Matterhorn, 4478: successful attempt

Matterhorn, just a day before.

The mountain of mountains: Matterhorn. The dream of all alpinists. Beautiful and forbiddingly steep, it rises above the Swiss Alps, impossible to confuse with any other peak.

It's been calling me for a while. And this year, despite everything, I decided to answer the call. This was the culmination of all the work, research, exercise, acclimatization and training.

View from Breithorn Range: Central peak in the right, Eastern peak at the left, Matterhorn showing in between. The sole reason for acclimatization.

The Hörnligrat route to the top is the most popular, following the Eastern ridge westwards to the Swiss summit, of 4478 meters. The Liongrat is the Italian route along the Western ridge, leading to the Italian summit. A sharp ridge connects the two. The Italian name for Matterhorn is Monte Cervino. Then there is the Zmutt ridge route on the North, and the hardest - Furggen ridge. Apart from that, successful attempts have been made to climb the faces of the mountain, all of the routes rated TD to TD+. I opted for the Hörnligrat.

The hike to Hörnli refuge starts at Schwartzsee. Unfortunately, the hotel was closed due to Covid-19, but the restaurant was still open, with the best personell and service! 

The trip was booked with me as the organiser, together with another climber that would join. However, the person that I planned to bring did not come. A very quick change of plans was needed. Luckily, I found a guide with a local knowledge that could join me in this. She traveled from Slovenia for the summit attempt.

Marija Štremfelj on our Matterhorn summit.

Marija Štremfelj is one of those female climbers that has made history. Above other things she is listed in the Guinness Book of Records. 30 years ago, she and her husband Andrej were the first married couple to stand on Everest summit, her being the first Slovenian woman to summit the highest peak in the world. Her husband is a celebrated climber receiving two Piolet d'Or prizes, the recent one for the lifetime achievement, and they both have done amazing summits and still are active. I truly was lucky to have the chance to do some mountaineering with Marija and her husband! Andrej came with his client, who I later discovered was a firefighter, so we had a lot to talk about.

I was very happy to be able to climb the route with Marija. Attempting Hörnligrat without a person that has guide experience and has done the route many times means a much lower chance of success. The route finding is very tricky, and by making just one wrong turn it's possible to end up in dangerous dead-ends. Then, there is the matter of moving together safely. If you will belay "by the book", you will not make it to the top timewise. Therefore, it's essential to know exactly where the belay possibilities are and what they look like, and be familiar with the risk areas.

Marija Štremfelj, mid-action on Matterhorn

We met up at Hörnlihütte, as the peak of Matterhorn bathed in dense clouds. We watched it as we ate the dinner, but it never cleared out. The hike to Hörnli hut was cold, windy and snowy in itself, and we only hoped that the weather would be as forecast, and clear out somewhat in the night or early morning when we would start the attempt.

Start of the Matterhorn ascent, as seen from the Hörnli Hut window.

After the dinner, we filled up hot tea in the termoflasks (they only had sweet berry tea, no regular hot water) and went to sleep early. Contrary to what happens at other huts, the timing for the start is set. The breakfast is served at 4 am; booking a bed without breakfast is not an option. Then, the doors open at 4:20. First, the Zermatt guides go off with their clients. Then, all the other guides. Finally, the climbers without guides are allowed to go. All this is to avoid people getting lost, and leading more people to dead ends. Also, it makes life easier for the guides, so they so not have to overtake the guideless climbers who are always slower.

I had checked out the start of the route in daylight the day before, and also made some research on Summitpost about what to expect from the route. It's very exposed, so good safety is essential. There are some steep climbing paths, and some scrambling. A few fixed ropes exist along the way. The summit is covered with snow.

We went off, all four of us, and quickly joined the chain of headlights disappearing into the dark void of the night sky and dark rock. The climbing was sustained, and there were a few traffic jams as expected. I was dressed for wind and cold, and quickly got very warm. There was no time to remove clothes - we would only make two stops; halfway up and halfway down. Instead, I managed the heat by making small adjustments, like removing the woolen beanie and opening both the jacket and all the layers I could. Still, sweat rolled down my back as I climbed on in the dark.

