In July of 1865, an English climber named Edward Whymper became the first human to stand on the summit of the Matterhorn—Switzerland’s most famous mountain. On the descent, the triumph of the summit quickly turned to tragedy, and in the 150 years following, the controversy, fame, and mystique surrounding the mountain have only grown.
Climbing the Matterhorn is without question one of the world’s great classic adventures; a bucket-list must-do for anyone with a passion for mountains. Looking to plan your trip? Here are a few tips to get you on your way.
In 2015, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first ascent, Mammut launched a sweepstakes on Backcountry to win a trip to climb the Matterhorn. A great guy from Colorado won, tickets were booked, and the adventure commenced in grand style. Read the full trip report and see the images here.
With an elevation of 14,692 feet, the Matterhorn is by no means the tallest mountain in the world, neither is it the most difficult to climb. Yet more than 500 people have died trying to climb it; it can be a dangerous mountain and it deserves respect. As far as fitness, you’ll want be prepared for a 5,000-foot stair-stepper on technical terrain, both up and down. You’ll also want to make sure you can keep pace at elevation. If you live in a Colorado ski town, 14,000 feet probably won’t impact you that much, but if you’re coming straight from sea level, you’ll feel it big time. Hiking a few Colorado 14ers and moderate rock routes in the Teton Range would be ideal for training.
In terms of technical climbing skill, the requirement is pretty low for the Hornli Ridge route. The climbing sections are low-angle and probably around 5.5 at the most difficult. That being said, the more climbing experience you can bring to the table the better.
Perhaps more important than technical climbing skill is your ability to be comfortable with exposure. One of the biggest surprises for me while climbing the Matterhorn was just how exposed some of the sections are—there are knife-edge ridges that drop off for thousands of feet. Walking on a curb is easy, as long as it’s next to a sidewalk. Put the same curb over 1000 feet of air, and it’s not so easy anymore. Success on the Matterhorn depends on moving quickly, comfortably, and efficiently. If the exposure wigs you out, you won’t be moving quickly or comfortably. As far as I know, there’s no better way to wrap your head around exposed situations other than exposing yourself to exposure. Just be safe while you’re doing it.
If you’re looking to make an ascent of the Matterhorn dirtbag-style, you probably won’t find this section very helpful. Thanks to Mammut and Swiss Tourism, we travelled in grand style, and in hindsight, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. We flew business class on Swiss International Air Lines from Chicago to Zurich non-stop. It was hands-down the best flight any of us have ever taken. The service was incredible, the menu gave us a taste of Switzerland before we even arrived, and the seats turned into beds. Even if you don’t want to throw down the loot to fly business, the coach accommodations are step up from the standard.
Once on the ground, it’s all about the trains. The schedules are easy to figure out and run with the precision of a Swiss watch. It’s about a three-hour ride from Zurich to Zermatt. Besides the practically of trains, the Swiss rail system is an engineering marvel in itself. Some of the tunnels and mountain passes are nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Planning a trip to Switzerland? My Switzerland is the ultimate resource for flights, train tickets, destinations, and more.
I’m sure there are stacks of wonderful hotels in Switzerland, but I’m going to highlight only two. True, they were the only hotels we stayed in, but they impressed in every way. If you have to spend a night at the Zurich airport, either coming or going, the Radisson Blu is your spot. This is a super nice hotel and it connects directly to the terminal. In the lobby they have a 50-foot glass wine tower. If you order a bottle, beautiful women called “wine angels” are attached to cables and hoisted into the air to retrieve it.
In Zermatt, we had the pleasure of spending a few nights in the Hotel Capricorn. Located just a few blocks from the center of town, the rooms are clean, modern, and afford views of both the Matterhorn and the village. The best part, though, was the breakfast spread: croissants, sausages, poached eggs, a cheese spread, coffee any way you take it—in short, the works. And the décor in the dining room has a very vintage Swiss feel with ornate wood paneling, murals of mountain scenes, and the curved horns of Alpine Ibex hanging on the walls.
As for the length of the trip, the more time you can give yourself the better. The mountain is isolated and prone to quick changes in weather, and it can snow at any time of the year. Ideally, the mountain will be dry and free of snow for all but the last few hundred yards to the summit.
Our trip lasted only one week, with only one scheduled day to try and climb the Matterhorn, and the conditions we had to deal with were far less than ideal, making it difficult to have a chance at the summit. We were slogging in snow the entire way, and only one of us made it to the summit. Point being, if your trip is short, the weather might be crap and you won’t be able to climb at all. The more time you have to wait for good weather conditions, the better your chances will be. And keep in mind that July and August are typically the best months of the year for making an attempt.
The Matterhorn is one of the most famous mountains on the planet; expect a crowd. If the weather and conditions are good, there are as many as 150 people trying it each day. If you’re looking for solitude, pick a different peak; the Alps are stacked with beautiful, lesser-known mountains.
