japanese climbers. Some of them looked quite old. I don't know if they all made it to the top but they seemed to be very experienced although not super fit.

At 19:00 we got a three course dinner. Everyone was served the same food. At about 19:30 the guides came up to our table and we went to do an equipment check. I was told to pack lightly and be ready at once the next morning. He said 1 litre of water was enough but I brought over 2 litres. Now that I look back I'm glad I did not listen to him because I would definitely be dehydrated with only one litre.

I prepared my backpack, did a last gear check including preparing crampons and used some sports tape to secure my head torch. Energy bars were put in my jacket and the rest of my gear was placed orderly at my bed. I was a bit annoyed by a Japanese girl who had her stuff tossed all over the place. She had definitely not been in the army I thought to myself.

Once finished preparing, people had already started to go to bed. Not to disturb the people sleeping I also went to bed around 21:00. To save time the next morning we all slept in our long underwear. Some even slept with their climbing pants and head torch on their head.

I was lucky to sleep between two girls. They were not taking up much place. We all got about 80 cm bed space. We slept 18 in each room packed with bunk beds. We got two blankets each and I stayed warm during the night. The room was fully packed with people so the room got warm by body heat.

We all slept very close so you should make sure you have clean clothes. My long underwear was smelling from my Breithorn traverse the day before. I hope it did not bother the two girls next to me too much. The two older guys snoring were much more annoying. Not to forget all the people who made noise walking in and out of the room. I don't think many got a good night sleep that night. I also began to develop a slight altitude sickness during the night making the night even worse.

The Breakfast started at 03:30 but already at 02:45 people started to get up. It was not long before the whole hut was buzzing with people with head torches getting dressed.

I got down to the eating area but the breakfast was not yet served so I started to eat two bananas I had brought with me and some sports drink. To make my body store more water I took a salt tablet. Once breakfast was served it did not take many minutes before guides and visitors started queuing up at the door. Of course there was no time to go to the toilet.

I felt like a baby when the guide tied my harness in on his rope. After a few minutes of shouting, pushing and queuing up we went out in the dark like in a military style patrol. I guess it was just before 4 o'clock.

It was an eerie feeling. Dead silence, no wind just a long queue of people with head torches. We could already see a line of lights up the mountain.

There is a defined order of who gets to go first. To make the ascent as smooth as possible Swiss guides gets to go first because they know the route the best and will be faster. Some people had sneaked out and got a head start.

At this point I felt in control, calm and ready, but also bit eager to get started. I felt confident with all my training, preparations and research but at the same time I knew my climbing experience was limited so I did not exactly know what to expect. Also, I had never climbed in the dark before.

After walking in a tight slow queue for a couple of minutes we got to the foot of the mountain. A fixed thick rope on a vertical wall indicates the start of the climb. The dark actually felt good. I could concentrate on what was just in front of me. My head torch with 300 lumens was stronger than everyone else’s and I think it was a plus.

As I did not get the time to take a leak at the cabin, I soon had to go. There was no time to stop so we, or rather he, decided it would be best to just pull it out and pee off the side of the mountain in the middle of the queue while waiting for someone in front of us were struggling on a more difficult section.

We pushed on and kept a high pace. The most exhausting part of the climb is from about 15 minutes in and for the next 2 hours. The pace was a bit high but I felt I was doing ok. No fear of heights and I was not getting too tired apart from sweating and breathing somewhat heavy.

After about two hours the sun came up. No time to look at the sunrise but I was given a few minutes to detach the head torch. This was relieving as both lamp and helmet camera gets a bit heavy on the neck muscles after many hours.

Soon after we arrived at the Solvay hut at 4003 meters. No time to stop there either. We walked right passed it and kept pushing towards the summit.

After about 3 hours we reached the shoulder and snow beneath the summit. This is where we put on the crampons. From here the pace slowed a bit but it was still just as hard because by now I had started to get both physically and mentally tired and the air had got thinner. I fiddled to get the crampons out because the jacket was still in the back pack. The guide was clearly irritated.

At the fixed ropes about half an hour from the top it was getting colder and some sections were quite windy so we stopped to put on our jackets and had something to drink. By now the queue had dissolved and the pace was not as extreme. We now moved slower because the snow beneath our feet was not all too secure and a fall here would almost certainly be fatal.