Some distance below lower Moseley slabs, the first sun rays came out. The sight is unbelievable. It's not possible to capture such sights on camera. In fact, it's hard enough to take any photos. For starters: y o u   a r e   c l i m b i n g. You can't afford to make stops all the time, every minute counts, also there may be other climbers waiting below you. Removing climbing gloves is another issue; the cold snaps at you fingers immediately, they become numb and suddenly you have less technical ability. Mostly you just climb and try not to think about anything else except the next move. Photos are not the priority, but rather a luxury that can be afforded if you have a spare second (usually during relatively easy parts).

As we are climbing on, and the sun is rising, I could not help try and capture the sheer beauty.

Something that amazed me were the icicles and frost patters everywhere. It was like intricate lace decoration on all of the stones, so beautiful I did not want to destroy it by touching. The icicles themselves were covered in prolonged frost, showing the wind action and the chill of this night's weather.

Badass windyfrost icicles at Matterhorn

As the sun came out, the cold color scheme of the mountain changed to warm gold. Clouds streamed upwards, adding to this beauty. The ice was burning in the sunlight, and at this brief moment Matterhorn looked like from another world.

Climbing Matterhorn together with Stremfelj couple.

After a very short stop at Solvay, half way to the top, we pressed on. There is really nothing there except emergency refuge, and a place to answer the call of nature. I did not until I came down, thanks to being warm and sweating. You really don't want to stop here much, because you will start to freeze immediately.

You can see that it's been a tad bit chilly here.

As we passed Solvay, luckily the sun was up and starting to warm a little bit. However, the temperatures were still sub-zero. Also, the route was following the ridge more closely, which meant a fair bit of wind coming from the North side.

Just before putting together the headlight and pulling on sunglasses. Sunrise! Solvay! Any alpinist's dream or cozy look-back moment! Lena Wilderäng on Matterhorn.

There was snow on the route, and some rocks were covered with verglas. The snow stuck to the leather climbing gloves, melted, penetrated the leather. Then the cold made them freeze. At some point, the gloves were solid ice all the way to my skin. Against ice, my fingers started to freeze badly. I used outer wind-stopping shell from OR mittens to create a protective layer between the leather and the snow, so the gloves could thaw up a little bit. It worked well when the climbing was not too technical. Without this, I surely would have not managed.

View from Solvay upwards - time to continue to pursue the vertical.

The climbing steepened towards the end, and more snow and ice had to be negotiated. I wil spare you the technical details, there are enough sources to get it from. My photos were from the easy parts.

Seems like close to the summit? Nowhere near it. This is 2,5 hours before, and as mentioned - one of the easier parts.

The physical part of it takes you over. It's good if you can concentrate on something else. For me, it's Vysotsky's songs, not always about mountaineering, but always with strength and pain. Every word starts meaning so much more. The lines are chanted thousands times over, as I breath and step further. His songs is like high-octane fuel. I've tried a few other artists. It has worked with Vizbor, but also with some contemporary favorites like Infected Mushroom and Insammer. However this time, only Vysotsky would plow the way through the physical impact, discomfort and pain. The crux parts required no mental music at all. It takes too much focus.

The summit. Just so many steps left.

Finally. At 10:48, almost exactly six hours after the start, I finally stood on the snow ridge on the top of Matterhorn. 

This is what it looks like, down from Matterhorn - the steep cliff means that you see the bottom, right away.

A moment of celebration! A helicopter flew by, and somebody waved to us. What a sight it must have been - the magnificent peak of Matterhorn with forbidding walls and ridges, and two women on top, cheering and hugging each other!

Lena Wilderäng and wonderful Marija Štremfelj on the top of Matterhorn!

We were long way from being done. The downclimb is difficult and takes as much time as the climb up, sometimes longer. The altitude works against you; at 4478 meters you cannot expect to be on top of your condition, to put it mildly. The time works against you too - after sustained climbing for several hours, you get more tired with every minute that you spend up there.

It was quite tough. On the way down, I passed some passages that I couldn't believe I actually climbed earlier. In fact, that happened a lot on the way down. I'd wonder how on Earth I could climb such steep walls, especially in the dark. I remember thinking "I don't recall overhangs..." while taking the same handholds as I did on the way up. You just don't see that when you look up, all you do is try and find some good hand- and footholds. On the way down, the perspective strikes you and suddenly you are quite aware of the verticality.