To help reduce bottlenecks and confusion, there’s an established order for climbers and guides leaving the Hornli Hut at 4am. Local guides from Zermatt are allowed to leave first, followed by other guides with clients, followed by independent climbers. A note on the Hornli Hut: climbing the Matterhorn is typically a two-day exercise. The first day is spent hiking to the hut, which sits just below the start of the route up the Hornli Ridge. You’ll need to book a room in the hut; the guide service typically helps you do this. In addition to the crowds, the route on the Hornli Ridge is far less obvious than I imagined—considering the several thousand people who climb on it each year, you’d think it would look like a highway. The rock is very fractured and loose and the route wanders around a good deal. It would be easy to get off route and find yourself in a bad situation. For these reasons, it makes a lot of sense to hire a guide. They have the most up-to-date information on the route, understand the unique ethics and customs of climbing the mountain, and you’ll get better position leaving the hut in the morning.
From left, mountain guides Joern Heller, Florian Haenel, and Hannes Rottensteiner
All of our guides were very experienced, patient, and easy to get along with, and that’s what you want in guide. We felt really lucky. I would highly recommend hiring any of them, whether you’re looking to climb the Matterhorn or any other peak in the Alps. Florian Haenel is a Bavarian guide and his passion for mountains and life is infectious. Hannes Rottensteiner is based in Austria and guides everything from sport climbing trips to alpine peaks. Joern Heller has more than twenty years of experience as a professional guide and has climbed big mountains all over the world. They can be hired through the Mammut Alpine School.
From Top Left:
Mammut Trion Softshell Pant—Advanced Schoeller WB fabric gives you the durability, stretch, and comfort required for big days in the alpine.
Mammut Magic Advanced High GTX Boot—Mammut’s premier mountaineering boots, these were a dream right out of the box.
SmartWool Mountaineering Extra Heavy Crew Sock—A good pair of socks can make a world of difference, these are some of the best.
Mammut Masao Jacket—If the weather takes a turn for the worse, nothing shelters like a shell jacket.
Black Diamond Vector Helmet—Speaking of rock fall, the high traffic and melting permafrost can make the Matterhorn a shooting gallery. A good helmet is critical.
Mammut Expert Prime Gore-Tex Glove—The grip of goat leather with the protection of Gore-Tex.
Sterling Dyneema Runners—Light, strong, and just what you need to clip yourself to an anchor.
GoPro HERO4 Black Edition—Because pics or it didn’t happen.
Petzl Tibloc Emergency Ascender—In case you fall in a crevasse and need to climb back out.
Black Diamond ATC-XP Bely Device—Great for the belay, great for the rappel.
Original Buff—Protect your face, wipe your nose, bandage a wound…a buff is good for all kinds of things.
Suunto Core Crush Altimeter Watch—Barometer, altimeter, compass, and so much more.
Black Diamond Sabretooth Clip Crampons—Meet the perfect all-around crampon.
Mammut Broad Peak IS Hooded Jacket—Matterhorn or Manhattan, never leave home without a puffy.
Surface Products Face Stick-SPF 45—Avoid sunburn on the glaciers.
Backcountry Goatyard Beanie—Keeps your noggin warm.
Julbo Vermont Mythic Sunglasses—Glacier glasses never looked so good.
Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp—When you start climbing at 4am, you’re going to need this.
Patagonia Capilene Baselayers—Essential for controlling moisture and maintaining comfort in the mountains.
Mammut Trion Pro 35 Pack—The perfect pack for done-in-a-day alpine missions.
Black Diamond Raven Pro Ice Axe—The lightest full-service piolet available, period.
Mammut Ultimate Hooded Softshell Jacket—Not pictured above, but this ended up being our favorite jacket of the trip; absolutely perfect for alpine climbing.
From Top Left:
The North Face Base Camp Duffel—The gold standard in duffel bags.
Roark Revival Nordsman Shirt—Made from a wool poly blend, this shirt is clean, rugged, and warm.
Kuhl Ryder Pant—My top pick for hiking and climbing.Levi’s Commuter 511 Denim Pant—In my opinion, jeans don’t get any better.
Patagonia Go To Shirt—The organic cotton blend is perfect on warm days.
Icebreaker Tech Lite Goat T—Merino wool, plus the goat, equals the best T ever.
Fjallraven Gear Bag—Rugged G-1000 canvas makes a great toiletries bag.
Stanley Mountain Vacuum Coffee System—A thermos that includes everything you need to make a first-rate cup on the go.
LifeProof Fre iPhone Case—Water, sand, snow, whatever … this is complete protection for your phone.
Passport—You can’t get it here, but you’ll need it. If you’re getting a new one, give the process eight weeks to be safe.
Victorinox Swiss Army Knife—Seems fitting for a Swiss adventure.
Scrambles Amongst The Alps—Get a sense of history by reading Edward Whymper’s firsthand account of the triumph and tragedy on the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
Steiner Champ Binoculars—See what’s out there.
Roark Revival Mule Pack by Hex—It fits in an overhead compartment, holds enough gear for a 3-5 day trip, and the side access zipper makes it easy to find what you need—the Mule is the perfect travel companion.