The Matterhorn’s pyramidal shape makes it one of the best known mountains in the world. Situated in an isolated position between Breuil in Italy, and Zermatt in Switzerland it has four distinct ridges and four faces. The top is a concave crest about 80m long, the west end of which forms the true summit at 4477.5m. However, despite its relative fame it is neither the highest mountain in the Alps (Mont Blanc), nor even in Switzerland (Dom).
The Matterhorn was first ascended by Whymper, Hudson, Hadow, Douglas, Croz and the Taugwalder brothers (local guides) on 14 July 1865, after many attempts by various strong mountaineers. The story of their descent of the Hornli ridge is rather more famous than the ascent; Hadow, Croz, Douglas and Hudson falling to their deaths after a rope broke in a fall high on the ridge. Since then, the mountain has been ascended by thousands - at great speed, at great difficulty, solo, in winter, by dogs, monkeys and even a bear! However the ascent should not be underestimated – it requires sound mountaineering knowledge and full alpine gear – if in doubt a local guide can make the trip much more enjoyable and safe.
Travelling from the UK, Zermatt is the most convenient and popular base, and can be reached from the larger town of Tasch. The easiest option is a flight to Geneva or Zurich followed by rail transfer direct to Zermatt (4-5 hours). Cheaper and more tedious coach options exist, and if travelling in your own car from the UK, there is a large car park at Tasch.
In the summer, June sees a low snowline and unsettled weather, July is good, early to middle August is very crowded, but this improves into early September. By late September facilities begin to close down until the skiing season. Attempting the ascent in winter is a serious undertaking and should only be tried by competent mountaineers
The peak is ever popular, so try and make your visit as low impact as possible. Don’t leave any rubbish on the mountain or approach and remove any that you find. If caught short, try to relieve yourself sensibly and discreetly – remember toilet paper is not always biodegradable! A degree of consideration towards other mountaineers (even if you do not receive the same in return) goes along way to improving the atmosphere on the ascent.
Despite it’s popularity and apparent ease of ascent, the Matterhorn should not be taken lightly. You’ll need full Alpine gear and the knowledge and skills to use it properly. Remember to acclimatise properly too – the summit is almost 4500m, so some preparatory forays up to around 3000m are advised.
NE (Hornli) Ridge (AD)
The route of the first ascent is easiest way up (Assez Dificile), but long, confusing and the scene of many accidents. Nowadays often crowded in the extreme and subject to considerable stonefall from careless parties above, it has been equipped with thick fixed ropes on the difficult sections by client-hauling guides. The route proper begins at the Hornli hut at the base of the ridge, and an emergency refuge (the Solvay Hut) exists at 4000m just before the steep section of the ridge. A competent and fit party should count on 5 hours up and 5 hours down, notwithstanding traffic jams and bottlenecks!
SW (Italian) Ridge
Rock of some difficulty, made easier by fixed ropes and ladders.
NW (Zmutt) Ridge (D)
A good snow route that follows a crest for much of its length, but ends in some teeth, then goes over some rock slabs to the top. The classic route (also the most disjointed), providing a great traverse when combined with a descent of the Hornli.
SE (Furggen) Ridge
The hardest ridge, and the last one to receive an ascent, the Furggen rises in three big rock towers directly to the summit and is probably the best bet for those seeking a bit of peace and quiet on the mountain.
One of the big, classic grade VI alpine routes, never technically extreme but its seriousness cannot be doubted. You will encounter loose rock, stonefall and navigational difficulties in summer, and extreme cold, together with some of the most impressive storms in the Alps, in winter. For serious mountaineers only.
There are many hotels and hostels in Zermatt (contact tourist information for a list) with the Hotel Bahnhof, right opposite the rail station being particularly welcoming to climbers. There are only two small campsites in town, so most opt for camping in Tasch and shuttling up and down as required. Mountain huts are generally owned by the Swiss Alpine Club and must be booked in advance (very much so in the case of the Hornli!).
Valais Alps West: Matterhorn, Zinalrothorn & Arolla (Alpine Club Guide)
The Haute Route - Chamonix to Zermatt (Cliff)
Alpes Valaisannes (Swiss Alpine Club), 4 volumes in French
Alpine 4000m Peaks by the Classic Routes (Goedeke)
Switzerland TSK, Lonely Planet
Zermatt and district: A general guide (Constable)
Matterhorn Vision (Bonner)
Swiss National Maps (Alpinist) 1:25000 – (The Matterhorn is on No 1347)
Swiss National Maps (Walkers-Climbers-Ski Touring) 1:25000
Swiss National Area Maps (Walkers-Climbers) 1:25000
Tourist maps with overprinted walking and skiing routes are available locally in Zermatt but are expensive.
. Association of Swiss hut warders website giving contact and facility details.
. Contact details for local guides.
. General information for visitors.
. Pictures and info.