Climbing the Iconic Peak on the 150th Anniversary of the First Ascent, Powered by Mammut.
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
The Matterhorn is perhaps the most famous, most recognized mountain on the planet. It’s the crown jewel of the Swiss Alps and its likeness can be found on everything from deodorant to chocolates to amusement park roller coasters. It is the quintessential peak, and 2015 is significant because it marks the 150th anniversary of Edward Whymper’s mythic first ascent. Earlier this spring, the Swiss-based climbing brand Mammut launched a sweepstakes on Backcountry to celebrate the anniversary. The prize: an all-expenses-paid trip to climb the Matterhorn. To enter all you had to do was type in an email address, and over ten thousand people did just that. One address was randomly drawn from the hat, and it belonged to a Colorado skier and family man named Aaron.
When Aaron opened the email declaring him the winner of the Matterhorn sweepstakes, he regarded it with the same skepticism as any other spam scam that might show up in your inbox. After all, people don’t really win these types of things, do they? But as the scheduled date for the trip drew nearer, plane tickets and hotel reservations began showing up in his inbox, too. It was getting real. Allowed to bring one friend of his choosing, Aaron invited his childhood buddy, Joe—a guy who skis powder by day and tends bar by night in Breckenridge. I was sent along to document the adventure.
Not only did it actually happen, it went down in grand style. Mammut and Swiss Tourism teamed up and put together the trip of a lifetime. All the same, it wasn’t until we were standing in the shadow of the Matterhorn that reality truly sank in and we collectively expressed with a nervous chuckle, “yep, we’re really doing it.”
Aaron at left, winner of the Mammut Matterhorn Sweepstakes, with his longtime friend Joe, giddily preparing to fly on that plane to go climb that mountain.
The Matterhorn was one of the last great peaks in the Alps to be climbed, mainly because its appearance terrified early mountaineers. Nowhere on the pyramid of stone does there seem to be a feasible path to the summit. Climbing it was widely believed to be impossible. And make no mistake―its appearance is still intimidating.
In 1860 Edward Whymper was a 20-year-old English engraver who’d been sent to the Alps to make sketches of the peaks and glaciers. He was by all accounts an odd duck, a loner with a sour ambition. He disliked his job but had a knack for walking long distances, and the Alps afforded him this pleasure. As a boy he’d always dreamed of becoming an Arctic explorer, going where no man had gone before. When he first laid eyes on the impossible Matterhorn he was fascinated. It was the type of challenge he needed.
Over the next five years Whymper climbed numerous first ascents in the Alps and made a number of attempts on the prized Matterhorn. His first seven attempts, made on the Italian side of the peak, ended in failure and retreat. Then he reevaluated the peak from the Swiss side, and he had a breakthrough. Realizing that the east face wasn’t as steep as it appeared, he thought the Hörnli ridge between the east and north faces might yield a route to the summit. After learning that a well-funded Italian team was about to lay siege from their side of the mountain, Whymper hustled to Zermatt and cobbled together a team of seven, including himself. It was a last ditch effort for the first ascent.
To their surprise, the side of the mountain that appeared the most insane turned out to be the easiest. The route appeared like a “huge natural staircase,” and all seven summited without major difficulty. Whymper untied himself from the group on the final pitch, dashing to the summit to claim his place in history. He then peered off the other side, spotting the Italians far below. He started screaming and hurling rocks, making sure they knew they’d been beaten. It was July 14th, 1865. As with all mountains, what goes up must come back down, and that’s where things went wrong. The most inexperienced climber in the group slipped, a weak rope broke, and Whymper watched four of his companions fall 5,000 feet to their deaths. Seven went up, but only three came back down. The details of the accident, and who was to blame, are still argued about to this day. In the 150 years following, the Matterhorn has claimed over 500 more lives. It might not be the tallest or the hardest mountain in the world, especially by modern climbing standards, but people still fall off and die every year.
