Climbing the Mighty Matterhorn with ITCOG
This picturesque pyramidal peak is the crown jewel of the Alps, and a world-class alpine objective.
By Owen Clarke
The Matterhorn is without doubt one of the world’s most famous summits. This craggy spire rises to 14,692 feet above the Swiss town of Zermatt, on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Making it up to the Matterhorn’s imposing, pointed summit requires technical climbing, and the mountain is steep on all four faces, each of which looks towards the four cardinal directions.
Along with Mont Blanc (15,774 feet), the Matterhorn is one of the most iconic, recognizable mountains in the Alps. Climbers and non-climbers alike have heard of the mighty Matterhorn, and its silhouette has inspired everything from paintings to Hollywood films to a Disneyland roller coaster. There are also nearly a dozen smaller summits around the world named after the Matterhorn.
This pyramidal peak is a worthy objective for any mountaineer, and a Matterhorn climb, for many individuals, is an utterly life-changing accomplishment.
The History of the Matterhorn
The Matterhorn was one of the last great peaks in the Alps to see an ascent, not necessarily because of any technical or logistical difficulties, but because its intimidating aspect discouraged many would-be mountaineers. Throughout the later 1850s and early 1860s, several expeditions (beginning with Jean-Antoine and Jean-Jacques Carrel in 1857 and 1858) tried and failed to ascend the Matterhorn, usually from the south. Despite appearances, the southern (Italian) aspect of the mountain actually requires more technically difficult climbing, which is perhaps why so many early efforts were stymied.
A team including English mountaineer Edward Whymper and French guide Michel Croz finally made the first ascent from the Swiss side via the Hörnligrat (Hörnli Ridge) on July 14, 1865. Whymper had attempted the mountain seven times unsuccessfully in the preceding years, before finally summiting on July 14. Sadly, the expedition ended in tragedy, when Croz and three others fell to their deaths on the Matterhorn Glacier while descending.
The first ascent of the Matterhorn, and Whymper’s subsequent account, Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871), changed mountaineering culture for good. It marked the end of what many call the “golden age of alpinism,” catalyzing an alpine tourism boom that brought sightseers from around the world to Switzerland’s remote mountain valleys, transforming once poor rural areas into tourist destinations.
What is the Matterhorn Like Today?
Today, as many as 150 climbers attempt the Matterhorn each day in peak season, with around 3,000 annual summits. The peak holds routes on all four faces (North, South, East, and West) and four main ridgelines, Hörnli, Zmutt, Lion, and Furggen. Each of these routes has been climbed in all seasons, though the west face, the peak’s largest face, wasn’t successfully sent until 1962, nearly 100 years after its first ascent.
Over 500 climbers have died on the Matterhorn, more than on Everest and K2 combined. In fact, the Matterhorn is estimated to have killed more climbers than any other mountain in the world. (However, it’s important to note that this is as much a result of the peak’s incredible popularity and the fact that climbers have been attempting it for nearly 175 years as it is its difficulty. The Matterhorn is obviously not more difficult or dangerous than an 8,000-meter peak like K2 or Everest.)
The route used by Whymper and the other first ascentionists, the Hörnligrat, remains the most popular route on the Matterhorn and is the easiest way to access its summit, with difficulties graded at AD (Assez Difficile/Fairly Hard) and entailing rock moves rated at approximately 5.4 YDS. The average climber takes between eight and 12 hours to reach the summit, tackling over 4,000 feet of vertical gain from the Hörnli refuge to the top.
Best Time to Climb the Matterhorn
As we mentioned above, all routes on the Matterhorn have been climbed year-round, but like most mountains, it’s an entirely different beast in winter. The best time to attempt a summit of the Matterhorn is the summer, from June to September.
That said, climate change is having a dramatic effect on viable summit seasons in the Alps. This is another reason to book your adventure with an experienced guide, who can properly evaluate the weather and conditions to find the safest time to climb. Nothing is worse than flying all the way to Europe only to be turned back by mountain closures and/or unsafe conditions!
How Hard is it to Climb the Matterhorn?
Like the Grand Teton, routes on the Matterhorn vary from moderate scrambles with a handful of technical sections to burly, committing endeavors. The peak’s north face, for example, is considered one of the hardest of the “six great north faces of the Alps.” However, any route on the Matterhorn can quickly become a life-or-death situation if foul weather rolls in or other adverse conditions present themselves. Even the easiest routes are extremely exposed, requiring sure footing and a solid head for heights.
The standard route, the Hörnligrat, is rated AD (Fairly Hard) via the French alpine system. This grading system takes into account the overall seriousness of an entire route, “based on all factors of the final approach, ascent, and descent—including length, altitude, danger, commitment, and technical difficulty.” Per Alpinist AD entails “steep climbing or long snow/ice slopes above 50º” and is “for experienced alpine climbers only.”
As noted above, the route requires technical rock climbing up to approximately 5.4 YDS, and entails climbing above 14,000 feet, where altitude can have a serious impact on physical fitness and performance. The exposure on this route is also significant and sustained, and though some sections have fixed ropes, there are frequently points where a fall would be fatal.
Why Book a Matterhorn Guided Climb?
Don’t let factors like “scramble,” “5.4,” “fixed ropes,” and “14,000 feet” fool you. The Matterhorn is a technical, committing peak at a high elevation. Over 500 climbers have died on this mountain for a reason. You’ll be dealing with altitude, alpine weather conditions, rockfall, route-finding, and countless other alpine climbing hazards, in addition to hiking, scrambling, and climbing for nearly a dozen hours straight.
The Matterhorn is a stellar summit to have under your belt, but it’s best attempted with an IFMGA-certified guide.
When you embark on a Matterhorn trip with us, we’ll ensure you have the skills, fitness, and guidance to safely reach the summit and return, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.
As we note on our dedicated Matterhorn trip page, however, there are a few basic minimums before you book a Matterhorn trip with us. For starters, every climber needs to be able to put on their equipment correctly, as well as have enough basic understanding of climbing jargon to follow their guide’s directions. Each climber also needs to be able to tie a figure eight follow-through and clove hitch, and have basic belay and rappel experience. Previous experience using crampons and an ice axe, as well as training in self-arrest techniques, is another required skill. Crevasse rescue training isn’t necessary, but is helpful.
If you don’t have this knowledge yet, don’t worry. This stuff can all be learned in a day or two with an ITCOG guide! Get in touch and set up a training class with us. Or, if you feel comfortable with these skills… Let’s get a trip to the Matterhorn in the books!