Matterhorn Climb with International Mountain Guides (IMG)
July 19, 2012
Riffelhorn, 2927 meters, July 15th
Rimpfischhorn, 4199 meters, July 17th (scrubbed at 3,750 due to wind)
Pollux, 4,092 meters, July 18th
Breithorn, 4,164 meters, July 19th
The Matterhorn from the Rifflelhorn
The Matterhorn and a trip to the Alps
After a great trip to the Grand Teton with friends last summer, I really got a taste for big mountain alpine climbing, and set my sights on a trip to Switzerland and a try for the Matterhorn. I hadn’t been in the Alps for any climbing since 1975, and memories of that trip were long faded to sepia. I really had no idea what I was doing, but set my sights on a Matterhorn expedition through International Mountain Guides (IMG), an outfit with a great reputation, but previously unknown to me. Some coaching from the folks at IMG got me into some rock climbing training on Mt. Washington with the team from Eastern Mountain Sports, and I’m really glad that they did – these mountains are really big – and involve an awful lot of diverse alpine skills.
I arrived in Zermatt on one of the wildly idiosyncratic but beautifully engineered Swiss trains (cog railway), directly into Zermatt from the Geneva Airport. Zermatt has been the center of Swiss alpinism since Edward Whymper and his team first scaled the Matterhorn in July of 1865 with a 7 person party, four of who died in the descent. The disaster led to a rush of tourism (fairly ghoulish) which continues to this day, with the rope that failed in the tragedy still on display in the local museum. Zermatt is now home to the quite money of the rich and famous, but retains an amazing civic commitment to its humble agrarian roots. The town is full of ancient farm buildings which are still in used, juxtaposed to very high end condos and ski lifts.
Loading Hay in Downtown Zermatt
The Alps and the Matterhorn – Young Mountains of Mixed Origin
The Alps are a very young mountain range, caused by the collision of the African and European Plates beginning about 30-50 million years ago, and continue to grow vertically at a rate of 1mm to 1cm per year. The Alps are a strange mixture of these two plates, e.g. the rock that forms the top of the Matterhorn is actually an isolated piece of the African plate. The rock mixture includes metamorphic rocks from the deep crust, and relatively undisturbed limestone sediments. In the Zermatt area the rocks are a mixture of Gneiss and serpentine schist – which is really pretty rotten and soft. The altitude and glaciation have produced some spectacular vertical cuts – which produce frequent and highly undesirable rock falls.
The Matterhorn is an erosional remnant – albeit a spectacular one – composed of this soft rock. It sits alone, capped by the relatively harder African rock, isolated from its neighbors. From an esthetic perspective, it is spectacular, and like a fading starlet seems to end up in every photo. The faces of the mountain are particularly unstable, and most of the climbing routes run up the ridges. The mountain is taller than almost of its neighbors, and its height, together with its isolation, creates a magnet for bad weather. The mountain has been un-climbable for normal humans (super-human climbers excluded) since we arrived, due to the persistent snow and wind from the storm that produced the avalanches on Mont Blanc 10 days ago. We’ll see how things progress in the next several days.
Mountaineering is very much a team sport – albeit one with relatively fluid teams and requirements. We have 5 climbers in our group; Mark, a rock climbing entrepreneur from Dublin Ireland; Craig and Alton, two attorneys who are authentic Sons of the South; Bill, an eye surgeon from Washington State; and me – and every one of these guys is in great shape and loves to climb. The guides include 3 very experienced American friends – Matt Farmer, Liz and Miles Smart (married) – all of whom live in Chamonix and have guided for years. The IMG guide team is by far and away the best that I’ve ever climbed with – with both on and off mountain skills necessary to make this a successful venture. The guests are a pretty high powered lot – and consist of a bunch of guys each of whom is used to being in charge – a management challenge for sure for the guides.