While there is some level of inherent risk, the Matterhorn is one of the world’s great classic adventures, and the opportunity to go and climb it is truly once in lifetime. There’s a temptation when preparing for a classic adventure to downplay the difficulty with thoughts like, “if some English tourists with archaic gear did this 150 years ago it can’t be that bad…right?” While rowing a boat through the Grand Canyon I was tempted in a similar fashion with the idea of a crusty one-armed Major Powell floating down it in 1869, saying to myself, “Yeah, no big deal…right?” Wrong. It can be a very big deal; the river is powerful. The same goes for the Matterhorn. The exposure is no joke and a fall from just about anywhere is certain death. The point is that the dudes who undertook these adventures a century and half ago were ultimate badasses and far tougher than any of us can probably really grasp. That’s one of the best things about embarking on a classic adventure like this; the ground is drenched in history; you get to appreciate a time when men truly were men.
I first met Aaron and Joe in the Swiss Lounge at the Chicago airport. With new Mammut packs and jackets, I couldn’t miss them. Standing in front of a massive framed picture of the Matterhorn, we toasted to the adventure with complimentary glasses of champagne and took a close look at the peak we planned to stand on in just a few days. Thanks to Swiss Tourism, we flew business class straight to Zurich. The seats became beds, the food was great, and the service was unmatched. The best experience on a plane any of us have ever had.
On the ground we jumped straight on a train headed towards the Alps. The train schedules here run with the literal precision of a Swiss watch, leading Joe to comment, “Travelling in Switzerland feels like cheating, it’s just too easy.” And when you’re in a foreign country with one week to climb its most famous mountain, easy travel is a good thing. Mountains began to appear on the horizon as we gained elevation, and with the mountains came the brown cows with bells, the slate-roofed houses with immaculate flower boxes in every window, and the towering waterfalls—all the charming hallmarks of Switzerland.
When we arrived in the village of Zermatt the weather was socked in and stormy. Even though we knew the Matterhorn was towering above us somewhere, it was hidden in the clouds. Other than small electric carts that service hotels and restaurants, Zermatt is a car-free town, which is wonderful. Baggage in hand we walked to the Hotel Capricorn, noting along the way that every person in this town, climbers and tourists alike, had a pair of trekking poles in hand. The innkeeper greeted us and immediately asked why we had come to Zermatt. Aaron replied, “We’ve come to climb the Matter…” the innkeeper cut him off and with conviction stated, “Not possible.” He went on to explain that an unusual storm had deposited a half-meter of snow the day before, rendering it impossible. Our hearts sank as we went off to our rooms. Travel-weary and hungry, we walked to a café and ate big plates of rösti, the Swiss version of hash browns. We ordered it ‘Matterhorn style’ with bacon, cheese, and a fried egg on top. Coupled with a stein of Weiss beer, it was just what we needed before passing out. Sure, we’d been told that the Matterhorn would be impossible, but Mr. Whymper probably heard similar things from the locals when he arrived 150 years ago, so we were in good company.
We woke to cloudy skies and intermittent rain—likely meaning more snow in the mountains—and still no sight of the Matterhorn. This was our day to get over the jetlag and experience Zermatt. After being pleasantly surprised by the Capricorn’s incredible breakfast spread of espresso, croissants, poached eggs, and cheeses, we made our way to the Mammut Klettersteig, more commonly known to Americans as the ‘via ferrata,’ or ‘iron way.’ Using a system of steel cables and ladders for protection, the Klettersteig follows a path over the limestone cliffs above Zermatt. There are via ferratas like this all over Europe, and they’re a blast. We were able to sweat a bit, get a little scared, and take in a great view of mountain valley Zermatt is nestled in.
Aaron and Joe explore an old slate-roofed cabin in the foothills above Zermatt.
