There are few mountains in the world that are as instantly recognisable as the Matterhorn. Straddling the Swiss-Italian border, the Matterhorn (meaning “peak in the meadows” in German) is a 4,478 metre beast that has long been a bucket list destination for climbers.
Though it is by no means the tallest or most technical mountain in the world, more than 500 people have died trying to climb it.
The climb and descent is done exclusively over rocks and ice, meaning that anyone attempting it will need a high level of fitness and experience in rock climbing with and without crampons.
Although there are multiple options for ascent, the standard route is via the Hörnligrat and is only suitable for well-versed mountaineers accompanied by a mountain guide.
The Matterhorn was one of the last of the main Alpine mountains to be ascended due to the fear it instilled in early mountaineers.
Attempts were primarily made from the Italian side, despite the fact that the southern routes are technically harder.
From 1850 onwards there were various attempts but it wasn’t July 1865 that Jean-Antoine Carrel and Jean-Baptiste Bich reached the summit from the Italian side.
This successful ascent changed mountain culture. Tourists started to flock to Switzerland in the summer to see the Alps and hired locals as guides.
Mountaineering has helped to transform Switzerland’s mountain regions from poor rural areas to tourist destinations. As of 2015 almost two million visitors head to Zermatt every year.
For those who don’t have mountaineering experience, the mountain can also be trekked over the course of around 10 days and is considered by some as one of the most beautiful treks in the Alps, following ancient trails that have linked the Swiss and Italian valleys for centuries.
- Climb the worlds most iconic mountain.
- Short but challenging two-day hike.
- From the top enjoy a breath-taking panorama in every direction: Mont Blanc, the Grande Paradiso of the Bernese Alps and below the Liongrat towards Italy, the steep north face and the Mattertal.
Depending whether you will be travelling direct to Zermatt or joining a tour from Chamonix, there are various routes to take.
If you are coming independently rather than on a tour, the most popular way to access the Chamonix is to fly into Geneva International Airport.
From here you can reach the town via a 3-hour hour train ride, a one-hour drive or by public bus. Alternative international airports are Grenoble, Marseilles, Nice or Lyon. Many airports offer shuttle options into the mountains during peak season.
No cars or buses are allowed to drive in Zermatt, so the only way to get out at the end of your trek is by train. It’s easy to travel to the main Swiss cities, such as Bern, Geneva and Zurich in just a few hours. From here you can take onward trains or international flights.
The Hörnli Hut (at 3,260 metres), which is the start of the normal route via the Hörnli ridge, is easily accessible from Schwarzsee, a lift ride out of Zermatt. The Zermatt and Breuil-Cervinia resorts function as separate resorts all year round and are connected by ski lifts over the Theodul Pass.
Most experienced mountaineers will summit over the course of two days, spending one night at the Hörnli Hut and then rising early to reach the summit by midday at the latest.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
There is no doubt that this climb is not an easy one.
It is estimated that over 500 alpinists have died on the Matterhorn, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.
If you are ‘on route’ on the Hörnli then the rock is relatively solid and compact, probably as a result of the traffic. Climbing over rock and ice is arduous work and ‘off route’ it can be loose and dangerous.
On the morning of the ascent it is very important to walk carefully on the loose gravel, because every misstep could start a rockslide for the following climbers who are following along in the dark.
On top of this, the Matterhorn is an isolated mountain and thanks to its height and position on the main Alpine watershed, climbers are exposed to rapid weather changes.
Without proper knowledge of mountain conditions and the ability to descend rapidly safely, climbers put themselves in danger.
It is important to give this mountain the respect it deserves and ensure you are comfortable with exposed AD (III) – ridge terrain.
Climbers should be well-versed in climbing with and without crampons, both ascending and descending, and comfortable with route-finding on complicated alpine ridges as this is a key challenge on the Hörnli.
Being fit enough and acclimatised for the route is also important. Those who climb with a guide or as part of a tour will likely do a few practice climbs before setting off. Without a guide the Hörnli ridge can take around 12 hours, all of which is on exposed scrrambling terrain.
Recommended training routes for the Matterhorn include: Cosmiques ridge, Traverse of the Aiguilles Marbrées and the Aiguille d’Entrèves Traverse.
There is no permit needed to climb the Matterhorn.
Guided or Self-Guided
Route-finding on the Hörnli is tough work and could make the difference between a successful summit or not, and with so many people on the route up there isn’t time to be constantly checking a guide book description.
For this reason, unless you’re a seasoned mountaineer and have done your research, it is highly recommended to go with a guide.
An average of around twelve people per year die on the Matterhorn, a figure higher than many Himalayan climbs.
