After going to spain, I decided to meet my friend John Collis in Zermatt. He has a Swiss girlfriend who graciously offered to host Kurt and I for a few days. Unfortunately John blew out his ACL a few days before in a skiing accident and he couldn't climb with us. It was good to hang though. We all discovered the healing and bonding power of drinking (way too much) wine, and watching doubled youtube videos, typically a video in 0.5x slow-motion of someone explaining something technical and making ambiguous gestures, played simultaneously with 80s porn soundtracks. We had only 5 days in Zermatt before we were due to move on to Courmayeur to stay at the Grivel apartment.
At first we borrowed (sketch) ski passes, and got some good turns in on the piste. The avalanche danger was through the roof; this was the first really big snowfall the alps had seen so far this year. It would be best to attempt a route with the relative safety of ridge geometry.
The Matterhorn (4478m, 14,692') is the archetypal mountain, both aesthetically and in the realm of lore. Of course we had to try it. It is visible from everywhere around Zermatt, and towers above all it's nearby neighbors. The weather was horrible, with snowfall every day and significant wind. It would be unsafe to try a face, and we though not much would be in condition. We decided to try the Hornli ridge, the easiest route up an otherwise complex and enormous mountain. The ridge ends up being technically about as hard as the Owen-Spaulding route on the Grand Teton, owing to the presence of fixed ropes and essentially via ferrata grade fixed gear taming some sections that could potentially be around 5.7-5.8.
For us, the challenge would be plowing through the new snow and dealing with extreme cold, exposure to weather, short days, and for me: the potential to develop altitude sickness having only been above sea level for 3 days. The forecast and the snow totals weren't giving us much of a chance, I silently put an estimate of our probability of success at 10%. We gave it hell anyway.
|some wierd russian shit left in the winter room at the HornliHutte|
|on the way to the Hornlihutte, complete whiteout and wind.|
|a view of the north face.|
|after the approach to the hut. it was around -20C|
We approached the hut in the afternoon through a heinous snowstorm. In the night things did managed to clear, and the next day we were greeted by about 4 hours of clear weather. The forecast had predicted only 1-2 hrs of clear, workable climbing and routefinding conditions, so we were psyched!
|The hut was actually very restful, and free.|
|our pre-dawn start on the upper ridge.|
|Kurt breaking through waist-deep snow.|
|The windstorm arrives.|
In the end what shut us down were the slow conditons. We had a train to catch to Geneva at 7am the next day, and we would have needed another day above the Solvay hut. We turned around at about 4000m. In hindsight, this was a good call. We shouldn't have attempted it at all in these conditions. It was so cold that we were moving in all our layers, and carried no stove or fuel. Perhaps in good conditions we could blaze up a route like this, even in winter. But this time we walked away humbled, cold, exhausted, and empty handed.
|Kurt hides his face from stinging ice.|