Our afternoon was occupied with a visit to the Matterhorn Museum. Located in the village square, the Museum is kitty-corner to the church where Whymper’s ill-fated climbing partners are buried and across the street from the Monte Rosa Hotel, where Whymper stayed before climbing the mountain. It’s ground zero for Matterhorn history. Probably to save space in the tiny village, the museum is underground. It’s a subterranean lair filled with climbing artifacts and cabins that have been re-created to give you a sense of what life in Zermatt was like in 1865— accommodations have come a long way since then. We even saw the famous broken rope, coiled on a red velvet pillow in a glass case, that resulted in the tragic death of four of Whymper’s companions.
That night we met one of our mountain guides, a lanky Bavarian climber named Florian. With his big smile and easy sense of humor, we were immediately glad to know he’d be joining us. While not optimistic regarding our chances on the Matterhorn, he was bit more encouraging than the innkeeper, saying that if the weather was warm enough the next couple of days, maybe enough snow would melt to make an ascent possible. There we had it—a tiny sliver of hope. Florian explained that the next day we’d do a peak called Pollux for our training climb. Our other two guides would join us the following day when we went to the Matterhorn. Over several steins of beer we made plans to meet at 7:30 the next morning, and we retired to our rooms at the Capricorn.
At 7:20 I knocked on Aaron and Joe’s door, hearing an “oh shit” followed by pants and boots being thrown on—they’d slept through the alarm. We stuffed a few croissants in our pockets, met Florian, and walked to the gondola at the top of the village. Waiting in line with a horde of competitive ski racers, we finally saw it. The clouds lifted and there, glittering pure white in the morning sun, was an isolated shark’s tooth piercing the sky. The snow might have ruined our chances for the summit, but it sure is a beautiful way to see the Matterhorn. Pictures truly don’t do it justice.
The clouds finally lifted and we saw the Matterhorn for the first time.
What followed was a ride on what might be the most incredible ski lift system in existence, taking us from just over 5,000 feet in Zermatt all the way up to 12,759 feet in elevation. It’s the highest lift-accessed place in all of Europe. The final tram docks into the side of a rocky peak called the Klein Matterhorn, then we walked five hundred yards through a tunnel cut in solid granite. When we emerged on the other side we were standing on a glacier dotted with alpine peaks. From T-shirt weather to a winter paradise in 20 minutes—it’s a marvel of Swiss engineering.
Climbing the fixed ropes near the summit of Pollux. Photo- Florian Haenel
The Alps are far more impressive than I’d ever imagined. Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, could be seen in the distant west with Italy rolling out below us to the south. We cinched down harnesses, strapped on crampons, and roped up in a long line for a walk across the glacier. For a couple of miles we plodded through snow, navigating between crevasses towards the base of Pollux. The route up the peak followed a spiny ridge of rock, covered in an ice rime from the recent storms. At a steep section of rock near the top we grappled hand-over-hand up icy fixed ropes—thick, braided sailor ropes that look like they belong on a pirate ship. A short walk up a snowfield and we were standing on the 13,425-foot summit, soaking up an incredible 360-degree panorama of the Alps.
Joe takes in the view from the summit of Pollux.
Tired and sunburned, we maintained a brisk pace back across the glacier to make sure we caught the last tram back to town. Back at the Capricorn with cold steins in hand and the Matterhorn in view, we discussed with Florian if it was even worth making an attempt. Despite the poor conditions, and Florian’s explanation of how the snow melting on the rocky slabs would make the descent “not even funny” (meaning super sketchy), we decided it was still worth a shot. That is why we were here, after all. After a good dinner we ended up in bar we liked and got after it a bit. Having climbed a mountain we felt entitled to a few beverages. Joe really got after it. At some point in the wee hours someone ordered Joe one of those shots the bartender lights on fire, which he then promptly spilled, in turn lighting his hand on fire—the stuff great memories are made of.
Climbing the Matterhorn is a two-day exercise. The first day is easy: you hike to the Hörnli Hut. The second is hard: you start climbing the mountain by headlamp at 4am. Fortunately, this was the easy day. We met up with Florian and another one of our guides, Hannes, a mountain guide from Austria, before riding the gondola two stations up and beginning the four-mile approach to the hut. The trail wanders through alpine meadows and up switchbacks, the Matterhorn looming overhead the entire time, giving your imagination plenty of time to conjure up visions of what you’ll be dealing with the next day.
