|Date: July 2008
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney
The Matterhorn trip came about it was always an ambition of Sandra's but the wheels were really set in motion during the October 2007 MCI meet. "What next?" we were asking after a big Scottish year. "Time to move up a gear and go Alpine" was the general suggestion.
Pete, PJ, George, Sandra and I have done loads of stuff together but we needed a 6th person so that we could climb in 3 pairs. 2 weeks before we were due to set off I still hadn't found that person but Martin Bonar got me in touch with a Cork man named Dave Commins who, every summer, gives up the job and spends a few months travelling round Europe climbing.
The rest of us got into Zermatt on Friday 18th but George and Dave were arriving on the 19th, so we spent the hot Saturday hiking up to Schwarzsee Paradise (2583m) for a close look at the Matterhorn. Since Zermatt is at 1620m we reckoned we climbed a Munro in about 2.5 hours. Not bad. Sweating profusely but pleased with how the old legs were standing up to the steep climb we stopped for a pint at the Schwarzsee Hotel to be duly awestruck by the immense snow covered mountain before us. The old guy at the campsite had told us it would be out of condition for a few days. Incidentally he claimed to have climbed the Matterhorn 500 times! The Alpine Centre also told us that guides were taking some clients up but they were getting the crampons on at maybe half height.
With the party all together on Sunday we headed for the Klein Matterhorn cable car and the Breithorn summit. The guidebook suggested 2 routes - one a straightforward hike up the SSW face to the main summit, another traversing West across the main ridge after crossing the glacier below. We took the slightly harder (PD-) ridge route roping up in pairs, Alpine-style, with 10m spacing. The quick ascent by cable car to 3820m meant we were all puffing and blowing at the altitude, especially on the way back. Despite this we gained the narrow ridge and main peak (4164m) in under 2 hours, then re-crossed the ridge and climbed to the heavily corniced central peak (4159m). The relative ease of this four-thousander meant there were plenty of climbers swarming over it but it was very enjoyable nonetheless.
We discussed several other peaks that evening, after getting holed up for a few hours with thunder and rain. Eventually we decided to follow Alan's advice and booked the Rothornhutte to attempt the Zinalrothorn. At 4221m and with an AD- rating this peak would provide a very similar challenge to the Matterhorn we hoped. There is no cable car to the hut so you have to ascend from Zermatt to the hut at 3198m by Shank's mare. The first section to the Edelweiss restaurant is very steep but you are rewarded by views of the thundering river and a walk through shady flowered woods. The second section to the Hotel Trift is more open but again, great views, spoiled only by the gay couple and their yappy dog "Spencer" who seemed to be a permanent 3 feet behind me. "Is he checking out my bum?" We also spotted a Mickey Rooney lookalike and a serenely gliding 70ish nun who seemed to breeze through the humid day.
The scenery becomes more and more barren as you approach the hut and Dave and I were in no hurry to get there and be bored rigid hanging round. After 3 hours we gained the hut, got our beds assigned and then froze slowly as we waited for dinner. The hut is quite small and was relatively crowded so they had to serve dinner in 2 sessions. After nearly 2 hours the other climbers were still unwilling to give up their seats in the warm dining room and we had gone through our repertoire of lame jokes, were now using bench-dips and chin-ups to keep warm and were ready to kill the damnedly loud Americans. Eventually Dave took charge and we elbowed our way in. It all turned out very well because we stuck to our table for the rest of the evening while the loud ones chilled elsewhere. A few after dinner beers kept the fun going as we played "Jack Changes" on a luckily discovered 52 card deck, with much head banging of the low-hanging lanterns. I think we were louder than the Americans by the end and PJ's yells and our general laughter ensured heads turned our way more than once.
A 9.30pm bedtime was followed very shortly by a 3.30am call for breakfast. The day before no-one had made the peak due to the heavy snow conditions, hence the crowded hut and the mass of climbers for this day. With a bellyful of Red Bull and Nutella smeared bread though, I was ready to charge up to the peak. A longish steep snow plod gained us the initial chimney, followed by more plodding, a brief climb then a final plod along a corniced ridge to a narrow airy rock section. The cloud had occasionally come in and we were battered a few times by the wind whipping up stinging ice particles on the ridges, freezing the bladder pack mouthpieces and denying us any fluid intake. A traverse led us to the bottom of a snow filled chimney and by this time the other 4 were well ahead.
