Powderbird lead guide, Spencer Wheatley, recently visited Switzerland and realized a long-time dream: climbing the infamous Matterhorn. This is his story.
Christmas in the Alps, by Spencer Wheatley
When I was 10 years old, I was assigned to write a fictional story for my 6th grade class. I was combing through the encyclopedia, (which is a 1970’s version of Google for you young people) and came across a photo of the Matterhorn. Dividing Italy from Switzerland, the home of the Matterhorn is the town of Zermatt. The Matterhorn photo captured my imagination as one of the most distinguishable peaks I had ever seen. It is a perfect pyramid of stone carved by the release of four different glaciers receding—creating four rock faces which face the four points of the compass.
I decided to write my story about a trip to Zermatt which also happens to be one of the most famous of all the ski resorts in the Swiss Alps. It was titled “Christmas in the Alps”. Ever since writing that story, I have wanted to visit the Matterhorn and Zermatt. I have had the opportunity to go to Europe a few times over the years, always with skis, always with an objective, a peak, a ski film project or an attempt at this or that with no budget! Somehow I had never made it to Zermatt.
This July I had the opportunity to spend some time in Zermatt, and it was truly like a dream realized. The car free town is the quintessential Alps village. Trams dot the huge valley walls and the 14,690′ Matterhorn is always in sight. I was surprised at the actual size of the Matterhorn. The pictures in the encyclopedia had not done it justice! It was my first time in Europe in summer, and it was nice to travel without skis. I did however have to drag around a duffel bag full of climbing gear. My first week was spent hiking from the village up to different tram stations for acclimatization and enjoyment. The alpine wildflowers and scenery are intense, with miles of beautiful hiking trails and trams for a quick download back to slopeside bars for wine and fondue. Zermatt is hiker’s heaven, but is most famous for Mountaineering. The classic route is the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn which is the obvious line on the pyramid looming over Zermatt. The Matterhorn was the last great Alpine peak to be climbed, and its first ascent marked the end of the Golden Age of Alpinism. It was made in 1865 by a party led by Edward Whymper and ended tragically when four of its members fell to their deaths on the descent. The north face was not climbed until 1931.
I had loosely planned to climb the Matterhorn while in Zermatt. The weather just got better as the week went on, and the opportunity was ripe to climb. Without a climbing partner, I found a local guide to climb with and booked a night at the Hornli hut. Even though it was busy, I wanted to climb the Hornli Ridge as it is the Classic. The Hornli Ridge is not a highly technical route, the hardest rock pitches clock in around 5.5. The vertical climb from the hut is about 4,000′. However, the Matterhorn is one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps: from 1865—when it was first climbed—to 1995, 500 alpinists have died on it. These numbers are due in part to the sheer numbers of climbers, but also the difficult descent, altitude and loose rock.
The afternoon of July 5 I loaded my gear and hopped the Gondola to Schwarzee. The hike from Schwarzee to the Hornlihutte is about two hours and approximately 2000′ vertical.
It is a fantastic hike with steep switchbacks and steel stairways linking the vertical cliff sections to the trail. The Hornlihutte is a simple, sturdy, concrete building with the world’s greatest deck perched perfectly to grab views of the Breithorn, Monte Rosa group and the entire Zermatt valley.
The food at the Hornlihutte is amazing, considering all the supplies have to be flown to the hut via Helicopter. A quick meeting with my climbing partner Iwan, who convinces me to leave my down jacket, first aid kit, Ice axe (I always have a down jacket in the mountains) by stating: “We will not stop long enough to use it.”
At dusk I begin an attempt to sleep in a large bunk with 15 smelly, nervous strangers. At least they all snore in the same language. I had slot #2, which only had one blanket while the other slots had two blankets. What do I care, I am a tough mountaineer, right? I was dressed in my climbing clothes and shivered with cold all night. Still beats carrying a tent, sleeping bag and stove!
3:30 am lights come on in the hut. There is a scramble for the toilet, a simple breakfast, and I am first in line at the door to get out climbing. Sign on door says: “No one is allowed to leave the hut before 3:50 am, Thank you, the local guides.” Iwan is literally looking at his watch for the 3:50 am chime. At the time, I thought this was a bit ridiculous. One hour into the climb, while ascending onto the broad East face by headlamp, we are all stopped by the tremendous boom of rockfall coming from above. Iwan and I, roped together, scramble to find shelter under a small overhang. I could see couch and chair size pieces of stone hurtling down the couloir in front of us, exploding and breaking into dust and shattered stones in my headlight beam. If we had left the hut one minute earlier, we may have been in the coulor when this happened… let’s just say the helmet would not have helped. Not being in the couloir was just pure luck, but I have to thank Iwan for following protocol, standing at the door waiting those extra minutes.
- Always follow your protocols.
- Whenever possible, plan to be in the right place at the right time—you just might find yourself there.
- The mountains hold all the cards—be humbled by their power and pray for good luck.
