Matterhorn Trip report
Date: August 2021
Who: Nick Melson, Committee Member
Report by Nick Melson- to follow
After previous trips had ended in storm- related retreat, I approached my week in Chamonix with a more weary air of “just going to do some alpine climbing”, rather than have any form of goal in mind.
Arriving in the alpine mecca of Chamonix in early August, with COVID restrictions in full swing, I met up with a guide with whom I had previously climbed- Fred.
Day 1 had us driving straight off to the Arolla region in Switzerland, for a 48hr acclimatisation raid on on 2 peaks- the Aiguille de la Tsa & the Dent de Tsalion, both peaks over 3500m. After a couple hours of walking in (up…!) we had a night at the mountain hut Cabane de la Tsa, at a lofty 2607m. Simple mountain food and good hospitality however led to a very bad night’s sleep for me due to the altitude, and it didn’t seem long until we were waking up for our 3am alpine start. We were the first group out on the mountain though which is great, and got started on the west ridge up the Dent de Tsalion- an AD alpine ridge route, which we mainly climbed moving together, with only a couple of sections that we had to “pitch” due to steepness/ lack of holds. Dawn broke with us close to the top and we cruised our way to the summit. From there we looked across to our next aim- the awesome shark’s tooth-like feature of the Aiguille de la Tsa which was glowing in the morning sun. After a brief crampon tramping to the base, we flew up the bolted pitched route to the summit, along with a few other parties who had approached via a different route. A mix of abseiling, down climbing and cramponing eventually led us off the glacier and onto a long hike back to the car. Only about 2 hours into the hike did I start to feel a tad weary- totally out of water and food at this stage, and wondering why I had only 1 walking pole (long story)… After a full-on 14 hour day, we got back to the car and drove our way back to Chamonix.
On the way back, we discussed our next objective, and I causally asked Fred about the Matterhorn. Cue a brief conversation about the benefits of Swiss side v’s Italian side, hut availability, and weather windows. 1 day later, after some hut space wrangling, we were en route to Cervinia in Italy.
From Cervinia, the Matterhorn looms massively over the valley, looking totally unclimbable- I have to admit to feeling more than a little apprehensive at this stage- would I be able to deal with altitude over 4000m? Would I be able to deal with the exposure of knife edge ridges? Would I be too slow up the exposed terrain? I took these questions and did what most men do with such worries- ignored them and tried to deal with the immediate issues- getting up to our hut at 3830m, the Carrell hut perched ridiculously high up on a mountain ridge.
The route up from the valley took approx 5 hours, firstly walking in, then scrambling and climbing up the lower slabs, various faces and the odd ice traverse to get to the Carrel hut at 3830m. These rock slabs needed a steady but quick foot; most faces some careful (but relatively easy) climbing; some faces needed hauling up chains/ shipping ropes, and the steep ice traverse careful crampon placement. All of this with pretty heavy bags, as we carried enough water and food for 2 days, including cooking as the huts are bunk and shelter only! I found this day hard, as I seriously felt the 1300m of altitude increase, and I was apprehensive about the next stages!
A luxury mountain hut the Carrel Refuge is not- indeed the 50 berth hut is very cramped, has no host (only an Italian mountain guide is in situ) and has no water or food. However, in adversity as always, the various climbers were very friendly and supportive of one another. After we arrived mid afternoons, some admin and preparation, we had an early night, ready for a 2am start. Typically, I ended up with about 1 hrs sleep, struggling with the high altitude, as well as the issues of being in the 3rd (and highest) level of bunks- toilet visits were fun…
2am, a quick breakfast, and we were the first climbers on the Lion Ridge. Climbing in the dark under head torch allowed me to focus on each step at a time- if I had looked up and seen the whole ridge, it may have seemed insurmountable, and it also disguised the exposure either side! The climbing was a joy- mainly on the VDiff/ Severe level if you are thinking English trad climbing, and lots of scrambling, but along a knife edge ridge, often with huge exposure. To ensure speed, we moved together through pretty much all sections, moving at the same time with runners in between us as protection (either on fixed bolts or placed gear- such as cams or slings). We only “pitched” a couple of sections. There are a number of fixed ropes/ chains on the steeper sections, which are near vertical, which require a bit of upper strength.
After a brief sit down/ water/ snack, as the sun rose, we were off once more- Fred pushing fast up the final faces, to the summit., just after dawn, at 6:43am. We came upon the summit almost as a surprise- the first climbers up the Italian summit that day, although climbers from the Swiss side started to appear around the same time, pairs roped together looking at us from their side of the knife edges summit.
The summit was an experience that will stay with me for a very very long time- a knife edge snowy ridge, with near-vertical drops either side, but with the most amazing views over Switzerland and Italy. However the precariousness of our position was made all the more obvious when a rescue helicopter appeared and hovered very close to us, eventually rescuing a climber who was benighted on the server North Face route.
After 20-30 mins at the summit, we started to make out descent, past the now crowded-in-places chains and shipping rope pitches on the vertical faces. We simply downclimbed these pitches quickly but carefully, all too aware of the length of descent that awaited us!
It took us 2.5 hours to descend back to the Carrell Hut, whereupon we had a brief break and took on the last of our water and food, and then headed down to the valley, having to descend the slab sections and snowfields also. The descent took a further 5.5 hours, to get back down to the valley floor- as we were suitable exhausted, this took concentration and care with every step.
On our way down we came across a French couple descending also, who had spent most of the night on the summit route, traversing from the Swiss side. They had summited from the Swiss side the previous day and tried to descend via the Italian side, but the descent on unknown ground took far longer than they had planned, and so it took them almost 30 hours to get from their hut to the summit and then back down. As a comparison, it took Fred and I 8 hours!
The next day, I felt like I had been absolutely beaten up as it is quite the physical and mental challenge (4000 vertical metres, 40% less O2, 1 hrs sleep, fair amount of exposure, etc) but the experience was absolutely amazing, especially at the top- it will stay with me forever, and will certainly help when work/ life becomes stressful once more!
The hardest day was day 1- going from 2500 to 3800 in 5 hours battered me altitude wise, and I slept hideously in the small but crowded hut. We were the first up and out, which meant we saw no one really until the summit, and the need for speed means that you have to be comfortable with fast unbelayed (but with runners) low grade climbing/ scrambling, with v few breaks!
To give it some context, I am a competent (ish) intermediate mountaineer, having first started in 2010 with a 5 day beginner mountaineering course in Chamonix, and since then done 3 week-long visits to the Alps, and 2 winter weekends in Scotland, some of which were deeply unsuccessful! However I do regularly climb in the Peak District, and so am comfortable on rock.