The Team preparing for the first climb
Our first day was a warm up rock climb on the Riffelhorn – a hunk of relatively hard rock cut into a spectacular rock face by the glacier coming off Monte Rosa. The day was sunny, warm and absolutely delightful. Liz, a native of Aspen CO, managed to get me up the 7 pitches to the summit without incident.
Liz & Wes on the Riffelhorn
The next day – Monday – included a little Via Ferrata – which is a section of steel cables, steps and ladders attached to a rock face to allow people of mixed climbing skills to access very difficult rock – and a trip to our first hut, the Fluhalp. Via Ferrata was first used by the Italians, in WW I for the transport of troops through the Dolomites and has morphed into a Disneyland for alpinists. Huts in the Alps vary widely, but the Fluhalp Hut is more like a 3 star hotel that you walk to. The food was great, the views spectacular, and the decorating over the top.
Alton relaxing in the Bordello section of the Fluhalp Hut
Mark on the deck of Fluhalp at sunset
The Tuesday’s objective was the Rimpfischhorn, a 4,199 meter peak about 5 miles away. This involved a 3:00 am start, and the walk went from alpine pasture to climbing a glaciated summit. Along the way the wind picked up tremendously, and we had to scrub the climb on a rock ridge at 3,750 meters. On the way back down we stopped back at the Hut for a plate of rosti – a Swiss dish of fried potatoes augmented with sausage, ham, cheese, egg – whatever. Each plate contained at least 1,500 calories – but we had clearly burned at least that much, and the taste was something out of this world.
Frustration on the Rimpfischhorn
A plate of Rosti – low calorie Swiss hiking food
Following an evening back in Zermatt, Wednesday was a climb of Pollux, and a whole lot of fun. This was our first successful 4,000 meter summit as a team, and it involved glaciers, rock climbing in crampons and a little help from a stature of the Madonna located very near the summit.
Liz and Craig with the Madonna near the summit of Pollux
The exit off Pollux was down the glacier to a Hut in Italy – locally called Refugios. The setting was spectacular, and the food was terrific. While the hut did not include the singular decorating touches of the Fluhalp, the bathroom had the most spectacular views of an icefall of any bathroom in the world – I’m sure of it.
The Team at Pollux Summit
Icefall from the Refugio toilet
Thursday was the climb of Breithorn, and the most fun of the trip to date. We got a mercifully late 5:00 am start, and headed out onto the glacier. We crossed below the icefall – feeling like a pin in a bowling alley – and headed up to the rock. The climb was a spectacular rock climb along a ridge which had a fairly exposed cornice near the top. This was rock climbing in crampons at its best, and I had a blast climbing with Miles. We summited into some high winds, and hustled down to get back to the lift into the valley before a wind close – you have to love the accommodations of climbing in the Alps.
Wes having fun on the Breithorn
Characters along the way
Ulrich Inderbinen – the soul of Zermatt
You can tell a lot about a place by the people it honors, and Zermatt honors the memory of Ulrich Inderbinen – 1900 – 2004. Ulrich was a simple man and mountain guide who first climbed the Matterhorn in 1920 with his sister Martha – with her wearing street shoes and a dress. He lived his whole life in in a house that he built himself in 1930, and heated with wood that he cut himself until the age of 102. He climbed the Matterhorn over 300 times, the last one at the age of 90. He finally retired from climbing at 95, when he felt that he couldn’t keep up the pace anymore. He is an authentic local hero, and everybody here seems to know his story. Ulrich embodies the respect for a simple agrarian/mountaineering heritage in the impossibly complex and highly engineered environment that is Zermatt today.
The Route and the Weather
As you can see from the photo below, the Hornli Ridge route (the center ridge in the photo) is still snow covered, and the weather is supposed to degrade over the next couple of days into storms of snow, rain and lightning. It will be disappointing if we don’t get up the Matterhorn this trip, but this is a famously difficult Mountain relative to weather, and you can’t tempt the mountain Gods. Stay tuned.
Adios from the Matterhorn