Icicles are still there, despite that we are on the way down.

By the time we made the half way down stop, I was quite tired and hungry. The late lunch did wonders, and all of us felt great. However, just a few seconds after everyone concluded that life was great, we heard a sound of something dropping. It was Marija's phone. We watched helplessly as it slid off the rocks, gaining speed, bounced further down, several meters high and long at every jump, spinning in the air. As its leaps grew and the velocity increased, it became clear that no rescue attempts will be made, and it will forever rest in the glacier ice below the mountain. The bitter part was that it contained some great photos from the ascent. But we just had to be grateful that it was just a phone that fell down, and keep in mind that the descent is still not finished and we need to stay focused.

Perspective from the cloud to the high tops... three hours into the downclimb.

We continued. Sometimes we'd rappel, sometimes we downclimbed. At times, wayfinding was hard even for an experienced guide, and I was thinking about how heading out guideless would most probably result in unsuccessful attempt, except if you're lucky enough to be right behind a guide who'd not abort summit, and fit enough (technically and physically) to keep the pace throughout the attempt. During our summit attempt, there were some other climbers that succeeded, and some who had to turn back. Two Spanish climbers (no guide) made it quite far, but needed to turn around and go back in order to make it back before nightfall. They were very sad and disappointed. The usual consollation about the mountain still being there for the next time does not often work directly after the unsuccessful attempt.

I could see Hörnli Hut a long way, but it was not getting closer. At the end, you sort of start hating it for that. More steep parts followed all the time, how come I did not remember them? I must have been half awake.
Marija on top of a cliff! Now this is a climbing cat.

Finally we were down. It was too late to head back to Zermatt, so we stayed at Hörnlihütte another night. The pleasure of taking off the climbing boots after such a long day is hard to explain! That Toblerone (of course) was definitely a highlight too.

The Matterhorn climb is definitely the toughest I've done - both when it comes to technical difficulty, and the sustained effort over the course of so many hours. I'm very grateful to Marija who made it possible, and happy to have met Andrej and Sebastian and climbed along with them.

Lena Wilderäng while downclimbing Matterhorn

To those considering climbing Matterhorn, I'd recommend starting with general high altitude mountaineering, at the same time as developing crag climbing skills. Myself, I've summitted a few peaks that are higher than Matterhorn - for instance, Elbrus, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro (without porters). I also made sure to try out routes with a similar technical difficulty, although much shorter - see the Arete des Cosmiques climbing. I've been mountaineering since a long time, both as a guide and doing solo trips, so all of that experience helped tremendously. Finally, I've been training specifically for Matterhorn, which included daily physical exercise (gym or running, for at least half an hour - often more), and a lot of hours in the climbing gym (I think I averaged three times a week during the winter). I've done some technical climbing courses during winter and spring, and spent a fair bit of time climbing outdoors during the spring. All of that - from the ice climbing skills I picked up ten years ago to the latest climbing technique video I saw on Youtube - was used when climbing Matterhorn. Then, there were the days of acclimatization, first in Chamonix and then on Western and Central Breithorn.

Bottom line: it's best to come well-prepared and well-trained. If you want to improve your odds to reach the summit, make sure you do it together with a climber or guide who knows the mountain extremely well. And do not hope for any miracles or shortcuts, it's just as tough as it looks and sounds.

Lena Wilderäng - just down after successful attempt. Thank you Matterhorn for letting me come to the top, and letting me get down back again. Love!


And now: something colorful and poetic that you did not expect...

When you think of Matterhorn, you think of it as gray and white. 

I also did. 

Until I came here. 

I was amazed... It's emerald green. 

Really beautiful amazing green color, opalescent celadon, the nearest comparison is Pacuare River in Costa Rica or the magical fairytale malachite of Siberian Altay mountains. Gray and green. Green and gold. The gold is sometimes on its own, and sometimes mixed with the green, creating an unearthly hue. With just a little bit of imagination, you'll be walking through the gemstone caves full of riches and gems. On the other hand, maybe it's just the light-headedness from the height..............

At the start of the route, Hörnli Hut at the background. Greenschist everywhere, making all the beauty.

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