The Red Bull had worn off, the altitude and cold were getting to me and Dave and I were too polite to the slow ascenders and those already descending. We tried going round them on a section of HVS rock (in crampons!) but that just slowed us further. At the top of the chimney, in Gabel's Notch, we discussed turning back, but despite being well outside the guide time I wanted to push on. The sun was out, the water packs had defrosted and a quick snack had replenished my flagging energy. At the Biner Slab however we met the others descending and their description of a very windy summit and multiple ascents and descents of rock pillars put us off going further. We descended delicately using various tied ropes to abseil the vertical sections and even bum-slid the final snow slope to the hut. TIP: Using your partner's well grooved bum track makes for a faster descent, though do remember that you still may be tied together to avoid unnecessary anchorage and sudden tumbling stops! At the hut we stopped for a quick drink then hammered on down to the valley, Dave racing ahead of George and me despite being a 20-a-day smoker!
Next day was a rest day and we discussed whether we were even ready for the Matterhorn, given that we were all badly outside the guide times for the Zinal (the summiters were 2 hours out). Despite badly aching legs I thought of all the work I'd put in to get in shape for the trip and determined that, even if I didn't make the summit again, I'd prefer to at least have a go. The vote carried and we booked the Hornlihutte for Thursday evening.
This time we took the cable car to Schwarzsee and took it easy for the 2 hour walk to the hut at 3260m. Just as we arrived we noticed the little red rescue helicopter hovering around the peak in swirling cloud. Within minutes it had swooped down and picked up 2 mountain rescue men, who dangled from a rope underneath and were carried off to what looked like the Zmutt Ridge. PJ excitedly described them as 6' 6" Adonis-like hunks to a smiling Sandra who'd returned with George from scouting the start of the route. A few trips back and forth brought 6 people down safely. None seemed to be injured and we heard tales of climbers pushing to the summit despite sheer exhaustion and being then unable to descend. The helicopter was a stern reminder of the dangers this mountain could present but at the same time it was a comfort to know that if things went wrong you had professional backup. Watching the pilot consistently drop people off inch perfect on the landing spot was inspiring to watch.
Up close now to the peak you could start to make out climbable features and this reduced the fear factor somewhat. From Zermatt the whole Hornli Ridge (grade AD) looked like a knife edge with huge drops either side. We talked to one climber who'd only made to the Solvay Hut the previous year who described it as "a big mountain scramble". 3 laughing Austrians joined us at our dinner table at 7pm, having just descended, and also described it as easy but they were well used to this sort of thing it seemed. By 8.30pm we were all in bed after a delicious 3-course dinner. We'd had to pay a fortune (about Ã‚Â£4) for 1.5 litre bottles of water due to a chronic shortage. The washrooms were closed and the toilets had the shortest flush ever so they (and we) ponged a bit!
At 3.30am we were woken again and the hut was soon bustling and dazzling with head torched yawning climbers. At the Rothornhutte we'd noticed others pay for a purplish concoction called "marsh tea" which seemed to be some kind of invigorating drink so Pete and PJ sorted themselves out with some while the rest of us relied on the usual dilution of Powerade. On the Zinalrothorn we'd all been so concentrated on getting to the top that we'd barely touched the food and water we'd brought along so this time I carried 2 litres inside the pack (to avoid freezing) and various nuts and cereal bars to graze on.
We set off after the main parties had left, tied in our usual pairs (Pete / PJ, George / Sandra, Dave and myself), hurtling along at a breathless pace in head torches. An initial fixed rope section leads to a confusing series of switchbacks through loose rock and the occasional cairn. Another fixed rope section along a narrow ridge, some snow traverses and we were on to the long scramble on the rocky sections up to the Solvay Hut. The sun had risen on this beautifully clear day and this time Dave and I were almost rude in pushing ahead where we could. We even passed one or two frustrated guides dragging their hapless clients on short ropes. We played it very safe though, always keeping at least one runner between us on the scrambly sections and 2 or more where it got vertical. There was so much tat and fixed rings all over the place that it was just a matter of clipping in and moving on and we made the Solvay Hut in 3 hours, scant minutes behind the other 4. The friends and nuts we took along were never used and slings and runners were all that were necessary.
