Matterhorn Advice for Climbers
Some sound Matterhorn advice for anyone thinking of climbing the world’s most iconic summit: The Matterhorn is well known as one of the all time classic Alpine peaks and with good reason. It’s perfect pyramidal form dominates the skyline around Zermatt and across the Western Alps. Couple this with the dramatic story of it’s first ascent and you have all the ingredients for a truly classic climb that’s an essential tick!
This article provides information on the minimum fitness and experience requirements needed to climb the Matterhorn with a Mountain Guide, as well as background info on the route and what to expect each day. Hopefully this should help you decide if the trip is suitable for your current mountaineering experience and ability levels.
(Please Note: This article describes the ability and experience required to climb the Matterhorn with a professional mountain guide. To climb it safely on your own, you need a considerably higher level of alpine climbing experience on similar standard climbs, plus a broader range of personal skills and all round climbing ability – ie don’t underestimate the Matterhorn; there’s a reason most successful teams are guided!)
Are You Ready to Climb It?
The Matterhorn is a popular target for experienced mountaineers looking for an adventure… However, it’s a tough and committing climb that is always a big day, involving technical terrain at altitude – therefore the mountain requires appropriate fitness, experience, climbing ability and training. Please use the following guidelines to help you decide if the time is right.
Technical Climbing Ability, Fitness and Alpine Experience
There are 3 requirements for joining a guided Matterhorn trip – here they are, using Alpine Guides’ climbing and fitness levels as benchmarks:
1. Climbing Ability – on the Matterhorn, you need to be agile on your feet, so that you can to move quickly over long sections of scrambling terrain and climb a couple of V Diff rock pitches in big boots with a rucksack on. Typically this means you will have some rock climbing experience (Tech level 3 on the fitness/experience levels on our climb the Matterhorn page).
2. Physical Fitness – you should be at Fitness Level 3 (more info here).
3. Alpine Climbing Experience – You need good quality previous AD alpine climbing experience, including some longer routes. For example, in the Mont Blanc Range, if you have only climbed shorter AD routes such as the Cosmiques Arete, then you need to gain experience on a few longer AD’s – examples would include: the Tour Ronde, Aiguille du Peigne, Perrons Traverse etc.
Important Note: At the start of the week we’ll do a series of training and acclimatization climbs, in order to prepare for the Matterhorn and confirm your current fitness and ability levels before embarking on the ascent. It is therefore important that you arrive fit and well trained and prepared.
Power to Weight Ratio
The Matterhorn is a big day out and you need to be moving efficiently. Therefore, if you are carrying a few extra pounds, then losing as much of this as possible in the run up to your trip will have a big effect on how much you enjoy the ascent.
If you are a stone overweight (7-8kg/15lb) then you will find the trip noticeably harder and may struggle. If you are more than 12kg/25lb overweight then you stand little chance of completing a major ascent like the Matterhorn. So if you know you need to lose a bit of weight, then start right away and you’ll reap the rewards!
The Matterhorn is high (4478m) and there is some strenuous climbing above 4000m, so it is important that you are sufficiently well acclimatized before starting the climb. If you want to give yourself more time to acclimatize, then we recommend coming out to the Alps a few days early in order to do some pre acclimatization prior to the trip. A few days walking or climbing at mid altitudes and ideally a night spent in a hut, will really help with your personal acclimatization.
What is the climbing like?
Climbing the Hornli Ridge involves 1200m of vertical ascent from the Hornli Hut to the summit and there’s a lot of scrambling terrain, with a few V Diff rock pitches thrown in, then some snowier ground near the summit. Importantly, you also have to climb back down the same way.
Much of the terrain is relatively straight forward, but not always easy to protect – so your guide needs to know you are good on your feet, in order to move safely together on the easier sections. Sections of scrambling are punctuated by a few trickier pitches of V Diff rock climbing – so you need to be able to climb these in mountaineering boots, whilst carrying a rucsac. There is then a section of fixed ropes, starting at around 4000m – at some point on this upper section it will be necessary to put crampons on in order to climb the snowy/icy slopes above the fixed ropes to the summit. This final section can vary from good steps to icy terrain, so you need experience climbing in crampons and have to pay full attention all the way to the top.
The descent involves lots of down climbing, with some short lowers or abseils down the trickiest sections, which the guide will either down climb or abseil quickly. Finally, after 8-10 hours you will arrive back at the Hornli Hut for a well earned beer!
Climbing conditions on the Matterhorn
You need be aware when booking on a Matterhorn trip that good, dry climbing conditions on the route are essential in order to make an ascent.
The Hornli Ridge progressively ‘dries out’ in the early part of the summer, as winter snow melts off the rocks – leaving the lower half of the route dry and free of snow; at which point the route comes ‘into condition’ and teams start climbing the Matterhorn. In all but the hottest summers, there is usually snow on the route above 4000m. A period of poor weather can snow up the lower rocks again, but the return of good weather will quickly clear fresh snow off the rocks and bring the route back into condition again.