Aaron and Joe on the approach hike to the Hörnli Hut.
Before we even reached the hut we were walking in slushy snow and mud, a bad sign of what was coming. Recently remodeled, Hörnli Hut is more hotel than hut, making it one of the nicest, and most frequented, mountain lodges in the Alps. After dropping extra gear in our room, we decided to climb on the bottom of the route and get a feel for the conditions. Pollux didn’t prepare us for this. It was slushy and muddy with lots of loose rock, and the exposure in certain spots was no joke—a knife-edge ridge over several thousand feet of air. And not to mention we’d have to do all this in the dark the next morning.
Top: Getting a feel for the conditions and exposure on the Hörnli Ridge. Photo- Florian Haenel
Bottom: Hannes, Florian, and Aaron soak up the sun on the Hörnli Hut’s deck.
After seeing the condition of the route, Florian and Hannes became even less optimistic about our chances to summit, and quite frankly told us it wouldn’t happen. When the route is dry and in good condition, crampons are only required for the last few hundred yards to the summit. We’d be wearing crampons the entire day, making it very difficult to climb fast enough to summit and descend safely. When the snow is melting on the rocky slabs, descending safely can take twice as long as going up. Our only chance hinged on climbing fast enough in the dark when the snow was still frozen and the crampons actually worked. If we were not on the summit in about five hours, we’d have to turn back.
Back at the hut we met our third guide, Joern Heller—a legend among guides in the Alps. Middle-aged, short, sinewy, and spectacled, he’s a bit unassuming, but judging by the respect his presence commanded from other guides in the hut, he was clearly the genuine article. Apart from decades as a professional guide, he’s done first ascents on big mountains all over the world. When it comes to an icy mountain, he’s the right guy to have in your corner.
Over a three-course meal in the near-empty dining hall we made plans for the following day. If the mountain had been dry, the hut would have been packed with people. In good conditions more than a 100 people are trying to climb it each day. When the hut doors are opened at 4am, it’s an all-out race to the base of the route to get good position, and by all accounts it’s a real Gong Show. If there was a silver lining to the poor conditions we had to deal with, it was the lack of people. Only a dozen other people would be trying to climb on the same day as us. Florian would be climbing with Aaron, Hannes with Joe, and Joern with me—assignments based primarily on trying to best match the weight of the climber with the guide. Nervously we packed our bags and watched the moon rise before lying down and trying to sleep. At 3:30am the wake-up call would come, headlamps would be switched on, and we’d start following in Whymper’s footsteps up the Hörnli Ridge.
When the lights flicked on at 3:30am it took a few moments to remember where I was. People were lacing boots, loading packs, and putting on harnesses with sober expressions—it was all business now. Before I knew it our group was out the door and walking. Luckily we were the first group to the base of the route. The snow was frozen solid as predicted, allowing us to make good time in the crampons. The good thing about climbing in the dark is that you can’t see the exposure. All you can do is focus on the next step, try to keep up with your guide, and try to not do anything stupid. A couple of hours later the sun began to rise—brilliant pinks and oranges over the profile of the Swiss Alps, with the lights of Zermatt twinkling far below. It was the most impressive sunrise I’ve ever seen. There was no time to stop and talk about it, but later Aaron and Joe said the same thing.
The best thing about beginning the climb in the 4am darkness is seeing the sunrise from the slopes of the Matterhorn. Photo- Florian Haenel
On the slabs below Slovay Hut, a shack 2/3 of the way up that serves as a shelter for stranded climbers, Joern and I climbed past Florian, Aaron, Joe, and Hannes. Florian said they had decided to turn back at Slovay. The sun was up now and the snow would start to soften soon. You can smell the Slovay Hut before you can see it, and on our arrival discovered a couple of climbers hunkered down inside, forced to bivouac after a failed attempt the previous day. Joern asked me if I wanted to continue and I replied, “as long as it’s safe.” He said, “I think we’ll be fine.” And off we went. The climbing eases off for a little while after Slovay, but there was one ultra-exposed section of ridge covered in sugary snow that sent shivers down my spine.
