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  • iainthow


Updated: Mar 7

After my September trip to Zermatt had been too late in the year to climb big peaks I went earlier the next year, in mid July, meeting Liz Jolley in Zurich. After the previous hiccup I also made sure that my tent poles were inside the rucksack 🙂, so camping in Täsch was fine. In contrast to the previous year the campsite was busy, and next to us were a bunch of chatty Dutch students. They were planning a trip to New Zealand to climb Mount Cook later in the year and were bemoaning the lack of information available in Europe, saying that the only useful thing they had managed to find was an article in the British magazine Climber. Liz pointed out that I had written it and that it was about a trip we had done together, after which they unashamedly pumped us for stories.


The world's most iconic mountain?

The snow was down to 2000m when we arrived, so the first day we just went for a walk over the pass of the Obersattla. The harder peaks were ruled out by the snow so we decided to go for for the Alphubel, which would still be fine in the conditions. It also had an easy approach, only 700m of height gain from the road. We bivvied amidst giant boulders in the beautiful corrie of the Chummiboden, then around sunset things started to get windy and we took refuge under the biggest boulder.

Bivouac below Alphubel, Zermatt

Bivouac boulder, Chummiboden. Photo Liz Jolley

By midnight the meteo's "showers" had become a violent storm and raindrops were being blown off the rim of the boulder and hammering on our bivvy bags. Their erratic timing and hard impact made sleep impossible so after an hour I moved back outside, where the droplets were smaller and more continuous so less disturbing. It was still raining when the alarm went off at 3am and the ascent was obviously not going to happen so I went back to sleep. By 9am it was sunny but too late for a proper peak. Liz had stayed under the boulder and had hardly slept so had a lazy day. I climbed a minor top on the edge of the glacier with a nice scrambly ridge but mostly lazed too.

Alphubeljoch, Zermatt

Liz on the Alphubeljoch at sunrise

The next night was dry and we had the classic alpine start. We got to the Alphubeljoch at sunrise then climbed a steeper but still easy snow ridge to the summit. We had made good time and our high bivvy gave us a head start so we had the superb view to ourselves. The first people of the day we met were following kicked steps up the steepest part of the ridge. For some reason one of them objected to Liz cramponning round them, although we weren't affecting them and were perfectly comfortable without the steps. As one of the easier 4000m peaks the Alphubel is a popular novices mountain and I'm guessing the grumpiness was because they were out of their comfort zone and feeling stressed. We were to have a more drastic demonstration of the effect a few days later.

Täschhorn and Dom from Alphubel, Zermatt

Täschhorn and Dom from Alphubel summit

The Dom was next, and the 1500m slog up to the hut was steep all the way. We started poking about near the hut for a place to bivvy, until the guardian came out, pointed upwards and shouted "Bivak, zwei hundert meter". Actually he was right, there was an absolutely superb bivvy site 200 metres further up, with handy water, a ring of walls for shelter and brilliant views of the Weisshorn and Matterhorn. The sunset on the Dom was gorgeous. Things got even more spectacular later in the night as the valley below us filled with cloud and developed its own thunderstorms. Every few minutes the cloud sea glowed with bright green flashes and the echo would rumble around the rock walls above. It was 1000 metres below us so felt totally unthreatening but was still an awe-inspiring sight.

Weisshorn, Zermatt

Weisshorn from Dom bivvy

Next morning we were still well above the cloud and after the usual tea and muesli we plodded up the edge of the glacier in the dark. Our arrival at the notch of the Festijoch was perfectly timed as the sunrise was just tipping the higher peaks, and everything over 4000m was glowing a brilliant orange. I'm still blown away by Alpine sunrises and we had to stop and take it all in.


Dawn on the Weisshorn from the Festijoch

The pause meant that people from the hut caught us up, but nearly all of them were going up the Dom's normal route, whereas we were heading for the steeper and more direct Festigrat. It's described as "popular" but we couldn't really complain about five other people on a 750m route! Most of it was walking in crampons up perfect nêvé but with a few sections of 50 degrees or so where an axe became more than a walking stick, big drops on the right adding a bit of spice. It was so enjoyable that reaching the summit was almost a disappointment. The view made up for it though. There was a well trodden trail down the glaciated North Flank so we were soon back round over the Festijoch and back at the bivvy for another night.

Dom, Zermatt

The Dom, Festigrat on RH side

Liz went down the next morning while I headed for the Nadelgrat. It's a longer route so I had an earlier start and reached the couloir below the Stecknadeljoch in the dawn light. There wasn't much of a bergschrund and the snow was still excellent so it was easy. Again the sunrise was glorious but I wasn't seeing it from such an airy situation as the day before. The Hohberghorn was a detour up and down an easy snow ridge, but from there the rest of the ridge looked rather more meaty.

Hohberghorn and Stecknadelhorn, Nadelhorn, Zermatt

Hohberghorn and Stecknadelhorn

As usual, taken bit by bit it was easier than it looked, although the exposure definitely kept things exciting. The initial section was a set of sharp spikes above huge drops, then it became quite Crib Goch-like, with the odd tower to dodge. The minor summit of the Stecknadelhorn means "pinhead peak", which gives you a pretty good idea of the feel of it, though it has to be one of the least independent of the 'official' Alpine 4000m summits. A lovely snowy knife edge followed, then a steeper rock section up to the main summit of the Nadelhorn.