If the Matterhorn is out of condition, then a high quality alternative on another peak will always be offered.
Best time to climb the Matterhorn
As mentioned above, the Hornli Ridge progressively dries out in the first part of the summer and usually comes into condition by early July. It then usually remains climbable – barring periods of adverse weather – until late August or early September.
We are often asked when in the season it’s best to climb, so it’s important to understand that the biggest single factor affecting conditions on the Matterhorn is the kind of weather you get on the week. This determines everything – and unfortunately there isn’t a reliable seasonal pattern to the weather you get in the Alps at this time of year! It can be equally stable or unsettled throughout the summer, which is the main reason itineraries sometimes have to be modified or changed.
What To Expect
The following is a rundown of what to expect on a typical Matterhorn ascent week:
Day 1 – Training and Acclimatisation – usually based at the Torino Hut.
Our acclimatisation program involves sleeping at a high mountain hut for at least two nights, whilst spending three days climbing at altitude. Doing this prior to the ascent of the Matterhorn really helps on summit day.
The training program focuses on doing as much scrambly climbing in big boots on alpine terrain as possible, including some harder rock climbing pitches. This is exactly the type of terrain you need to move quickly and efficiently on in order to climb the Matterhorn.
In the morning we drive through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy, then take the cable car up from Courmayeur in order to make a traverse of the Aiguille Marbrees, before spending the night at the Torino Hut – maximum ratio 2:1.
Day 2 – Tour Ronde SE Ridge
Next we make an ascent of the Tour Ronde – this is a good varied climb, with plenty of interesting challenges. The line and difficulty of the route varies considerably, depending on how much snow there is on the mountain.
The views from the summit at 3792m are some of the best in the range, with the Cirque Maudit and the huge sweep of the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc close by.
The descent line followed also depends on snow conditions – with a quick descent from Col Freshfield being possible early season, or the longer option of reversing the SE Ridge being safer once the snowy descent has dried out.
Second night at the Torino Hut.
Day 3 – Aiguille D’Entreves
Finally we make a traverse of the classic Aiguille D’Entreves.
This is an exciting final warm up climb before the Matterhorn, with the day starting as scrambling, followed by some tricky and exposed rock climbing pitches to reach the summit. The descent is also varied; involving lowers, down climbing and more good alpine ridge terrain to reach the glacier.
NB If you have already climbed a number of the routes mentioned above, then various alternative acclimatisation programs are possible to prepare for the Matterhorn. Good alternative climbs include the Aiguille du Peigne, Tacul North Face, Lagginhorn South Ridge etc.
Tue PM – Return to Chamonix
Day 4 – Travel across to Zermatt
In the morning we drive over to Zermatt, taking a train the last few Km up to town (Zermatt is a car free resort) then take the cable car up to Schwarzsee and walk 2 hrs up to the Hornli Hut for the night.
Day 5 – Ascent of the Matterhorn
Leaving the Hornli Hut at just after 4am, we begin our climb. The route is long, with continuous scrambling and trickier rock pitches either side of the emergency Solvay Hut, which marks the half way point of the climb.
Above the Solvay, the route continues up to The Shoulder at 4000m, where a section of fixed ropes are used to overcome the steep step in the ridge above. It’s common to put crampons on along this section, in order to climb the snowier terrain and the final Summit Icefield which leads to the Madonna and the summit 40 metres beyond.
It’s not over yet though, as it’s a long and careful descent back down to the Hornli Hut, which often takes an hour or so longer than climbing up.
Day 6 – Reserve Day
We either return to Chamonix after a successful ascent, or use Friday for a final attempt at the Matterhorn.
If we climb the Matterhorn on Friday, then it’s possible to take the cable car down to Zermatt afterwards and drive back to Chamonix in the evening.
Our Best Matterhorn Advice
The better your personal climbing level, the more you will enjoy the trip – ie being able to climb comfortably and in control even when tired at the end of a long day, or if conditions are challenging will always increase your chances of success. Lots of scrambling or out door rock climbing is the ideal way to achieve this, although visits to your local climbing wall are also very beneficial if you don’t live near any mountains.
The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy the ascents and the better you will recover between climbs as you acclimatise for the Matterhorn. Alpinism is fundamentally a cardiovascular endurance sport, so you need to do plenty of multi hour training sessions in the run up to the trip: ie only training at the gym and local climbing wall won’t cut it for the Matterhorn – at weekends, you need to get outside walking/cycling/running for several hours at a stretch.
Good acclimatisation makes a big difference on summit day. If possible, try and come out a few days early to do some pre acclimatisation before the trip starts – this will always be time well spent.
If you start the week well prepared, then all you need is some good acclimatisation, a decent weather window and you’ll enjoy climbing one of the most amazing mountains out there – so do it properly, safely and enjoy it!
Klemen did a great job. The pace, objectives and work load beforehand, the plan to make the weather window for the Matterhorn and judging that I could make it from the Trocknersteg in time was spot on. And a great wind down day on the Valle Blanch at the end. Superb. One happy customer.