Climbing the Matterhorn

29th August 2017
I was telling my friends the other day that at the end of every summer I look back and think.. yeah I’ve had a good one! Whether I‘d do an epic European road trip or venture further, I make sure my summers are filled with adventures, laughs, family & friends’ time, incredible sunsets, overcooked camping food and lots of great memories.
This summer was going to be no different. I had grand plans but unfortunately things in life don’t always turn out the way we plan it… After summiting the 6th of the 7summits in March, I was hungry for more. I had to be back in the mountains to recharge, to be surrounded by beautiful snowy peaks, to feel the happiness, help my heart healing. And to push myself beyond what I thought was possible.

I’ve been to Zermatt to photograph the Matterhorn on a number of occasions, never during the climbing season though. I fell in love with the mountain the first time I saw it. Sitting like a Sphinx on the Italian and Swiss border, it’s one of the most iconic mountains in the world. No wonder people in the 80’s and even today are obsessed to reach the top at 4,478m. Bank holiday weekend coming up, my only chance to return to Zermatt and give it a go this year. Trip and mountain guide booked, I told only a handful of people I was going to attempt it.



I arrived at the Swiss Youth Hostel Friday evening and the mountain top was already hiding behind thick clouds. The weather report didn’t look great for Sunday afternoon and beyond so I agreed with the guide I’d hike up to the Hornli Hut Saturday afternoon, meet him there for dinner and try the summit Sunday morning.



My alarm rang at 4am. I had everything laid out the night before; head torch fitted on the helmet, a 1-liter Nalgene bottle filled with tea, clothes in order with harness on top. Pack organized with items & layers inside in order I’d need them. Got ready quickly and placed my rucksack in front of the main door. Breakfast was served at 4.30am, and at 4.50am on the dot the hut doors opened and guides with their climbers, eager to get out first rushed out into the darkness. The climb begins with a steep wall and once you’re through you can settle into a rhythm. After 45 minutes of climbing, my mouth was dry and I could feel dehydration kicking in. I asked my guide if we could stop (wouldn’t have need to if I had a Camelbak..) but I was thirsty again. The air is dry and drinking sweet tea didn’t help. Next thing I realized the sun was coming up behind me and I wanted to stop to take pictures but we were traversing a dangerous rock fall area and pushed on until we reached the Solvay hut (emergency shelter at 4,003m). I thought we would break there but instead we carried on.


Photo credit: David Fasel

We were moving slowly but steady, having had no time to acclimatize (I’d strongly advice against it) I felt that tempo was the best I could do. An American guide with his climber caught us just below the crampon point and I thought they’d pass but we ended up moving almost together. He was motivating and encouraging his ‘buddy’ telling him what was coming up and listening to that assured me as well. One of the scariest parts for me was managing the knife-edge ridges and the shoulder because you feel incredible exposed.
Every time I looked up, the summit seemed so far away. There was no time for chit-chat, no time to stop and pose for photos, no chance to think about anything apart from finding the gaps in the rocks to place your foot and fingers. Just you, the guide at the other end of the rope in the eerie quietness which was occasionally broken by the sound of falling rocks. (Tragically, one of these loose rocks hit and killed a solo climber below us.)
When my guide told me the summit was half an hour away, I kicked into the next gear. When he said we were a few minutes away, I could hardly believe it. And there we were, on the Swiss summit at 4,478m..


Photo credit: David Fasel

After the mandatory photos with my flags, we descended a few meters to a ‘picnic’ spot where we had a snack, drank some more tea finally got my phone out to snap a few photos. The next couple of hours of descending were hard, painful and felt never ending. There’s only one thing harder than climbing up steep rock faces, climbing down!
The first abseil was not fun, my guide kept saying lean back (into the void) and let it go and I could have come up with a million other things I’d have rather done than hanging on a thin rope with absolutely nothing below me. After the third abseil I was almost a pro until a sudden swing when I hit the rocks so hard I banged my knee and hurt shin. No time to feel sorry for myself, we continued descending. He very openly criticized my technique and I told him maybe after the 150th time I climbed this mountain, I’d be able to “run down” until then let me do it my way. I did manage climbing down properly some parts when he gave me encouraging words. It’s a funny business climbing with a stranger and sharing this experience. The guide is there for one reason and I’m there for a different but we both want the same, get to the top and back down safely.
On the way down we bumped into two guys on their way up about 100-150meters below the Solvay Hut who stopped us and asked for advice. One of them was in a bad shape and wanted a heli rescue. My guide agreed safety first and told the chap to call mountain rescue. They had a chat and we carried on but stopped and my guide called Zermatt air to check if they were coming to get the guys. Apparently, they were busy (collecting another body) but we saw the heli later on heading to the direction we met the climbers. It really hit home and I was so relieved when we finally “touched ground”.



I took a few more photos of the mountain then headed back to the Hornli hut to change into shorts and running shoes, reorganize the backpack and head back down to Zermatt. Three guys were leaving at the same time and we ended up chatting. Turns out they are British and live near Wimbledon where I’m based..small world hey! We chatted about mountaineering, triathlon, cycling and of course climbing Matterhorn. I told them I was heading to my favourite bar for a burger later and we met up for a drink.
They climbed the Breithorn the following day and I was seriously tempted to join them but decided to take the morning easy and go for an afternoon run on some beautiful trails with the views of.. you guessed, the Matterhorn! We met up again for dinner and we shared more stories and had a wonderful time. When I woke up the following morning (Tuesday 29 Aug), I saw the mountain in full glory. No clouds just stunning blue skies and the Matterhorn lit up by the morning sun, sitting there gloriously inviting climbers…

I’d like to thank my fantastic team at work for the support and thinking of me, Ilja from the Zermatt Hostel for giving me the biggest smile and hug when I returned from the climb, the three British amigos (Jake, John & Maz) for the best company anyone could wish for. And of course, a massive thanks to my guide David for putting his trust in me, guiding me up and bringing us back to base safe. I can very honestly say I couldn’t have done it without you.
Thank you.

Alex
Xx


Post climb trail run Zermatt - Sunnega 2,288m - Zermatt. Stunning views.