Then we arrived at the fixed ropes—these are similar to the icy sailor ropes on Pollux, except they go up for about 500 feet. This is the steepest section of the Hörnli Ridge, at times the route winds out onto the north face where the exposure is truly mind-bending, grappling hand over hand up these icy ropes with a massive abyss below. How Whymper and his team climbed this section without protection, fixed ropes, or modern climbing techniques is perplexing―I don’t know how they had the nerve to do it. After the ropes, a few hundred feet up a snowfield is all that’s left to the summit.
At 9:30am Joern and I were standing on the summit of the Matterhorn at 14,692 feet above sea level. The view is unobstructed with mountains upon mountains in every direction. We stayed only long enough to snap a couple pictures, swallow an energy bar, and shake hands with two other climbers on the summit—remaining well aware that descending safely would be the tricky part of the day. I was happy to have made it, but wished Aaron and Joe were there to share the moment. Not only did we have to descend the mountain, we also had to get down the four-mile approach hike from Hörnli Hut to the gondola, and the gondola would stop running at 4:45pm.
Mountain guide Joern Heller and the author on the summit of the Matterhorn.
As predicted the descent was sketchy and slow going—leading both of us to become frustrated at times. The entire time Whymper’s phrase, “look well to each step,” was looping in my mind. At heightened moments Joern would unintentionally revert to his native German, creating more confusion on my part because I don’t speak a word of it. Talking with Aaron and Joe later, it sounded like they had a similar experience on the descent. Nevertheless, we did our best to communicate and just kept moving.
By the time we got back to Hörnli Hut it was 4:00pm. I’d already given up hope of making the gondola and was just happy to be down alive, but Joern didn’t give up so easily. The next thing I knew, he took off running down the mountain, leaving me no choice but to follow. Remember, this little trail running adventure is coming after 12 solid hours of marching on the Matterhorn. I should have been angry or distressed, but the only thing I could think about was how happy I was to not be wearing crampons anymore.
Too many switchbacks, one rolled ankle, and one face-plant later, the gondola finally came into view. A hundred yards from the loading deck I started dry-heaving and convulsing, snot rolling down my face—I’d found my physical limit and was a complete mess. Somehow our timing was perfect, we’d caught up with Aaron, Joe, and the guides just as they were boarding. We’d done it. Back at the hotel, I had the pleasure of telling the innkeeper that “not possible” had been made possible.
We woke up feeling sore. After packing our bags and buying a few souvenirs, we boarded the train back to Zurich where we’d spend one night in the swanky Radisson Blu Hotel before flying home. As a professional bartender, Joe has a talent for finding a good time, and with only one night to experience the city he led the charge. Joe’s nightlife game in strange cities is pretty simple: find a bar, order one drink, and ask the bartender where he/she goes for a drink after work. When you’re drink is finished, head to the recommended destination and repeat the exercise.
What followed was a tour of the Zurich’s dive bars in all their glory. I’d list names of all the places, but my memory is a bit fuzzy, and all the pictures I took are a bit fuzzy, too. We did eat dinner at an amazing place that according to the bartender who sent us “hasn’t changes a stitch since the ‘60s.” The place only served steaks and fries, and that was a beautiful thing. It was the best meal of the trip.
In the wee hours we stumbled back to the train and made the short trip to our rooms at the airport hotel. Aaron and Joe had an earlier return flight the next day, so we embraced, said our goodbyes, and all remarked on what an incredible week we’d had—and that’s how the Matterhorn sweepstakes saga came to an end. On this type of adventure, there’s only one thing better than the memories you take home, and those are the new friends you make along the way.