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, which ended in tragedy 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 long and tiring day, involving steep and exposed terrain at high altitude – therefore the mountain requires fitness, experience, climbing ability and appropriate 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. Technical Climbing Ability – on the Matterhorn, above all else you need to be nimble and agile on your feet, so that you can to move quickly and safely over exposed scrambling terrain, as well as climb V Diff rock pitches quickly in big boots with a rucksack on. Typically this means you will have done quite a bit of rock climbing (Tech level 3-4 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 – good examples would include: the Dent du Geant, Aiguille du Peigne, Lagginhorn South Ridge etc.
Important Note: At the start of the week, your guide will undertake a series of training and acclimatization climbs, in order to confirm your current fitness and ability levels before embarking on the ascent. Note the importance of the word current – as this may not be the same as your past fitness and climbing ability(!) It is therefore vital that you arrive as fit and well trained and prepared as possible, in order to stand the best chance of success.
Power to Weight Ratio
The Matterhorn is a big day and you need to be moving fast, so clearly your body weight has a big effect on the amount of effort it takes to reach the summit. 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 the single biggest effect on how much you enjoy the ascent.
NB With good power and technique, it’s possible to climb at an indoor climbing wall pretty well whilst being somewhat overweight – but as soon as you start climbing a big peak for hours on end, this no longer applies…
Therefore, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of not being significantly overweight: if you are a stone overweight (7-8kg/15lb) then you will find the trip a lot harder and you are likely to struggle. If you are more than 12kg/25lb overweight then you stand very 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), the route involves strenuous climbing above 4000m and you need to be moving quickly throughout the ascent and descent, so it is also very important that you are sufficiently well acclimatized before starting the climb. If you know that you acclimatize quite slowly, or you want to give yourself as much time to acclimatize as possible, 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 it’s a huge scramble, with a few V Diff rock pitches thrown in, then some steep snowier ground near the summit. On an ascent of the Matterhorn you will do more scrambling than you have ever done in your entire life – all in one day – and then you have to climb back down it all to get to the bottom.
Climbing in the Alps requires efficiency and careful monitoring of time throughout the day – but the Hornli Ridge is unique in terms of the constant speed required to climb up and down it all in a day – breakfast is a 15 minute affair and from then on it’s non stop movement for 8-12 hours, with only brief 1-2 minute stops every couple of hours. You need to be both physically and mentally prepared for such an extended level of effort and concentration.
Much of the terrain is relatively straight forward, but quite exposed and not easy to protect, so your guide needs to be sure that you are good enough on your feet to move safely together on the easier sections. Long sections of scrambling are punctuated by a few trickier pitches of V Diff rock climbing – so you also need to be able to climb quickly up these in mountaineering boots, whilst carrying a rucsac (ie you need to be able to climb much harder pitches than this on rock in the Uk). There is a section of fixed rope at the height of the shoulder, 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 exposed and icy terrain, so you need to climb well in crampons and be paying full attention all the way to the top.
At the summit you are just under half way – as you now have to reverse the whole route, which usually takes an hour longer than climbing up. The descent involves lots and lots of down climbing, with a series of lowers down the trickiest sections, which the guide will either down climb or quickly abseil. Finally, after 8-12 hours of non stop effort 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 success is by no means guaranteed and climbers sometimes require more than one attempt in successive seasons in order to make it to the summit. This is because good, dry climbing conditions on the route are essential in order to make a safe ascent – and mountain weather, as we all know, is never guaranteed!
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 – however, a big summer storm or period of poor weather can snow up the lower rocks again, in which case a few days of good weather are needed to clear the fresh snow off the rocks and bring the route back into condition again.
If the Matterhorn is snowed up and 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 bad weather – until late August or early September.
However, every summer is different and the Matterhorn is very variable in terms of how many weeks during each summer season it is climbable.
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 is no 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 season, with periods of stable high pressure or thunderstorms occurring at any time, along with the snowfall that this brings, 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.
NB If heading for the Italian Ridge, then a more complex approach is required – first we take the cable cars across from Zermatt into Italy then climb up the lower half of the Loin Ridge to the Carrel Hut.
This is a full days climbing in itself, which makes the route a much more arduous undertaking.
Day 5 – Ascent of the Matterhorn
Leaving the Hornli Hut at just after 4am, we begin our climb. The route is extremely 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 very 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 succesful 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 just won’t cut it for the Matterhorn – you need to get outside walking/cycling/running for several hours; ideally all day long if possible!
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.