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  • Roland Jackson

On the Matterhorn

Matterhorn from the Breithorn

Surely no-one can look up at the Matterhorn from Zermatt, an iconic image blazoned across Swiss advertising, without wanting to stand on top?

Fresh from his fifth ascent of Everest, Victor Saunders had undertaken to shepherd me up and down the mountain. Our original intention was to retrace the steps of John Tyndall, who had made the first traverse of the peak—up the Italian ridge (left in the picture) and down the Swiss (right in the picture)—in 1868. That was just three years after the triumph and tragedy of Edward Whymper’s first ascent party, on which four of the seven climbers were killed on the descent. As far as Tyndall knew, no one else had ascended or descended the Swiss ridge since that disaster. But he reasoned that if three of them had got down alive, it must be possible to repeat the feat.

Matterhorn in profile from the Breithorn slopes

(Roland Jackson)

However we would lose a day if we went over the Théodule Pass into Italy, and a slightly doubtful forecast (not available in Tyndall’s time) persuaded me to go for the Swiss Hörnli ridge instead. Conditions were improving, though not enough to prevent a death the day before we set off, with a climber falling down the East face from the bottom of the fixed ropes.

Looking at the Matterhorn from Zermatt, it is easy to imagine that it is extremely steep. Apart from some short sections, on which there are now fixed ropes, much of it is relatively easy-angled. But it is still a long climb, and a high summit at 4478m (14,692ft). I find senses and memory heightened when I climb. A few vignettes: a bunch of daisy-like flowers stands out in a rocky niche, the last vegetation we would see on the ascent; the vast expanse of the crumbling East face spreads away to our left; we climb the famous Lower Moseley Slab, named after William Moseley (who had fallen to his death from here in 1879), while a solo Japanese climbs out to our left, looking gripped, his eyes staring and vacant (he survived); then the fixed ropes above the Shoulder, as parties already descending brushed pass, scattering stinging showers of ice crystals; the final Roof, an airy, exposed slope made of ice like ball-bearings. Close by is the spot from which four of the first ascent party fell several thousand feet over the North face to their deaths. The body of one, Lord Francis Douglas, has not been found to this day. Tyndall had the mad idea of fixing several thousand feet of rope from near the summit and descending to see if he could find it. Fortunately bad weather prevented his plan from being put in to effect.

On the summit the views are spectacular. Zermatt, 9,000 feet below us, looks like a toy town. We have uninterrupted views for 360 degrees and everything seems to be in sight: from Monte Viso 100 miles away, through the Grand Paradiso and Grivola to Mont Blanc and the Grand Combin; the Dent Blanche and Weisshorn closer to hand; then the Oberland, Mischabel, and the mass around Monte Rosa. I recalled that Tyndall had made the first ascent of the Weisshorn in 1861, and the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa, highest mountain in Switzerland, in 1858.

Monte Rosa from the summit of the Matterhorn

Monte Rosa massif from the summit of the Matterhorn (Roland Jackson)

When Tyndall had arrived on the summit, he was surprised to find tracks on the Swiss side. The second ascent had been made by Julius Elliot and his guides Joseph Lochmatter and Peter Knubel the previous day. Even so he found it challenging to descend. Today the fixed ropes take away much of the danger, but even with them, in better snow and rock conditions, I took as long as Tyndall did. We were down at 4.30pm, 12 hours after starting out (it has been done in 2½ hours), and some people were still descending by head torch at 10pm. We stayed overnight at the Schwartzsee Hotel, and went down by cable car the next day. Tyndall of course walked all the way to Zermatt, losing his way in the dark and reaching the village at 1am. They were a hardy lot.

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