This is a brief account of an ascent of the Matterhorn via the Italian Lion Ridge, followed by the descent of the Hornli Ridge into Switzerland. Our climb was made even more special because it coincided with the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
I have read a lot about this famous first ascent and the conclusion I have come to is that the climbers were, in hindsight, ill-advisedly cobbled together at the last minute by Edward Whymper. Whymper was undoubtedly a very brilliant mountaineer, yet possibly a driven over-achiever and the desire to be first on the summit of the Matterhorn may have clouded his judgement. The team consisted of a couple of inexperienced aristocrats plus Swiss and French mountain guides; critically, none could speak each other’s languages! It is well documented that half the team did not make it back.
For Charles Sherwood and I, attempting a traverse like this out of the normal season (it was a snowy September) has its advantages and disadvantages. The clear advantage is that the mountain is not mobbed by loads of other climbers. Nor is it so warm (therefore less risk of rock fall), and often the weather is more stable. The disadvantage was that the route had a lot of late season snow on it. We didn't know if this would make the route more difficult or impossible. In addition, the mountaineering infrastructure (cable cars, mountain huts etc) begins to close down.
I say begins, but in fact it had already closed down in Italy, thus leaving us nowhere to stay and a massive approach walk to get into position. We started by taking the lift formerly known as the Klein Matterhorn, but now bizarrely renamed the “Alpine Glacier Mountain Paradise”, to its summit and then walking down the summer ski piste until we arrived at the very comfortable Theodul Refugio where we spent the night. Next morning we left at about 7.00am and walked down the pistes towards Cervina. A more inauspicious start to our trip is hard to imagine. We were now below the summer skiing, and Cervina without snow is not a pretty sight. We arrived at the lowest cable car in Cervina, Plan Maison, turned right and started the 1,345m ascent to the Carrel bivouac hut, stopping en route by the frustratingly closed Abruzzi Refugio to fill our water bottles. The Carrel doesn't have a reliable water supply.
I cannot get my head around the fact that this is only a bivouac hut by the fact there is no guardian. It is easily busy enough to warrant one. Despite it being low season, it was packed and because there was no guardian to police the place, a sort of chaos ensued. It doesn't bear thinking about what it must be like in high season.
The hut dormitory was a double bench on either side of the door which stretched the length of the room, with a jumble of manky blankets which were necessary because it was cold. We carried our own stove, which was just as well because there was considerable competition for the dodgy hut gas burner.
Soon after dinner, our morale was dented by the return of party of three who had spent 15 hours failing to get anywhere near the top. Still at least they returned...
Breakfast didn't come around fast enough and we were off at 5am. Immediately we were in a queue behind two parties. The first were so scared of the overhanging combination of rope and chain that they freaked out, and were passed by Charles and I and another Guide and his client. Fortunately I decided to tuck in behind this Guide and it was therefore he who took the rock on the helmet and not me. Despite feeling dizzy he promised me he would be okay and so we forged ahead and immediately found ourselves in the dark and alone.
The route is consistently steep, intimidating and strenuous; far more difficult than the Hornli ridge. Dawn broke as we ascended to the distinctive horizontal section of the ridge before the final steep tower. Progress along the flat bit was slower than anticipated because it is in fact full of notches that have to be negotiated by firstly climbing down into them and then back up again, while not actually making much useful progress. It was at one of these notches that we met a soloing American climber. Although he caught us up, he was reluctant to pass and wanted to become my second client of the day. I rather view gaining another client halfway up a route, rather like a ship taking on salvage: Potentially a nightmare situation. My solution was to avoid the discussion by dithering around, fiddling in my rucksack and generally not moving till he got bored and decided he would be better off on his own.
More fixed ropes which you have to climb hand over hand (which is hard at over 4,400 metres) then an overhanging rope ladder, then finally the summit slopes.
We arrived on the Italian summit at 10.30am. The position was jaw dropping; an incredible place to be. We then traversed to the Swiss summit. As always with the Matterhorn, you need to save two thirds of your energy and concentration for the descent. The real business starts now.
The descent of the Hornli ridge was as we anticipated - snowy. However, the snow was néve and it actually made it easier than when it is just rock. It also made route finding easier because all we needed to do was follow the footsteps in the snow. Normally as a guide you are constantly saying go left, go right to your client who is roped in front of you on the descent. We passed many weary parties, some who were still on their way up. Eventually we arrived at the Hornli hut, the traditional starting point for climbing the Matterhorn from the Swiss side. Although we were tired we elected to continue on down to the Schwarzsee Hotel where we knew the accommodation and refreshments were at a different level to the Hornli Hut. An hour and a bit later we finally stopped and celebrated with a couple of big beers each: one for the thirst, and one for the pleasure!