I was pleased as ever to have another chance for a tough summit with Walid Fawaz. As the world seemed to grind to a halt in the spring of 2020, he raised the idea of climbing the Matterhorn as the culminating experience of his time in Geneva, Switzerland, before heading off to an MBA program near Paris. I knew instinctively that we would make an excellent climbing pair again, based on our successful 1,800m one day ascent of Russia’s Mount Elbrus 5,642m from the Barrel Huts in August 2019.
Our planning was helped by Walid’s personal contact in the professional guide circuit. His friend Hubert is an ‘aspirant guide’, meaning he is completing certain requirements, including hours guiding, to become a fully certified Swiss mountain guide. He in turn recommended his supervising mentor Mederic, so that we each had a guide confirmed. This is the mandated pairing ratio on the technical Hörnli ridge route of the Matterhorn.
We spent a day hiking, scrambling and acclimatizing at an altitude of around 2,000m above Grächen on day T-2. The Bouquetins (Alpine Ibex), a large mountain goat with horns that can reach one meter in length, greeted us in numbers at a few cols and ridges. We tried to find routes to simulate the steep ascent of the Matterhorn, and on one short three meter drop, Walid needed to give his older climbing partner a little boost to calm the latter’s nerves. Although we are very compatible climbers, our capabilities differ ever so slightly in some respects!
I had a poor night’s sleep in Grächen due to pain in my right knee, and perhaps staying up a little too late in good company. Even with painkillers, the meniscal and surrounding tissue damage from a rugby injury 25 years ago makes itself a nuisance from time to time, and I was concerned about being ready for the summit push less than 24 hours later. After meeting Hubert and Mederic at the train station and making the relatively uneventful hike up to the Hörnlihütte at 3,200m, I squeezed in a one hour nap before dinner, which did reassure me. It was a bit eerie to find the dinner settings limited to four tables in a hut that would normally be fully booked on this early July weekend. We had read the latest announcements with respect to travel, social distancing and so on, and rightly made the travel arrangements in full observance at a time when the rest of the world was still reeling from confinement and uncertainty about movement and personal choice.
The Hörnligrat (ridge) is clearly visible from Zermatt and the surrounding areas, and is one of the most famous mountain routes in the world. Rated AD (assez difficile) in the French rating system, the many hours of sustained climbing at level II and some level III- require constant concentration and a level of full-body personal fitness and determination that I had not experienced to the same degree on previous difficult climbs. We set off at 04:15 as the second group from the hut in moderately cold temperatures, and, crucially, almost no wind.
Fixed ropes greet the climber only minutes from the hut. In the darkness the 10-12m pitch was a stark wake-up, and I listened intently to the instructions of my guide. If the climber has to be alert for every step and handhold, the guide has twice the responsibility, as they will spend ten hours or more preparing to parry a fall by their client. They loop and remove the rope which joins the two bodies around every possible corner and crevice on the way up and down, repeating the procedure hundres of times. We did not ask our biped life preservers for any disaster stories from the mountain, but each confirmed a 100% record without any serious incidents. For Hubert, that was an easy ask for Matterhorn specifically, as it was his first ascent there as a guide!
The Solvay Hut around 4,000m is a handy stop to drink some hot tea and look east towards Dufourspitze 4,632 (climbed Sep 2016) and the glimmer of a new day.
The temperature remained just below freezing for the remainder of the scramble up to the snow fields just below the summit. There the steepness finally tapers to a moderate 20-30 degrees and we donned our crampons with a sense of elation that we could walk on two feet for a short while in the morning sun.
The summit of the Matterhorn is tiny, barely affording room for the four of us to claim it as the first ascent on the 4th of July at 09:15. It is a truly binational peak between Switzerland and Italy, where it is called Il Cervino. The Italian south-facing side looked almost completely free of snow and ice, in contrast to the northern side we had just climbed.
The descent to the Hörnli hut went without incident, although Mederic and I got ahead of our fellow pair at one point, and celebrated with a beer around 15:30. Walid seems to do better on the ascents, relatively speaking, and his aspirant guide’s lack of detailed route knowledge added some critical minutes to their itinerary. In the end, the two did not make it in time for the 17:15 gondola down from the 2,600m Schwarzsee stop, and had to do the grueling hike all the way to Zermatt in the fading daylight. This meant a 2,900m descent from almost 4,500m to 1,600m! All is well that ends well, though, and they were back to the world of the living the following day.
On my solo hike down to the Schwarzsee gondola I had a blunt reminder of the importance of staying alert and not making any mistakes until the very end of a big mountain challenge. As I raised my gaze to study some hikers coming up the path in the distance, I slipped on some hidden ice. Attempting to break my fall, I put down my un-gloved left hand on the snow, and slid to a stop after a couple of meters. A little embarrassed, I quickly resumed my descent, and only a few minutes later looked at my hand to find it a dark and glistening red. The web of tissue between my little and ring fingers was severed, probably from a sharp rock edge, and pulsing with blood. After cleaning the wound the best I could in cold water in a bathroom next to the gondola stop, I managed to stop the flow with bathroom tissue on the solo ride down to Zermatt.
The orthopedic surgeon who happened to be on duty at the University Hospital of Geneva emergency room the following morning was no stranger to this mountaineer’s foolish injuries. A few months earlier he sutured a gaping wound on the latter’s shin, a result of a box jump onto a metal platform in the gym gone wrong. He found my joke that I would ‘bring him something more challenging next time’ only moderately funny.