I have always had some fear of heights. When standing on the balcony or roof of a tall building I usually get some tickeling feeling in the stomach/groin. But I do not get the same feeling when climbing. Not even on Matterhorn where the wall is fairly vertical all the way up. At the very last section we encountered what was probably the most risky section. Snowy, very steep and just short rope, no top rope. I thought to my self this is not very safe but kept moving very slowly and carefully.

At about 7:30 we reached the summit. This was definitely the most amazing part of the climb as there was a 2 kilometre drop on each side. A misstep and you would be falling into oblivion. I did not take my eyes of the ridge in front of me in fear of slipping. I could imagine me stumbling and falling down one side and my guide jumping off the other side to stop me sliding into certain death.

We met 6 others at the top. We greeted each other and took some pictures. I was still in a hurry-like-crazy mode so I forgot all about checking out the view. At this point I was very excited. I was very glad to be at the top. I felt like a champion.

It was a fantastic feeling at the top but I knew that the hardest and most dangerous part was in front of us. We were simply half way. We sat down and had a small bite of food before starting on the descent.

The descent

I was belayed down several sections. This was probably the most fun I had. I was able to descend with very little energy and could rest tired muscles at the same time. The descent was naturally less strenuous so I was actually able to sip water from the Camelbak and have some bites of energy bar while on the move on the way down.

I imagined the way down to be much harder, but all the training had come to its full use. I had the energy, stamina and mental strength to focus and keep it going for 8 hours almost non-stop.

The entire descent went remarkably well, although I am almost surprised I did not accidentally put my crampon teeth into the hand or face of someone climbing up when I was fast rappelling down the crowded mountain.

I was down off the wall by the first thick fixed ropes at about 12:30. I felt extremely glad to be back without any injuries and not feeling dead tired. The whole climb had gone so fast that it seemed I had only been away for an hour. I guess that is what happens when you constantly focus 100% on the tasks and situation.

I thanked the guide for getting me safe back to earth, got some rest with sports drink and food for restitution. I then went to get the rest of my stuff at the hut.

By now the tables outside the hut was filled with new climbers for the next day. It was a good feeling being back from a long tiresome climb, but I felt a bit awkward amidst the crowd of happy beer drinking rough guys sitting packed in the sun. There was background music and a wonderful view. A really amazing atmosphere.

I knew my wife was tired of being alone on this vacation so I packed my stuff and got going on the two hour walk down to the lift. To my astonishment the walk back down to the lift went more easy than expected. It was if the accomplishment of Matterhorn gave me new energy to keep moving.

I got back in Zermatt at 14:30 and got a bad stomach some hours later. Perhaps because of bad hand hygiene. There is no running water and soap at Hörnli hut. The extreme mental and physical stress might also have triggered the bad stomach.

For the next hours I got some rest, ate a lot of food and jumped in the yacuzzi and celebrated with my wife. The owners of the hotel, who were extremely service minded people, gave us Champaigne on the house.

My emotions that afternoon were mixed. I felt glad, angry and tired. Angry because the guide had been pressing on so hard. Most of all I felt extremely proud and happy to be able to take part in such an adventure.

Conclusion

Climbing the Matterhorn is a truly amazing experience. Seeing pictures and logos depicting the Matterhorn mountain reminds me of an unforgettable climb and gives a great sense of achievement.

There is no mountain like it and the climb is really unique. But, it is not for everyone. People die on the mountain each year. There are plenty of chances to have a misstep and fall to your death dragging your guide along if he doesn't catch you.

Be sure to have mixed Alpine mountaineering experience and excellent physical shape. Acclimatize well and prepare your climb months in advance.

When you meet the guide clearly express your level of experience and fitness. Also communicate if you want to take pictures and record video. This will help to steer expectations.

I hope this page has helped you prepare for the climb. Hopefully the advice I give here will be useful so that you can have a climbing experience you won’t forget.

Good luck.

Comments and questions

If you would like to comment on this page or video, or if you have questions about my Matterhorn climb please visit the YouTube page for this video and post your questions and comments there.

Creative Commons License
This work by Roy Lachica is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at roy.lachica.no.