Matterhorn North Face - new route or not?

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 12/08/2009
The Matterhorn, with North Face on right. Lindsay Griffin

There has been wide coverage of a 'new route' put up on the North Face of the Matterhorn (4,478m) by the legendary Swiss mountaineer Jean Troillet and the two accomplished French alpinists Martial Dumas and Jean-Yves Fredricksen. However, although it provided hard technical climbing, it seems questionable whether their line breaks any new ground.

In 2006 the celebrated guide from La Fouly on the Swiss side of the Mont Blanc Range attempted a line in the middle of the North Face with Sébastien Gay. The two concentrated their efforts on the vertical or sometimes overhanging terrain between the lower sections of the classic 1931 Schmid Route and the 1965 Bonatti Direct but were forced to retreat after one bivouac due to stonefall.

The pair planned to return when conditions improved but sadly, just a few weeks later, Gay was killed above Verbier while skiflying - an extreme, though several decades-old, version of ski jumping where the participant uses a small parachute to assist the jump.

In the autumn of 2008 Dumas and Fredricksen joined Troillet for an (unsuccessful) attempt on the South Face of Annapurna and it was there that he suggested to the two French alpinists that they join forces for another try at the Matterhorn.

The trio spent three days on their line, breaching the lower, steep mixed wall where they bivouacked old-school style in lightweight hammocks. Once onto the less steep face, they continued up a series of runnels to join the Schmid Route.

The three then more or less followed the Schmid until the upper face, where the threat of a storm forced a traverse left to the Hornli Ridge at the approximate level of the Shoulder.

Troillet, an outstanding mountaineer who has climbed big new routes on 8,000m peaks, was 61 at the time of the ascent and thought the route demanding. The two French, almost half that age, have quoted difficulties of ED2 or ED3, F5, A2 and 85° ice, all on the notoriously poor rock for which the North Face is well-known.

Dumas and Fredricksen are no strangers to hard big walling, having climbed a new route on the Dru roughly based on the line of the destroyed Bonatti Pillar, a new route on Trango Pulpit, and made the third ascent of Riders on the Storm, East Face of the Central Tower of Paine.

Troillet took with him a small wooden box with the ashes of Gay, given to him by Gay's wife. He wanted to call the route the Voie Sébastien Gay, as a tribute to his young friend.

Two pictures, showing the line of this route, have been published. The first indicates new ground to be no more than a direct and somewhat illogical start of a few hundred metres to reach the top of the initial snowfield on the Schmid, at the point where the latter traverses right to reach the central couloir.

The second, and more believable, starts further right and joins the Schmid after c500m. However, it appears to be more or less identical to a little-known Czechoslovak route from 1972.

From the 11th-13th August that year, Zdislav Drlik, Leos Horka, Bohumil Kadlecik and Vaclav Prokes, all from what is now the Czech Republic, climbed the most direct line up the face, joining the Schmid Route for the last 250m. Their route is curiously omitted from the definitive Swiss Alpine Club guides to the mountain but was then, and subsequently has been, reported in several other journals.

The Czech Route breaches the initial wall between the Schmid and Bonatti, then slants right to keep equidistant from both. The Swiss-French line appears to follow the same line through the quasi-overhanging lower wall, then heads straight up to the Schmid, reaching it at around half-height on this 1,000m face.

All three climbers have been contacted about the exact location of their route, and Drlik has been asked to confirm the published version of the '72 line. However, at least two noted Italian alpinists and historians think it most likely that the Swiss-French team was simply unaware of the Czech ascent.

If responses are forthcoming, this report will be updated.
 



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