Taking on giants: Matterhorn expedition part 1

In July this year, along with 5 friends, I attempted to climb the iconic Matterhorn mountain via the slightly more challenging Liongrat route (AKA the Italian side).

Considered an AD+ (Assez Difficile in Alpine climbing terms) , the mountain stands at 4478m and has four main routes. This is how we got on:

One of the many incredible views that would greet us on the expedition

One of the many incredible views that would greet us on the expedition

Expedition Day 1: Arrival

We land at Milan airport around midday and set about with the usual arrival admin of getting hire cars and checking all the baggage has arrived in good order and nothing missing.

Following a brief airport lunch, we set about on the drive Cervinia - the nearest town to Matterhorn on the Italian side. Morale is high and we’re blasting out the music to get us in the mood for the first part of the challenge; the walk to base camp.

Having come here last year when weather halted play in the Alps, we recce'd part of the route. I’m excited and nervous at the prospect of this challenge that I know is outside of my skill set. I’ll have to dig deep in the coming days, but I relish the chance at getting in the ring.

After a brief stop for food and last-minute supplies, we arrive in Cervinia and park up. We need to start the move to base camp as last light rapidly approaches. It’ll all be human-powered from here on in.


At 2050m above sea level, you don’t yet feel the elevation as the air has only 1-2% less oxygen. But as soon as we step off carrying 40+ kilograms of gear; we quickly notice it.


After an hour of humping up a 100L North Face black grip on my back, a 40L climbing pack on my front, and a bag of food / provisions; we stop at a beautiful waterfall and admire the stunning scenery. The air is now chilly as the sun has gone behind the mountains. 

We’re racing to get to base camp in the dying light: not ideal when you have to set everything up. I make a mental note to buy a proper back pack next time I go on an expedition .


We crack on, and over the course of another 90 minutes arrive at our base camp location - 2750m where there is now 10% less oxygen in the air. It’s fully dark now and so have to set up with head-torches adding another element of difficulty when all you want to do is get hot food and into your sleeping bag.

But banter is high and we’re sharing our hot drinks and the a hip flask of whiskey. It’s now that I realise that I need more of these ‘type 2’ fun people in my life.

Day 2: Route recce

‘The most effective way to do it, is to do it’ Amelia Earhart


We wake up to beautiful sunshine atop our mountain plateau at c.2700m - the warmth slowly turns the tents into ovens within the space of an hour. I let the fresh mountain air fill my lungs and wish I could bottle it to take home.

 

Being one of 2 people that carried all of our gear up to base camp means Patrick and I can relax this morning, so we walk down to the Abruzzi hut for real Italian coffee and delicious apple strudel. The others walk down to the car park in Cervinia, whilst Toby flies a speed wing - landing nearby in the space of a minute, cutting off around an hour of walking.

 

In this quiet moment, I take the opportunity to check my SP02 levels (the % of Oxygen in your blood stream) and I’m starting to acclimatise - I’m around 87-90% which I’m happy with  as the previous year, I was in the early 80%s due to a chest infection (For reference: 92-98% is the range of a normal person).

 

After a few hours, the others join us at BC and we set off to recce the route up to the Colle de Leone - a narrow rock bridge that links the Testa del Leone with the Matterhorn – and signifies the start of the actual climb.

 As the sunny weather has melted a lot of the snow, we scramble our way up the first 500m (around 3250m high) in approach shoes. Our packs are reasonably light, however we’re all happy to not be carrying the same weight fromwalk to base camp on the first day.

 

We pass many plaques dedicated to different climbers whom have succumbed to the mountain - this sobering thought stays with me as we ascend the mountain.

After an hour we reach ‘Whymper’s pillar’, a narrow couloir (gulley) that twists and turns its way up to the top of a shoulder that gives incredible views of the area. We stop for a water break and admire the scenery, it may be hard work but there is no else I’d rather be at that time.

 

Another hour passes and we reach the snowfields where we change into boots and crampons. As the route has just steepened, we also don ice axes also as an uncontrolled slide could end up in - at the very least - serious injury.

Coming back down is a lot faster as we glissade (semi-controlled ski-sliding / falling) down the snow fields. After unceremoniously falling every few steps, I decide to adopt the ‘ass-slide’ technique that you don’t see in the guidebooks. Ice axe in hand; I’m ready to self-arrest should I start heading for a cliff.

  

Days 3+4: skills and rest

 ‘Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.’

Ernest Shackleton 

Bleary-eyed, we stumble around blinded by the morning light.

It’s 8am and we’re feeling the previous day. But we push through the rust and walk down to the Abruzzi refuge for coffee and cake, and set about finalising the plan for the day.

Even though we’re sat in bright sunshine, we’re poring over met reports and decide that the predicted front would make a summit attempt incredibly risky today - so decide instead to have a slightly easier day as everyone is starting to feel drained.

After a quick check of available gear, we decide a skills day would be incredibly useful to refresh key skills and remove any bad habits.

 

We walk around 800m from BC and find a rock wall - around 12-15 metres tall - to practice lead climbing on. Everyone gets a chance to lead and second up a moderately challenging route - placing or cleaning gear (nuts, cams or other protection you it in place in case you fall) as they ascend.

At the top of the route, we rehearse setting up an anchor (for belaying a climber from above, or making yourself safe as a climber ascends above you). Finally, we set up an abseil and take turns to lower ourselves, ensuring we’re happy with the process before we set off on the Matterhorn. Having not abseiled for a few years, it felt great to be looking over edge and pushing off again - reminding me how much I love this feeling.

 

Around 4pm - as predicted in the morning - the rain sets in heavily, forcing us off the rock and back to the tents for shelter. We decide instead to reorg in the Abruzzi hut for warmth, beer and card games.

 

As we walk in, soaking wet - I recognise the song playing on the radio; it’s Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’. Hearing it in this environment reminds me of another challenging time earlier in the year when I got back after a Trans-Atlantic row and was worried about figuring out the next career step. A few moments of looking at the incredible scenery and the people around me makes me smile: it seems to be working out okay so far.

 

Day 5: Confirmation recce.

 ‘I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.’

Robert Browning


I open my eyes to a familiar sound. 

It takes a few moments for my brain to register what the sound is, after my body has given me that heady feeling of excitement, trepidation and focus. I should be surprised that these flying machines still have this effect however I’m far more interested to see what’s going on - I don’t need to look far; the helicopter is obviously going to rescue someone from the Matterhorn that’s mostly in view from our base camp.

 

Shortly after, my brain registers another familiar feeling; the hangover and dehydration caused by the wheat beers and whiskey we drank the night before, made worse by the many hours in the sun during the day.

 

Today we’re going for another recce - this time higher, to the col (rock bridge) that signifies the start of the actual climbing on this iconic mountain.

 We set off at 11am after our usual coffee and cake routine. Within 15 minutes, we see a troop of Ibex gathered in the morning sun. I count 26 in total including the young. I’m surprised by how tame they are until I’m reminded that the mountain has visitors most months of the year.

 

After 2 1/4 hours, we pass our previous turnaround point and start the traverse around a steep snow slope. The path is steep and even though I’m stepping into others’ footsteps; it’s hugely tiring. We pass another team that has spent a night at the Carrell hut – the place where we would be spending our first night in a couple of days’ time.

We continue around the traverse, scrambling across rock and ice in our crampons, the sound of metal on rock goes straight to my core - but we bear it and crack on. After 45 minutes we get to our turn-around point – the impressive Colle de Leone.

It takes almost half the time to retrace our steps back to BC - around 1 hour 45 minutes. Tired but excited, we know it’s now time to start prepping for the big push..