Most guided tours and packages will take you on some practise climbs nearby in the Chamonix Valley to get used to the area, altitude and your equipment.
These will include rock, snow and mixed terrain to best prepare you for the styles of climbing on the Matterhorn.
Another bonus of going with a guide is that climbers with mountain guides form a column and set off by foot first on the morning of the ascent.
A normal two-day guided climb to Matterhorn can cost around €1,500 (£1,250), ascending via the Hörnli ridge. Longer programs that include acclimatisation days and climbs can cost up to €5,000.
All ridges and faces of the have been ascended in all seasons, but the majority of climbers will go up the northeast Hörnli route in summer.
Up to 150 climbers attempt the Matterhorn each day.
The Matterhorn climbing season is in high summer (late June / early June to early mid September). This is when the summit ridges clear of snow and allow easier and swifter progress.
To make an ascent the weather window needs to be absolutely solid and there should be no fresh snow on the route.
On the day before you plan to climb the mountain, it is a good idea to arrive at the hut early, in order to check out the first section of the route in daylight.
Note the power of local knowledge – if the Swiss guides aren’t going then this is a pretty good sign not to go either.
Most climbers take the Schwarzsee cable car up from Zermatt, hike up to the Hörnli Hut to spend the night and then get up before sunrise the next day to attempt the summit.
This allows them to get to the top and commence a descent before the regular afternoon clouds and storms come in.
If you’re going with a guide or as part of a package, a typical five-day Matterhorn itinerary would look like the below:
Training and acclimatisation days around the Mont Blanc Range and Chamonix Valley. The climbs usually include steep rock, ice and snow in ascent and descent to prepare for the terrain on the Matterhorn.
Night three is often spent in a mountain hut to facilitate acclimatisation at over 3,000 metres.
The Ascent of the Matterhorn involves taking the Schwarzsee lift out of Zermatt and two-hour hike to the hut.
Setting off around 4am the following morning there is a long day of climbing and scrambling. Most groups are back down the mountain by early afternoon.
It is possible to make the summit climb and descent to Zermatt then return to Chamonix on the same afternoon.
Both Chamonix and Zermatt have a variety of hotels across the price range. On the mountain itself, is probably one of the most expensive huts in the world – 150 Swiss Francs (£120) for a night’s stay. Unfortunately this is the only option to make the early morning ascent.
Zermatt is stunning but extremely expensive, so many people choose to come in on the day they start the climb and head back to Chamonix straight after their descent.
You can also take the lift up to Schwarzsee and stay at the Schwarzsee Hotel. From here there is the great option of taking the Kleine Matterhorn lift and doing the traverse of the Breithorn.
Outside of trekking and taking in the scenery in the Alps, there are plenty of amazing things to do.
One of a few unforgettable excursions in Zermatt is the highest open-air rack railway in Europe.
The Gornergrat Bahn shuttles through a mountain wilderness up to the observation platform, over 3,000 metres above sea level where there are 29 peaks that soar above 4,000 metres. The trip takes 33 minutes and the train courses over ravines and through stone pine and larch forest.
About 15 minutes on foot from Zermatt is another impressive landform that descends rather than rises. Since the last ice age the glacial river, Gornervispe has sliced through serpentine rock to create a ravine that continues to deepen and in the afternoons the unique light gives the water a mesmerising turquoise glow. It can be navigated by walking the paths and crossing various wooden footbridges over the crystalline waters below.
For those that opt to return to Chamonix (where accommodation is cheaper), activities range from ice skating and movie nights, to paragliding and food festivals.
The Alps are well-known for their outstanding skiing and snowboarding opportunities (with snowshoeing, sledging and impressive apres-ski) and alternative summer activities to hiking include mountaineering, biking and rock climbing.
For something a little different, head to the Les Deux Alpes resort, which recently launched a new outdoor festival. Visitors can tackle 100 kilometres of mountain bike tracks, three trail running competitions and an obstacle race.
If you would prefer to watch than take part, you can witness slacklining above the lake as participants attempt to break the highline world record or check out some aerial acrobatics at The Paragliding Pre-World Cup that takes place each June.
|Skills Required||Climbing, Hiking, Mountaineering, Walking|
|Starts at||3920 Zermatt, Switzerland|
|Length of route||3.9 Km|
|Average time to complete||2 - 3 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||No|
|Highest point||4478 metres|
|Equipment needed||Crampons and ice picks (if completed outside summer months), Harness & ropes, Poles if preferred, Professional mountaineering gear, Specialist climbing gear, Trekking gear, walking boots|