Nadelhorn, Zermatt

Nadelhorn and Lenzspitze

Here I had a decision to make. Carrying on to the Lenzspitze meant sections of II+ (about Diff), then an intricate descent from the Lenzspitze to rejoin the normal route on the Dom. I'd had a good look at it the day before so knew it was feasible but it was more serious than anything I had done up to now. Alternatively I could retrace my steps, but the couloir would have been in the sun for an hour, so perhaps becoming an avalanche risk. The dilemma was solved for me by the fact that two Germans were having a furious dispute on a section of the ridge below me, with lots of angry shouting going on. I didn't want to become involved so I went back the way I'd come. The sunny part of the couloir turned out to be avoidable on rocks at the side and the lower part was still in shade and solid. I was back down on the glacier by 10am and it was then just a plod back over the Festijoch to the bivvy and the path down.



The weather was still fine, so the Matterhorn had to be next, most of the snow having now melted off it. We took the cableway to Schwarzsee, then had an easy afternoon stroll to a bivvy site below the Hornli Hut with a lovely view of the Dent Blanche. As there are no glacier problems the choice of strategy is between aiming for dawn on the first rock pitch low down or climbing this in the dark and aiming to reach the harder section high up at first light. It was still early season and the local guides weren't taking clients up it yet so we figured it wouldn't be too busy and went for the first option. This turned out to be a mistake as there were still 80-odd people on the route and we spent a lot of time queueing. We didn't help things by making a route finding error in the half light and climbing an unnecessary rock tower, which cost us 20 minutes or so. We scrambled easily up to the shoulder, but by the time we reached the famous Moseley Slab we were at the back of a large queue. It's only III- (V Diff) but people were making a meal of it. I noticed an alternative version a few metres left so used that to bypass a few ropes, although as my runner got stuck we didn't gain as much as I had thought. After that there was no choice, it was just a case of following everybody else. We were between a laid back Norwegian couple and a guide and client from West Cumbria so at least we had a good chat.

Dent Blanche from above Zermatt

Dent Blanche from the bivvy

The problem is partly one of timing, as the people who have taken the early start option are coming down the narrow section at the same time as the later starters are going up it, so there are lots of snarl ups. Add in that many of the people are pushing their limits and finding things hard and you have a recipe for disputes. The fame of the Matterhorn seems to bring out the worst in people. One descending guide was swearing at his client in German-tinged US English "Put your feet in the f***ing holds, do you want to spend all night on this f***ing mountain". An older French guide lowered his client down a steep section and they stepped over our rope, a younger French guide's rope and the fixed cable, creating a huge tangle. When the older guide arrived he unclipped Liz's belay and told her that she shouldn't be on the mountain because she was incompetent. She was so shocked that she burst into tears. Actually Liz is an extremely competent mountaineer and since it was his client who had created the mess then he should have sorted it out. He could easily have clipped his client to the belay stake and pulled his own rope through, but instead chose to blame someone else. I was halfway up the pitch at the time so it also meant that I wasn't attached any more. It wasn't a good advert for the guiding fraternity and the young French guide apologised for his compatriot's appalling behaviour.

A little higher we had a comedy moment. There was a short overhanging wall that you climbed by pulling on two metal loops. The young guide's client had obviously bitten off more than she could chew and was having trouble finding the energy for the pull up. The guide was hauling away, saying "Tirez, Isabelle, Tirez", but to no avail. Eventually Liz walked underneath her and shoved her bottom upwards so that she could grab the top, not something I could have done!

On top of the Matterhorn

The rim of the roof. Photo Liz Jolley

One short icy wall above this had a fixed cable, then we were on the much easier angled roof, zigzagging up a mixture of nêvé and icy patches. I started enjoying things as at last we could get out of the queue and make our own pace, although the English guide told me "I hate this bit, if your client slips you've had it". We made the summit at 1.15, having spent 2 hours on the fixed rope section. We shared it with two Slovenian guys, who had started hours after everyone else and thereby avoided all the queues – you need an impressive level of fitness to do that though!

On the summit of the Matterhorn

On the summit, with one of the Slovenians. Photo Liz Jolley

On the way down we had our act together and got a move on, hoping to make the last cable car from Schwarzsee, which left at 6pm. Once below the Moseley Slab we unroped and soloed down the easier ground. In the daylight the route was obvious and we overtook most of the people we had been queueing behind (and the abusive guide 😁). We got to our bivvy by 5.30, grabbed the kit and raced on down, but missed the cable car by 15 minutes. Grrr. It was 9pm when we staggered into Zermatt, diving into the first available bar. We sat outside with a beer watching the last of the light leave the Matterhorn. It was hard to believe that we had been up there a few hours earlier, it seemed to belong to another universe.


Last light on the Matterhorn

Unsurprisingly we needed a day off afterwards, and then had only one day left. The obvious single day trip is the Breithorn so we took the cableway to the Klein Matterhorn. It was a Sunday so very busy but we managed to avoid everyone for a while by heading further east and climbing the Central Peak (which is only 5m lower). A few people saw what we were doing and followed us but by then we had a sizeable head start. It got us a thoroughly enjoyable stroll along a narrow snow arete with huge drops northwards and dramatic views.

Breithorn, Zermatt

Breithorn central summit, Monte Rosa and Lyskamm behind

At the main summit we got a surprise, crossing over the skyline to find around 300 people sitting on the easy snowfield having picnics. Once we got over the shock it was lovely, as it was all locals out for a sunday stroll, being very cheerful and polite. The ubiquitous Swiss "Gruezi mitenand" (greetings to you and your friend/s) echoed round the hill. It was the perfect antidote to the atmosphere of the day before, reminding us that most hillgoers aren't rude pushy grumps. A great way to end the trip.

Breithorn, Zermatt

Crowds on the Breithorn

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