by Roger McMorrow
Matterhorn: Lion-Hornli Traverse (Lion: AD+ III+ 650m, Hornli: AD III 1,220m)
There are few ridges in the world that are as strikingly obvious and instantly recognisable from afar as the Hornli ridge of the Matterhorn is from Zermatt. It is picture postcard perfect and is probably one of the most recognisable mountains in the world. It’s a mountain that I have, for a very long time, wanted to climb but descending it for the first time is an entirely different matter. It is steep, loose, sketchy and the route is deliberately not marked or cairned (thanks Swiss guides). An inadvertent slip on descent is unlikely to be a mistake you will be able to make again.
We summited at about 12:30 making good time from the Carrell hut on the Italian side. However, it was on the descent from the summit snowfields where we encountered our first real difficulties. The snow fields are between 45-50 degrees, normally one would be able to easily romp down them but the snow had suffered from unseasonably warm weather that year (something that we will all probably have to get more used to!). The snow was crunchy, icy and in poor condition. We were grateful for the steel stanchions placed about 20m apart that aid the ascent and descent. We Larks footed them with Dyneema slinged extenders and used them as runners moving together down towards the ridge proper. There are some chains and fixed shipping-style rope at steep sections. You could abseil some portions if you wanted to, but that would prove incredibly slow – we rapidly passed some parties that were abseiling and, at some sections we found ourselves stuck behind a slow party. Despite this, our progress was not as rapid as we would have liked. For the entire way down, we had a foreshortened view down of the ridge where at the bottom, almost within touching distance, lay the Hornli Hut, with its tantalisingly close promise of (albeit expensive) warm beds, food and water – we just had to get there! The rocky ridge is partially bolted here and there. There’s a lot of scrambling and places where the decision to abseil or move together is equivocal. Moving together is obviously faster so we kept the abseiling to an absolute minimum.
Located at 4003m, just 475m below the summit, is the emergency Solvay hut. You can’t see it until you almost land on top of it. It’s much more extensive than I expected for an unmanned hut with its bunk beds, mattresses, blankets and drop style toilet, but it represents the last refuge on the ridge until you reach the bottom. We reached the Solvay hut at 17:00 this included about an hour lost behind abseiling parties that we were unable to pass. It had taken us 4.5 hours to descend just 475m a rate of almost 1 hour per 100m. The Hornli was almost twice that distance away, another 740m below. It’s hard enough to find your way down the ridge in daylight – it would be impossible and foolhardy to do it by head torch. We had a decision to make; stay at the Solvay in relative comfort, or risk benightment and a miserable night without bivvy gear, huddled at some nondescript point on the ridge. Sunset was at 21:30 – just 4.5 hours away. Could we cover the next 740m to the Hornli in that time?
As with all trips to the Alps, Parminder Chaggar – my Cardiologist climbing mate – and I had a plan. And as for almost all of our Alpine trips what we had planned to do and what we actually did ended up being completely different. June 2019 was unseasonably warm with temperatures of +15 degrees being recorded on the summit of Mont Blanc in the days before we arrived. There were social media posts of 150 paragliders on the Mont Blanc summit, some wearing shorts and T-shirts. Our initial plans to do the Kuffner Arête and the Frendo Spur – both demanding routes with significant snow and ice sections – would have ultimately been foolish. Global warming appears to be shifting the entire Alpine season earlier and earlier. So we began to look for alternative rocky routes that would allow us to satisfy our Alpine lust. It was that great man Gerry Galligan that had originally planted the seed in my head of the Lion-Hornli traverse of the Matterhorn in my head. It follows the beautiful ridgeline from the Italian side up over the mountain and down into Switzerland. Less travelled and less guided than the Hornli, it’s a little more technical and looks a lot more fun. Gerry and I had planned to do it the September before, but winter came early that year and, as is common with Alpine plans, the plan changed. It wasn’t until a year later that I got my chance.