We'd climbed about 700m by this stage but looking up you could tell there was a long long way to go. I assessed the huge breathless exertion it had taken to just get this far but after a few minutes rest and a snack I knew I could go a lot further. 3 hours was an excellent time as far as I was concerned and I was in high spirits. Dave's relentless (I wouldn't call it encouragement exactly!) shouts of "Drive On!" and "Let's Drive This Bus Home!" kept me in a perpetual almost trance-like motion where the only thing that mattered was the 3 or 4 feet of rock in front of me and it was thus that I climbed the beast one bit at a time. I tried not to consider how far we'd come, how far we had to go, how long we were taking, or the massive drops and just concentrated on looking out for icy rock and good holds. I'd had one scare on the way up, slipping on some water ice and falling about 3 or 4 feet, heart racing like mad till Dave held me. I didn't want to repeat the feat at a much greater height.
The Moseley Slabs are about the hardest and most vertical sections before and after the Solvay Hut. We still hadn't got the crampons on, the previous 4 days of sunshine having melted the snow line to quite a height. Shortly after the slabs though it was time to stick them on and here I got my second fright as a guide, who'd lowered his female client down next to me, decided to skid his way on crampons down the slab towards me, stopped just short and laughingly patted my shoulder before scooting on. For a second I'd thought he was going to bowl the 3 of us over the edge and I had to take a while to compose myself, muttering a few choice words at the guy's arrogant bravery.
We gained The Shoulder after crossing a narrow ridge where the vertigo-inducing drops either side could freeze you in place if you stopped to think about them. The helicopter seemed to be a constant presence at this height sweeping in to check that everyone was doing OK. We were still just behind the others and tarzaned our way up the huge thick ropes. There are some pure vertical sections where I thought my tired arms would never get me up and there was a bit of "traffic management" as ascenders and descenders shouted and jostled their way up and down.
Above this is what I called "The Roof" which is a long 60Ã‚Â° snow slope that requires much care and plenty of ice axe work, whilst buffeted by strong winds. 20 minutes of hacking and stepping later we were passing the statue of St Bernard and had gained the Swiss peak at 4478m. Hurray! I could see the others on the Italian peak but the narrow cornice (barely two footsteps wide) in between made me very nervous, being that you could see all the way down to Cervinia on the left side. Dave, however, was already marching over there and shouted back "Trust the crampons, they're your best friend!" and "You paid good money to get here, make the most of it!" so we picked our way over and took some photos at the crucifix. Total time taken was 6.5 hours. Not too bad given the guide book said 6 hours. Well one book said 5 hours but we'll ignore that uber-athlete!
Because of all the fixed rings etc. descending turned out to be a relatively straightforward series of abseils. Our 60m rope seemed to be perfect for the job, doubled through the rings we went down in 30m steps and always seemed to land beside the next ring in the series, then just pulled the rope down. Our rope work wasn't great though because we could never find the mid-point and usually had to feed the entire rope through sorting out knots etc. By the time we neared the Solvay Hut Dave was totally frustrated with this method and encouraged me to down-climb with us roped together. I hate down-climbing however and thought it was just as slow but less safe than abseiling. When we reached the easier lower slopes Dave decided to climb on down and I continued to slowly abseil by myself, a little frustrated at the rope but thoroughly enjoying the solitude and the views of the huge peaks around me. My only interruption was a phone call from work asking me, "Is this a good time to talk?" "Uh.... Not really, I'm descending the Matterhorn, bugger orf!"
It was rare that I couldn't find some tat or ring to hang off and I mostly made my way down to the left of the main path. I found the 2nd series of fixed ropes but lost my way shortly afterward when I abseiled down to avoid the switchbacks of the loose path below. I went too far down however and then floundered around for ages trying to find the path, as darkness started to descend. Dave called and I assured him I was fine and only minutes away from the hut but an hour later (around 9pm) I was still lost and was putting the head torch on. Just when I was about to call for help I spotted 2 cairns that I recognized; we'd hurtled past them around 5am that morning.
I was back at the hut by 9.30pm and very glad to pay for a bottle of water. My 2 litres had turned out to be barely enough and had run out by about 2pm during the descent. A few mouthfuls of Dave's were the last I'd had and I'd resorted to sucking snow while I searched for the path. George, Sandra, Pete and PJ had all decided to descend to Zermatt, a decision they regretted when the heavens opened on them and when they also realised the length of the trek. Dave booked into the Schwarzsee Hotel but there was only one choice for me: another night in the hut. I stumbled up to my room only to find my allocated bed covered in someone's gear. I tiredly clambered up, shoved it to one side and woke up the Frenchman next to me who sat up and loudly exclaimed "Sorry, I farted!" I'd have laughed if I wasn't so tired and fell asleep to the sounds of the rain on the roof, 2 whiffling snorers and the indeed farting Frenchman. Huts eh?
