In July 1865, exactly 150 years ago, a young British climber named Edward Whymper, led a team of seven climbers to the top of the Matterhorn. This was the last of the great Alpine peaks to be climbed and Whymper’s first ascent marked the end of the “golden age” of Alpinism. It was also a hugely controversial climb, resulting in the death of four of Whymper’s party following a slip on the descent and a 1000 metre plunge down the treacherous north face.
Today, the mountain is climbed regularly in the summer months, sometimes seeing 100 climbers or more scaling its flanks on a sunny day in peak season. But this is not a mountain to be taken lightly…
It was on just such a sunny day last Thursday that I set off, in the company of British mountain guide Rob Jarvis (www.highmountainguides.com). Our journey began at Schwarzsee, perched at 2500m above the village of Zermatt. The trek to the Hornli hut, situated just below the steep east ridge, is a 700m ascent across bleak scree-covered slopes. The Matterhorn looms larger with every step you take…
The Hornli hut is a welcome sight, reconstructed for the 150th anniversary of Whymper’s climb, and offering a much more comfortable night’s accomodation than Whymper’s party enjoyed on the their first ascent. Here is the new hut in the background, as Rob and I scouted out the first couple of hundred metres of ascent in preparation for the morning attack.
Despite the hut’s comfort, we slept badly, and joined nearly 100 other climbers for a bleary-eyed breakfast shortly before 4am. Then there was a frenetic dash up the first slopes of the mountain, climbers jockeying for position, keen to avoid being stuck behind a slower team. It was all a little breathless, as a stream of bobbing head torches wound their way across the cliff faces.
With dawn, the scale of the mountain became apparent, more than a vertical kilometre of ridges, walls and gullies to scramble up, just one slip away from embarassment or worse. The mountain rescue helicopter was an ever-present buzz, rescuing at least one team from near the summit.
But we made good swift progress on the dry rock…
And summited just before 8am. Smiles.. and a few tears too.
That was when the fun began…I have decided that climbing up the Matterhorn is not my greatest challenge. Far harder is getting back down again! This was a painful 4 hours+ of scrambing backwards and forwards, a combination of altitude, tiredness, blisters and painful achilles slowing me down to a snail-like pace. Rob showed remarkable patience and skill to guide me down safely, as we dodged stone-fall from climbers off route above us.
At just before 1pm, we made it back to the Hornli hut, extraordinarily tired, and mightily relieved. The hut’s famous Rosti was thoroughly welcome, and perhaps, somewhat well deserved.
And so, Challenge 10, has been conquered. Time for a small rest and reflection, and then back to training for the final two. Thanks Rob for your support in getting me up this one. Thanks to all the 12in12 supporters for getting me this far.
Here is the special Matterhorn page for anyone feeling generous!
Paul Antrobus, August 2015