On arrival in Italy, Parminder and I made our way to the Torino hut at 3,375m above the village of Courmayeur on the Italian side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel. It’s a good place to acclimatise, costs about €50 a night, and there are lots of rocky route options in the area accessible from the hut. Looking at the weather there appeared to be a very consistent 48-hour period of clear and settled weather towards the end of the week. Parminder acclimatises well but at a slower rate than I do, so to consider a technical climb of up to 4,500m he likes to have at least 10 days to adjust, and a 4000er already under his belt. On this occasion it was not to be. We had limited time and a weather window too good to refuse. The highest we would get to was the top of the Aiguilles Marbrées 3,535m. It was through a combination of systematic peer pressure and begging that Parminder agreed to give it a go. So, after four nights at the Torino and a couple of rocky route shake down days we headed back down and over to Cervinia.
Cervinia is a beautiful Italian ski village only 1.5 hours drive from Courmayeur. Accommodation is cheap in the summer as it has plenty of hotels to cater for the skiers in the winter. There is also a small camp site outside the main town and we know of at least one pair of students that chose to sneakily camp on the golf course, dropping the tent every day before tee off! We chose to stay in one of the hotels.
From Cervinia you head towards the Rifugio Orionde Duca degli Abruzzi, 2,802m, which would be a good alternative base to start the climb from. You can get to this refuge in 3 ways: 1) by walking up the 800m; 2) by getting the cable car – €10 to Plan Maison, 2,548m – and taking the traversing path over; or 3) (if you are feeling flush) the hut has a 4×4 taxi to take you directly there for €100 per taxi (up to 5 people). From the Rifugio the path steepens rapidly, ice axes and crampons will be needed as you head up to the Col de Leone, 3580m, but you don’t need to get the rope out just yet. The route up to the col is airy and certainly gives a moment or two to pause for thought.
Shortly after the col, two fixed rope sections give a sharp reminder of the benefits of acclimatisation! We used the rope for this section, moving together clipping fixed bolts. Shortly after that you approach the Rifugio Carrel 3,829m. May I respectfully suggest that you keep to the right as much as possible as the drop toilet is on the left!
The Carrel hut is quite comfortable, sleeps about 40 in 3 pairs of large bunks with mats and blankets running much of the length of the building and it was a full and cosy house that evening. There is a small communal eating area and a private room for guides. It costs €20 per person per night – there is an honesty box but if an Italian guide is there they will collect the money instead. There are cups, bowls, eating utensils and a gas stove for melting snow, however, given the toilet facilities, we and many others carried our own water (4.5 litres each) up with us. It’s quite a social place and we had the good fortune to meet two nice students that were fond of golf courses from the University of Edinburgh and two legends of mountaineering, Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden, all of whom were doing the traverse. If you get to the hut early you can take advantage by recceing the first few pitches for the morning. Unlike at the Hornli where independent mountaineers are functionally locked in until the guides depart there is no hierarchy to the climbers. There were two guided parties. One guide announced he and his party were leaving at 4am. People were welcome to go earlier or later but he respectfully requested that if he came up behind you to let him and his clients past. A reasonable request.
We planned (there’s that word again) to leave at sunrise 05:00, but due to a setting error on the alarm clock we only managed to get away at 06:15. We were the second last party to leave and cursed ourselves for the late start. The first pitch out of the hut is an imposing overhang with a fixed chain. It looks much worse than it actually is and we quickly passed it. The late start meant the route was clear and we rapidly moved over the next sections. Pitching some but mostly moving together the navigation was straightforward and we quickly caught up with the Brits we had met the night before. We decided to stick together for the rest of traverse, sharing the one abseil, rather than having to set up our own separately three times. The Italian ridge is lovely and the sun began hitting the rock at 09:30 in the morning. The rock is good and seems to lend its self to small cams (BD No’s 0.75-2). The small cams were quicker and easier to place and remove than our small half set of nuts, we also took 5 extenders made from 60 cm Dyneema slings. In retrospect one or two more small cams and 2 more sling extenders would have allowed longer leads and less stopping to swap gear.
At about 10:30 we donned crampons just below Pic Tyndall, 4,241m, a prominent point on the ridge where it plateaus off towards the final summit buttress. It is named after the 19th century Irish physicist John Tyndall who, in addition to his pioneering work on glaciers, was a keen alpinist and among the first to summit the Matterhorn. It was here that we passed a party of 5 Catalonians who had started at 2 in the morning!
