A jagged tusk of gneiss towering at an elevation of 14,692' (4,478m), the Matterhorn might be the most recognizable mountain in the world. From Zermatt, the small Swiss town below, it looks impossibly steep. Surprising as it might seem, the Matterhorn is relatively easy in terms of technical difficulty. But let's be real, it's no cakewalk: the exposure is incredible, and the high-altitude terrain is consistently engaging. It's a climb that requires your full attention for the entire ascent, and even more so on the descent!
The Hornli Ridge Route of the Matterhorn, the easiest and most popular route on the mountain that ascends the Northeast Ridge with a difficulty of AD+, Alpine Grade III. It is usually done in a day from the Hornli Hut, but it is a very full and engaging day. The route has sustained exposure and though the movement is "easy", the exposure is serious and a fall anywhere on the route would be almost certainly fatal.
View the route on FatMap:
When the opportunity to climb the Matterhorn arose this week I jumped at it. Despite the unsettled weather forecast, I hopped on a train from Chamonix to Zermatt and made moves for the Hornli Ridge. My other objective in the area, Monte Rosa / Dufourspitze (Switzerland's highest peak) didn't look good given the chances for whiteout on the glacier.
I arrived in Zermatt and grabbed a couple of baguette sandwiches on my way to the Furi Schwarzsee lift that would bring me within a short hike of the Hornli Hut. The Hut was closed, but armed with plenty of foot long bread products, a gallon of bottled water, and a solid Rab puffy jacket, I felt prepared for a night in the Hornli Hut "Emergency Shelter" and a full day of climbing.
Knowing that route-finding is one of the major cruxes of the Hornli Ridge Route, I scouted what I could of the route before crawling into bed for the night. Yep, the route was a sea of broken alpine rock!
I began the climb the next morning at 4am. This was early enough to climb some of the terrain I had previewed in the dark, but late enough that I would have natural light for some of the route-finding difficulties that the Hornli is famous for.
Conditions on the route were great. There was some deep snow in places, but it was firm and had some post holes in it from previous climbers. I was able to climb well above the Solvay Hut without putting on crampons.
The weather held as I moved higher on the ridge and I was making good time travelling close to a team of two who were moving at a similar pace. Thin clouds were beginning to move in, but it was nothing compared to the thick cumulous that had formed the day before.
The climbing got more and more exposed the closer I got to the summit. The sheer relief on the Matterhorn is incredible and despite solid footing and great rock quality in most places, the fact that a stumble could result in a 7,000' fall never leaves your mind.
After a big exhale and a look around on an absolutely stunning summit, it was time to descend. The descent of an unfamiliar peak is always tough. The terrain looks completely different on the way down than it did on the way up. Unless you prepared for the descent by taking the time to look down in crucial areas during the ascent, the descent can be confusing on broken alpine rock terrain.
About The Matterhorn Hornli Ridge Route
While this is not a technical climb requiring gear placements and belays for many parties, it is a serious, high-altitude endeavor. If you'd like to climb with us on the Hornli Ridge, reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org!
About the Author
Zeb Blais is an IFMGA/ American Mountain Guide and Founder of Blackbird Mountain Guides. He has climbed on 6 continents and summited mountains from Mount Vinson in Antarctica to Denali in Alaska. He loves sharing wild mountains with his clients, managing the risks of the mountains and exploring!