After the rockfall, we moved quickly through the East face couloir and back onto the ridge. The ridge climbing here is fairly steep, similar to the Southeast ridge of Mt. Superior, still easy fourth class scrambling even in the dark. Iwan and I are simultaneously climbing on a short rope. As the angle steepens, we begin to clip into fixed protection bolted into the rock as a running belay. We finally climb what I think is the first full length fifth class section on the route, which tops out on the deck of the Solvay emergency shelter at 13,133′. We have been climbing now for a little under two hours. It is clear that after more than 100 trips up the Hornli ridge, Iwan is very fit, acclimatized and dragging me up the route as fast as he can.
The morning sun begins to hit the East face of the Matterhorn as we climb past Solvay, more or less adhering to the ridge. While climbing in the dark has its own difficulties, the daylight reveals the dizzying exposure on both sides of the ridge. Above 13,500′ Iwan gives encouragement in Swiss-German flavored English: “Spencer…Smooth…not like eleeephant.”
The altitude and Iwan’s fast pace have me focused on my breathing, and the attention grabbing exposure is reminding me to watch my feet and hand placements. At this point, the route goes to vertical rock. The next half an hour is up to 5.5, easy roped climbing, but it is made more difficult by the altitude and the lugged crampon compatible climbing boots. There are thick fixed ropes through this section, and the hardest move has a via feratta type steel latter rung to grab. Earlier in the climb I attempt to go “clean” without using the ropes. Iwan quickly reminds me “Spencer, we must move…” I grab the steel and fixed lines and quickly move myself up to the next stance.
A short stop to put on the crampons, jacket and full winter gloves, then around the corner onto the North face Iwan calls “the roof”. A few short pitches of rock climbing in crampons put us onto easy, steep ice/snow climbing on the north side of the ridge that will lead us to the summit. This section is completely exposed over the gaping North flank of the Matterhorn. I would have preferred to have my light approach axe for this section. We weren’t planning a fall, but who does?
The Matterhorn summit is more of a knife edge ridge than a pinnacle. Along the ridge to the West end is the Italian summit. The East end is the slightly higher Swiss summit. There is a 4′ statue of St. Barnard, the patron saint of Mt. Guides, bolted to the peak with a lightening rod sticking out of his head. A few of the guides stop to kiss it as they pass. The views into Italy and across the Alps are stunning. It is 7:30 am and the valley is flooded with golden morning sun. The conditions are perfect, and we had climbed from the hut to the summit in 3 hours 45 minutes.
Iwan keeps my camera and take photos on the descent. During the ascent we were moving too fast to take many pictures… and it was dark for the first half. Unknowingly, the dial on my camera gets pushed to “M”, which means “Manual”, not “Mountains”… the photos he takes are extremely over exposed.
Although it has been quite a few years, I have worked as a climbing guide. I know that the summit is only half way. Most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. I take a very short time at the summit and compose myself to begin the arduous downclimb.
Being first out on the route in the morning had great advantage in that we could go fast, we didn’t get bottled up behind slower parties on the crux pitches. Now all of these slower parties are still climbing up as we descend on top of them… I’m still wearing crampons, I do my best not to knock stones and ice chunks in their faces. There are a series of steel anchors to lower from in the steeper areas. I was not comfortable descending into parties still climbing up, but Iwan assured me that this was standard practice on the Hornli. This is a very busy route. We moved back to the Solvay shelter.
I was amused to watch an Italian climber belay while sitting at the table in the hut, with the rope going out through the window to his partner. Iwan and I take a few rappels to get us back onto the fourth class ridge. The descent is painful on the knees, and descending while facing outward from the rock puts all of the exposure at your feet. The local guides have a very clean unmarked line to climb and descend, but all around is loose rock. If you get off the clean line, it could be scary/deadly pedaling through all the choss—imagine Fred Flinstone getting the car started. I am quite sure Iwan could run down this route, but he is patient as I take my time to make sure there are no slips.
We make it to the base of the climb in 3 hours. I know Iwan is as happy as I am to untie from the rope. A few minutes later Iwan and I are cracking open beers at the Hornlihutte, sitting on that amazing deck. I am cooked after climbing for nearly 7 hours. Iwan gives me a “Summit Pin” which is cool, and I try and tell him I don’t need the “Summit Certificate”, but I get one anyway. The tall boy Cardinal Beer and the total lack of sleep are making me want a nap, so I shake hands with Iwan, load my pack and head down the trail two hours to the Schwarzee gondola station. I download, and 30 minutes later I am back in the dream village of Zermatt. After a quick shower, another couple Cardinals and a burger at the Post Hotel, that night I pass out content in a quiet room with TWO blankets and without 15 nervous strangers.
Although the Matterhorn is not the most difficult climb I have done, it may be one of the most meaningful and aesthetic. I wonder what I would have though as that ten-year-old, picking that Matterhorn photo out of the Encyclopedia. Would my wildest imagination have traced the skyline in the photo and said “I will stand on top?”
Cheers! Thanks to all my friends who get me out of the house and into the mountains for adventures. A special thanks to JBIII for giving me the opportunity to turn this dream into reality. It really was like Christmas in the Alps!