We'd all booked return tickets on the cable car, hoping to make the summit in 6 hours and the descent in 7 and to be back at Schwarzsee for the 16:40 last car. Nobody made it of course but, where the others trekked down in the dark, Dave and I separately made our way down at leisure the next morning. We all met at Potters Bar for an English breakfast and took the rest of the day off to shop. That night we celebrated wildly in the Post Hotel downing several Talisker whiskys and talking utter bollocks mostly. There was a club underneath the hotel and George, Pete, PJ and myself danced away in the smoky atmosphere (seems Switzerland hasn't outlawed that yet). I staggered back later than the others having spent the evening pursuing a girl who spoke no English and I no German. Think her name was Christiana but who knows? Next morning Sandra regaled me with stories of Pete and George throwing up mightily in and around their tents / cooking pots / anything that came to hand really.
Despite major hangovers Pete and I left the others and hired "Dirt Scooters" with an all day Schwarzsee cable car pass. Take the cable car up, ride down, let gravity do the work. Simple. Except we took a wrong turn first time round and ended up careening along a narrow rocky path with 50 foot drops to our right and nothing but bicycle helmets and judicious use of the brakes to prevent disaster. We had a few spills, Pete coming off spectacularly and losing some thumb, but mostly survived until the lower roads where the roar of the huge tires told the crowds ahead "Get out of the blimming way!" The second time round we sussed out a better road and had a lot more fun but twice was enough risk and we went back for dinner and more card games. Dave had packed up by this stage and was off to Chamonix for more technical stuff, having achieved what he'd come to Zermatt for. Still can't thank him enough for helping me out.
On the Monday PJ wasn't feeling well and despite getting on the Gornergrat train with Pete, George and I to go rock climbing on the Riffelhorn, she soon had to return with Pete and go see a doctor who put her on an antibitiotic drip. Sandra had chosen to pack up and book into a hotel for the final night, so that left George and I to enjoy the multi-pitch bolted fun of the Riffelhorn Sudwand. Getting off at Rotenboden station (snigger, gotta love these Germanic names) there's a short hike round the back of the peak and you eventually spot little blue signposts and blue painted dots marking the bottom of routes. Getting to the start of our routes involved some delicate picking across narrow ledges ever wary of the long drop to the glacier below. Excellent view of the Dufourspitze and the other Monte Rosa peaks though.
Our first route was called Via Charly, 100m, 7 pitches, 4 | 3 | 3 | 3 | 3 | 3+ | 4. There are 4 different routes leading from the same start and they're all named on a little metallic plaque with their grades. I'm not too sure about grade comparison but I led the first and found it relatively easy (maybe HS?) and the middle pitches were certainly no harder than Severe. The sense of exposure was wonderful though, with the glacier below and peaks behind us and the constant gentle roar of melt water echoing along the valley. After a quick snack we tried a second route called Egg, 150m, 6 pitches, 4 | 3 | 4- | 3+ | 4 | 4 and a scramble to finish. This time we had to traverse the whole south face and even abseil at one dangerous point. It was like getting around at the bottom of Fairhead, annoying in the building heat of the day. When we got there we discovered a guided party just starting the route but they did a good job of staying just ahead of us. The guide led on 2 ropes then reeled the other 2 in as they climbed just behind one another. This route was slightly harder, maybe low end VS in one or two areas, and again wonderfully exposed, especially on the final slab. Even though the routes were bolted the spacing (10m?) between the bolts was just enough to make you nervous of the run-out. We even placed a friend at one point rather than risk the largish fall. A very enjoyable day marred only (for me) by the down-climbing from the top of the routes.
The train back to Zermatt, a nice dinner and a pint or two rounded off the final evening. PJ had recovered, but it was a relatively early night since we were all catching early trains for flights from Geneva to Dublin and (myself) Zurich to Birmingham with plenty of time to contemplate the week during the 4 hour ride. We'd looked at the Matterhorn many times since that Friday's success and were constantly voicing "I can't believe I was up there!" I still can hardly believe it and I won't forget this trip in a hurry. We were very lucky with timing and the weather too, given that people couldn't even summit the Zinalrothorn the day before we tried, there was thunder and lightning on our rest days, and the day after our Matterhorn summit was one of the worst days of the whole week. "Jammy beggars" do I hear you jealously cry? :)
Anthony on the Riffelhorn