The Pointy One

(by Dermot Shiels, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 1999)
An ascent of the Hörnli ridge of the Matterhorn.

Denis Carrigan on Dent Blanche (Matterhorn in background)

Zermatt was not exactly how I expected it to be. In fact to tell the truth it was a bit of a shock to the system! I suppose this was because, apart from the fact that Zermatt is a tacky tourist trap, I had just spent over two weeks in Arolla. Arolla by comparison is a beautiful, quaint Alpine village. There we experienced excellent climbing conditions and usually (apart from the 80 or so Irish Climbers) had whatever mountain or route we were on to ourselves. I went to Switzerland to climb technical routes and if possible I wanted to climb the Matterhorn as did Frank Power, my climbing partner.

So we left Arolla in high spirits along with Michael Callan and Denis Carrigan who also had designs on the Hörnli Ridge. We intended to climb as a group in pairs and generally keep an eye out for each other as much as is possible when you’re trying to keep an eye on yourself.

We stayed in Tasch, a small town 3 or so miles from Zermatt where we found a nice clean (yet basic) campsite. We were advised to avoid the more expensive (and even more basic) campsite in Zermatt by some friends who had been there the previous year. We walked into Zermatt from Tasch to check out the Weather forecast and ask in the Bureau de Guides about conditions on the Hörnli Ridge. We knew ourselves that it had been out of condition for the previous two weeks because we had been keeping an ear out. However we (the 4 of us) were after climbing the Dent Blanche (4356m) from Les Haudères (near Arolla) the previous day and we could see the Hörnli Ridge very clearly from the top of Dent Blanche and we unanimously decided "That has to be in condition, it looks perfect". So we got the weather forecast "Changeable". (How decisive?) Then we made our way to the Bureau de Guides. We received more bad news there along the lines of " no guides are going up until Saturday". This was Wednesday! We left with our tails between our legs and made our way back to Tasch for some comfort eating.

"Ok" someone says,

"We’re flying home on Tuesday right?"


"Well that means heading for Geneva on Monday right?"


"So then if we go up on Saturday and Climb on Sunday morning we’ll get back here on Monday morning?"

"Yeah, sure we know that. But that means we’re only going to get one shot at it"

We discussed going up on Friday so that we might have two attempts in case of bad weather but in the end we decided an extra rest day would be more beneficial.

So it was Saturday morning and we packed up and started walking. Five hours later we were at the Hörnli Hut (3260m). We went in to dry our coats before we set up our bivvies outside in the campsite in the rain (I know we have no one to blame but ourselves). We were doing it on the cheap this time. I for one was a bit sick of staying in mountain huts. They are always packed and stuffy and there is always at least one person snoring very loudly (Usually Frank!!).

We had our dinner and Michael and myself snuggled into our respective bivvies and tried to shield our faces from the horizontal rain, sleet and snow that seemed intent on getting us. Meanwhile Frank and Dennis were still in the hut getting the last of the drying effect from the fire and wondering how to make it from there to their bivvies without getting wet. Still ringing in my ears was Frank’s rally to us all on our way up the track to the hut "We’ll all stay together tomorrow lads. And if it’s looking bad we’ll turn back"

"Sound words" I thought to myself.

"We’ll all stick together."

Meanwhile Frank had caught wind of a Polish Guy who, due to his two friends being benighted on the mountain above us, had a three-man tent to himself in the campsite, next to our bivvy. So Frank finds himself speaking to our Polish friend discussing the weather. "Terrible weather out there isn’t it” "not very good for bivvying, is it?" Well before long Frank ("We’ll all stick together lads" Power) had secured himself a place in the tent, Denis plucked up the courage to get into his bivvy bag and we all settled down for the night.

Just as I was about to fall asleep I heard Denis cry out in pain. I turned to him asking if he was OK, fearing the worst, stone fall, frost bite a broken limb just discovered?

"I have a wedgy, I have a wedgy. My Shorts are caught up my arse and I can’t get at them, Ahhhhh”..Ahhhhh".

We were all laughing our heads off in our bivvies. Laughing at Denis’s predicament and our own, lying in a bag on the side of a mountain outside a perfectly good building in the rain. My parents would disown me if they could see me. Yet this is what I wanted to do. The weather could have been better but what can you do about that?

3.30am wake up call. We’re all up wandering around looking for a lighter for the stove, dry socks, a rock large enough to hide behind and do something filthy. We had a few cups of hot tea and started for the ridge. We were far from being first in the queue but we weren’t last either. We took our place and started climbing. Doing our best to keep up with the "Professionals" because we had been told a hundred times of nightmare route-finding stories and we hoped to keep up with the guided parties for as long as we could. This was going well for an hour or two but we slowly started to drop behind, we knew we wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace forever. We were nearly out of trouble when we lost eye contact with the people in front of us and before we new it we were going full speed up a false trail. There are false trails everywhere on the Matterhorn. Unfortunately we lost about half an hour there messing around trying to correct our course, but we were soon back on track and found ourselves at the Solvay hut (4003m) stopping there for 10 minutes to have a drink of water and a Mars bar. We had been climbing for 3 hours now at a fast pace (fast for us!) and were happy enough with our performance. We climbed up above the Solvay and were off the rock ridge and it was crampon time. Two hours later and we started to see flakes of snow dropping down and noticed a considerable change in our pace (much slower). Visibility diminished and the snow became progressively heavier. I was determined to get to the summit but I wasn’t going to take any unnecessary chances.

We had lost Michael and Denis below the Solvay, when we had taken the false trail, but we knew they were ahead of us. So we decided that we would climb until we met up with them and share 50m abseils with them to get down. With this in mind, we ploughed on. Moving together using the fixed ropes so generously put there by the local guides. It felt like we had been climbing forever. I was tired after 3 weeks of climbing. I was disheartened by the heavy snow and poor visibility and I started considering turning back. "Who cares if we don’t make it, better climbers have turned back higher than this" I reassured myself. All the time knowing I’d hate myself if I did turn back. I wasn’t sure what was going through Frank’s mind. But I knew he must have been feeling as much physical pain as I was. We were a long way from Lugnaquilla. What were we to do?

"No. We said we’d stick with the lads and that’s what we’ll do"

11am: official turn back time. We both knew it but said nothing. We knew we should go no further after 11am but we said nothing. It was time to face up to the fact that we had done our best and we had simply run out of time. I cursed myself for going off route. 30 minutes wasted. Shit. And then””.

"Frank, Frank, its me, Mike. You’re nearly there man – 10 minutes to the top"

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was twenty metres below Frank on the other end of the rope but I could see the smile on his face. We did our best to climb as fast as we could and made it to the top at 11.15. We were ecstatic. The perfect end to a perfect holiday. On top of the world again and every bit of me spent on the journey.

We had a minute or two on the top and took the compulsory photos, then turned around and started our descent. We knew it would take us longer to get down than it did to climb up and we weren’t wrong. 9 hours later we walked into the Hörnli hut and bought Coke, 7 Up, or whatever it was we had been thinking about quenching our thirst with for the past 16 hours since we started climbing. We had a short rest and slowly started our way down into the valley, the four happiest men in Zermatt.