This summer has seen the worst conditions on the Matterhorn in 60 years, with storms, more snow than should ever fall in July, and all-round bad omens for hikers, climbers, and skiers alike. Last month, at the time oblivious to these ominous circumstances, British climbers Simon Chevis and Jez Wingate set out with the goal of reaching the summit in a weekend. Usually, the Hörnli Ridge Route is a relatively easy adventure, but the pair were to face some of their hardest winter conditions yet.
On a spur of the moment booking, Simon (who represented GB in four rounds of the 2013 Ice Climbing World Cup) and Jez (a highly capable and experienced all-round climber) booked flights to Geneva with the aim of standing atop the Matterhorn. Not for any particular technical challenge, just more of a weekend adventure and to get the tick. Neither have climbed at significant altitude previously, but both are fit and healthy climbers and mountaineers, and the Hörnli Ridge was a reasonable objective. Aware that their timescale – leave on the Friday, summit, return on Saturday, and relax – wouldn’t allow for altitude, they figured it was still worth it to give it a go, and a little suffering wouldn’t do them any harm. Being a completely reversible route too, they were confident that should the worst happen, they’d be able to escape relatively easily.
The trip began well, arriving in Tasch in the early hours of Friday morning, and after a night in the car the team got the cable car to Schwartzsee for their 2 hour hike to the Hörnli Hut itself. From the off, the conditions were not ideal – relatively clear skies made for beautiful pictures, but the amount of snow underfoot was a picture of what was to come. After some time to sit and re-kit, they began their climb proper at 1pm on Friday 25th July, aiming to be at the Solvay Hut by 5pm, slightly overcompensating the guidebook ETA of 2 hours.
Thus began an epic 48 hours. The fixed ropes at the beginning of the route made route finding easy, and these pre-determined paths combined with straight forward soloing along the ridge were what was to be expected. Breathlessness and fatigue were setting in, already signs of the altitude they’d so hastily moved through, but nothing that couldn’t be handled with some camaraderie and bravado. As Simon and Jez continued to move upwards through waist-deep powder snow, the way began to increase in difficulty as belay bolts and abseils were hidden in the banks, and any goat tracks were smoothed over by white. It became apparent that the route was longer than anticipated, and their pace was slowing down – Jez was falling behind, something that was out of character for either climber, and indicated how much the altitude was taking effect. Sections they were soloing at times were up to HS/VS, showing obvious drifts off route and they tried in vain to follow crampon scratches and polish. The easier linking sections between scrambles were altogether invisible, and after many hours more than was healthy, Jez continued to deteriorate. It was clear that they should retreat, but having gone so far already, to turn back would mean another 6 hours descent in the dark. The judgement call was to continue to push for the Solvay Hut, which surely wouldn’t be too far, and once there they’d be warm, dry, and able to regroup.
As Simon wasn’t suffering as badly in the thin air, he scouted ahead in search for the shelter whilst Jez continued behind at his own pace. After 9 gruelling hours, Simon remembers the hut “appear[ing] out of the clouds… salvation.” Ditching his bag, grabbing a rope, and returning to Jez, the two were exhausted, their little energy going into breathing let alone climbing, and they eventually collapsed on the floor of the hut, the only people there, grateful for a chance to take pause. Jez continued to get ill, and the two ate a meagre dinner and slept. But this wasn’t the end of their trials; having reached the hut in comparatively clear weather, they were set to descend again on Saturday, with the clouds closing in. Without any discussion or conversation, at 7am on Saturday the pair packed up and left the Solvay Hut. Visibility had reduced to 10-20metres at best, a further 10 inches of snow had fallen overnight, and the clouds were still letting loose, covering all their tracks from the day before. The descent was going to be even harder still.
The plan was to abseil using their 50m half rope, pitching the route down. It would consist of one of the guys being lowered the full 50m, and while he scouts out the next point, the other abs 25m, and solos the final 25m. Relatively straight forward when going down a straight vertical route – however, the Hörnli ridge wanders across the paths, and before too long Simon and Jez realised they were in fact lowering down the East Face – not somewhere they wanted to be. It took, and wasted, a further two hours to climb out of their mistake, having abbed 100m. Swimming back up the 70° snow bank consisted mainly of one step up, a long slide down, and took its toll on morale, energy, and daylight. Eventually getting back on route, where they would normally have been climbing on rock, they were again met with the snowy and icy conditions that made easy terrain near impossible.
After 7 more hours of descent, a break in the clouds showed them once again the Hörnli Hut, which would normally have been reached in a third of the time. It was “enough to lift [their] spirits” and made the last few pitches of descent, reaching the base of their climb at 3:50pm. It was then they realised the last cable car to Zermatt would be leaving at 5pm, another 2 hour hike away. Without much thought, the two of them ran down the mountainside for a full hour, Simon just managing to shout to the guards to hold the car, and being told then to jump the barrier so as to get a seat in time. They were down, alive, and with a story to tell – the free €30 cable car trip was small compensation for such an experience.
Some would think that the team were reckless, and should have cancelled their trip. It was only when they were back in Zermatt that Jez and Simon were told that not even guides had attempted the route all week, and the conditions weren’t looking to improve. When asked whether they ever could have made the summit, Simon responded “if we weren’t acclimatised, but the route was in good condition it would’ve been tough but we’d have done it. Even without the altitude factored in, those conditions were impossible for anyone.” For a duo used to mountain conditions, close quarters, egging each other on, and being responsible for each other, it was a weekend of intense challenges, but one they’ve learned from, and undoubtedly will return to tackle again.