A short abseil brings you to the final buttress of the mountain and, at this point, it does get quite steep. Hat tip to the first ascenders! A convenient ladder, fixed rope and chains helps the modest mountaineer move as quickly through this section as the altitude allows. Not long after that a pleasant ridge broadens out and the Italian summit with its inevitable cross rises into view.
We were very lucky with the weather, blue skies, low wind and pleasant temperatures. The 0 degree Isotherm was at about 4,000m so the summit was only slightly into the minus range. A quick jaunt across an airy ridge to the Swiss side and you can get a good view of the Hornli hut which looks so close you could almost reach out and touch it, that’s where we had booked dinner and beds for the evening. Sure we’ll be there in 4-5 hours for beer and dinner. It is always quicker on the way down, right?
Sometimes in the hills you get that rising sense of foreboding when you are a long way from where you should be and you are facing into the growing possibility of an unintended bivouac, or as the French say; a mistake.
I don’t know if he coined it first but it was mountain guide, and fellow Northern Irish Lisburn mountaineer, Tim Neill, who introduced me to the ‘three types of fun’ concept. It’s kind of an expansion of the mountaineering mantra: “You don’t have to be having fun when you’re having fun and you only get experience right after you needed it”. Type 1 fun: this is fun at the time and always will be fun. Type 2 fun: This wasn’t fun at the time but, after the fact, you realise that it really was quite fun. Type 3 fun: This wasn’t fun at the time and, after the fact, you realise that it still wasn’t fun, and no amount of time between the event and now will ever make it fun and you never ever want to do that again.
What had been solid Type 1 fun on the way up slowly edged into Type 2 at points, and we were now facing into what appeared to be borderline Type 3.
We had a choice to stay at the Solvay in relative comfort or go faster than we had been moving along the ridge. After a bit of agonising we took the plunge, and decided to go for it, setting off as a party of six with Mick Fowler, Paul Ramsden and the two Edinburgh students.
We shared a couple of abseils to get off and below the Solvay Hut, keeping to the right hand side of the ridge scrambling and down climbing. The rope for the most part would get in the way so we mostly soloed. But the scrambling is airy, and a slip or fall would not be forgiven. No matter how careful you are, a stone knocked from a person above you would be all that’s needed to set you off balance.
The route finding is not easy and the route descriptions; vague. Parts of the route, which should have clearly been cairned, or otherwise marked, were completely absent, frequently allowing us to go astray. Once off-route, the rock suddenly becomes very loose and at times we entered solid Type 3 fun territory. At one point we were abseiling out of a gully, that was obviously off-route, onto a face that was even more off-route. The tat indicated that we weren’t the only ones to have passed this way.
The ridge is relentless. It never gives up, never eases off and it demands continual attention and constant route-finding. All the while the Hornli hut grew larger and larger, so very close, but still just out of reach as the sun sank slowly in the sky, her lovely alpenglow highlighting the beautiful sounding mountains but a also a portend that the night would soon come. Our time was running out and the sun set over the horizon. We were almost there, knowing full well that progress in the dark with a head torch would be close to impossible. We would have to hope the twilight would be enough to carry us through the last stretch before the darkness descended. We saw the final section of fixed ropes come into view, indicating the last section of the ridge, and a few minutes later we were on flat ground. The light failed, but now that we were on the flat, head torches were sufficient to guide us to the Hornli. We arrived. Exhausted and war weary. This was a mountain truly deserving of its reputation and not to be underestimated.
Return to Italian side
From the Hornli we walked down to the Schwarzsee cable car (c45 minutes) and took it to Klein Matterhorn. A short walk (c1 hour) gets you back to the cable car on the Italian side at the Rifugio Testa Grigia. (This cable car only takes cash for some reason) This car will bring you back to Cervinia and a well-earned Dinner & Beer.
A 40m rope is sufficient for the traverse. A longer rope may be more problematic as you can abseil further off route. If descending the Italian side a 50 m single would be better as the abseils are longer.
BD Cams 3 small sizes (would have preferred another 1 or 2)
Half set of nuts
5 Dyneema Sling Extenders (would have preferred another 2)
3 screwgates, 1 sling, 1 prussic, 1 descender, 1 axe & pair of crampons each.
Map: 3306T: Zermatt Saas-Fee (waterproof map)