Not many peaks in the world are as iconic and recognizable as the famous peak straddling Switzerland and Italy know by the Swiss as The Matterhorn. So it stands to reason that climbing the Matterhorn is a major goal of many climbers. But what does it take to scale this famous peak? We will take a look at what it takes to climb the Hornli Ridge from Zermatt, Switzerland, by far the peak’s most popular route.
A climb of this nature is not easy to describe to climbers who have not been to the Alps. A common question is “What is it rated”? The answer to that question is probably 5.4 in the US rock rating system. However, that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. The Matterhorn is a classic alpine rock climb with some snow and ice near the top. This means you must climb it in lightweight alpine climbing boots and sometimes with crampons on. This of course adds to the difficulty and can take some getting used to.
The day starts usually around 4am at the Hornli Hut at an elevation of 10,600 ft and the summit is at 14,692 ft. That means there is approx. 4000 ft of steep climbing to be done in less than 10 hours. Most of the Hornli Ridge is probably 3rd & 4th class scrambling with occasional sections of easy 5th class. There are even some vertical fixed ropes which must be climbed hand over hand. The climbing is relatively easy for those with rock climbing experience, but very exposed. When with a guide, you are moving roped together without an anchor for much of the route. As with many peaks, you want to be done and back at the hut by mid afternoon at the latest, so you can see that speed is of the utmost importance. There are no real breaks on the climb. The way down is the same way you go up and it’s not really any easier. It’s go, go, go for 8-10 hours.
The need for speed, the sustained nature of the climbing and scrambling, as well as the altitude all combine to make the Matterhorn a very athletic endeavor. Being in excellent cardio shape is key to success. Having rock climbing scrambling skills are also key, you must be sure on your feet! Also, the exposure is massive. We are talking 4000 foot sheer drops down to the glacier. You must be comfortable with exposure. And of course, you must be acclimated before attempting such a climb above 14,000 ft.
In the years that I have been guiding the Swiss Matterhorn, I’ve seen 5.10 rock climbers with no previous Alps experience struggle. I’ve also seen veteran peak baggers in great shape and with good scrambling skills, but with no real technical rock experience, do great.
All said the Matterhorn is not an exceptionally difficult alpine climb if attempting with a guide (route finding can be tricky if attempting on your own). It just requires excellent physical shape and a skill set that allows you to move fast and efficiently on exposed rock.
Conditions are always a concern when planning a Matterhorn climb. Since the Matterhorn is primarily a rock climb a summer snowstorm (not uncommon in the Alps) can put the route out of shape for climbing. Snow covered rock makes the route just too dangerous and slow going to attempt reasonably. Some snow may be ok but too much and you might as well set your sights on one of the other fantastic alpine climbs in the Zermatt area. The picture shown above is the Matterhorn in summer, but clearly out of shape for climbing.
All in all, the Matterhorn can be one of the more memorable days of your climbing career!
by Dave Miller
IAG/CAG owner/director and IFMGA internationally certified mountain guide