The Matterhorn

Climb the most famous mountain in the Alps!

Such a striking and memorable image of a mountain, that presents a significant and technical challenge. The Matterhorn captures the imagination of many an alpinist.

The west face of the Matterhorn, as seen from the Tête Blanche


Most popularly climbed by the Hörnli Ridge, this is the feature that faces the many pairs of eyes that look at the Matterhorn from Zermatt. From here it looks an amazing and compelling line to ascend this famous peak. Although perhaps it can look too steep and impossible… A journey up the Klein Matterhorn via the lift system permits a different view, of a ridge of a different gradient. It is predominantly rocky with many towers and buttresses along its length.

Above the Solvay Hut, climbing in the welcome sunlight

The Hörnli Ridge is really a vast scramble where it is important to be able to deal with the physical demands of over 1200m of sustained rocky terrain at a steady pace. In ascent and descent, moving over so much scrambling terrain is the main challenge. This outweighs having to deal with anything particularly technical. The Solvay bivoauc hut at 4003m

The first 800m takes you to the Solvay bivoak hut at 4003m. This is usually done in the dark of early morning. Ideally this takes no more than 2½ hours of steady movement with little technical difficulty or stopping. To attain the hut in this time and manner is a good sign of being able to deal with the rigours of the top section. Also its a sign of having enough energy left for the descent as well.

Beyond the hut the terrain is steeper. Where there are natural difficulties there are numerous fixed ropes to haul yourself up on. Just as you feel you can’t pull up on one more rope, the angle eases off for the final short icy,snow ramp to the summit ridge.

Almost immediately you meet the ‘Swiss summit’; the true top, which is a snow crest over which you dare not peer! If time and inclination permit, it is truly spectacular to continue for 100m along the crest to the ‘Italian summit’ and its iron cross. It’s like a walk across the roof of the world. Allow  20 minutes to enjoy the mountain you’ve spent so long planning to climb. Having enough stamina and ability to spare for the descent is now crucial. The descent generally takes longer than in ascent. Again, it’s key to be off the mountain by early afternoon to avoid storms and certainly to enable to reach the last lift back down to Zermatt.

The Lion Ridge – the Italian Route

Alternatively, you could make a plan to traverse the Matterhorn. Climb the Lion’s Ridge, the southwest ridge for which your journey starts in Cervinia in Italy. This route has a mountain hut at around 1/3 height and from here the remaining 2/3 is climbed the following morning. An adventurous place to be, not nearly as busy as its Swiss counterpart. Much interest in the climbing, with also many key sections with fixed ropes. Descending by the Hörnli Ridge completes the adventure, finishing on a different side to this iconic mountain you truly experience the nature and challenge of this peak.

The top at last!

Preparation and pre-requirements

There are many factors that contribute to successfully reaching the summit of the Matterhorn, not least having good weather and conditions for your summit day. However, on your part there are two factors that significantly improve your chance of success. Firstly, your skills and fitness as a mountaineer/climber prior to alpine trip, and secondly, the days you can dedicate prior to ascent attempt itself. Reflexion on success

Prior to your Matterhorn alpine holiday

What are needed are a good heart, lungs and body that are used to gaining height on hills at a reasonable pace. Training may be required! Coming from the UK, regularly walking up British mountains is good exercise for this sort of thing. It helps you to prepare if you can combine this with getting on as much scrambly ground as possible particularly in descent and this will improve your movement skills considerably. Have a look at the Scrambling section in UK Stuff for more ideas.

It does really depend each individual’s experience as a mountaineer. Typically it would be good to have done a number of alpine peaks/seasons prior to this holiday to really build your understanding of the alpine approach to climbing. Then you have a better picture of what this mountain should be like to climb, and how you view your ability with regards to chance of success.

Prior to the ascent itself

With a mountain guide, a typical preparation would be along the following lines:

  1. Basic acclimatisation peak or journey, going up to 4000m.
  2. Sleeping in a mountain hut at around 3000m.
  3. Climbing another 4000m peak (or two) that has some steeper and more technical ground. This is to work on your climbing and ropework skills. It is important to feel that you can climb at altitude as the toughest difficulty on the Matterhorn is at 4200m.
  4. Sleep back at valley base.
  5. Now with your improved acclimatisation, doing one more challenging route prior to the Matterhorn can be key to your success…

Naturally, this all takes time. It can be done in 6 days but a few days more always help, not least if the weather is unsettled. The Zermatt/Italian alpine areas have great objectives that link well to achieve this preparation but other areas in the Alps can work just as well. If you have the time, it’s worthwhile arriving a day or two before the guided part of the trip to do your own acclimatising. This can be done by walking up to local mountain huts and helps when arriving straight from the sea-level altitude of your home.

Looking back at the Swiss summit from the Italian side

Guiding Details

Guide to client ratio: 1:2 for the preparation days then 1:1 for the days approaching and climbing the Matterhorn

It is worth setting aside at least 6-7 days for an ascent of the Matterhorn. It can help if you can do some of your own preparation and acclimatising prior to joining your guide.

  • The first 3-4 days are spent acclimatising, focusing on rock movement skills in ascent and descent, and climbing more technical routes at altitude, all while staying in mountain huts to aid acclimatising further
  • The final 3 days are set aside for the ascent of the Matterhorn, bringing in further mountain guide(s) if necessary, to make up the 1:1 ratio.