Matterhorn (4,478 metres above sea level)

It is Switzerland’s most famous landmark, the most beautiful mountain in the world and considered by many true mountaineers to be the peak of all peaks: the Matterhorn.

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Each year hordes of climbers from all corners of the globe attempt to scale the Matterhorn. And it is a genuine challenge, too: those venturing up the peak don’t just have to be very fit and have prior mountaineering experience, but above all they need a good head for heights, because the route to the top is highly exposed.

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The history of the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn is not so much a fad, but an obsession. The Horn was first conquered 140 years ago on 14th July 1865. Four of the seven young men – lead by Englishman Edward Whymper – attempting the ascent lost their lives. Even today rumours surrounding this dramatic event, which made the small village of Zermatt world-famous overnight, are rife. Was it an accident or was it murder? The original rope from that first expedition that tore during the descent is on display today in Zermatt’s Matterhorn Museum.

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Most mountaineers now take the Hörnligrat (North-East face) for their fist ascent. The normal route starts on the Swiss side with a hike from Zermatt-Schwarzsee to Matterhornhütte (Hörnli Hut, 3260 m above sea level) and the neighbouring Mountain House Matterhorn. From here a 4 to 5-hour climb up the Hörnligrat leads to the summit. The Solvayhütte, which has been set up as an emergency refuge, is about half way up (4003 m). An estimated 3000 mountain climbers try their luck on the Horn each year. Many give up because they are not fit enough.

Geological facts

The Matterhorn – Switzerland’s most famous landmark. But, strictly speaking the Matterhorn isn’t actually from Switzerland, but Africa. This is because around 90 million years ago the African continental plate slid over the European plate. And it was precisely these rocky masses surging upwards that gave birth to the Matterhorn.

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However, the Matterhorn has much more to offer than the scores of celebs that scale it. The true celebrities are the intact nature and wilderness, and the unique flora and fauna. The history of alpinism, the job of the mountain guide, alpine mountain rescue services and skiing are all closely associated with the Matterhorn.

Things to see

The people of Zermatt honour this natural monument with a monument of its own: The exciting history of the “Horu”, as the people of Zermatt call the peak, is told in the Matterhorn Museum.

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The Matterhorn (German) or Cervino (Italian), (French: Mont Cervin or Le Cervin) is perhaps the most familiar mountain in the European Alps. On the border between Switzerland and Italy, it towers over the Swiss village of Zermatt and the Italian village Breuil-Cervinia in the Val Tournanche. The mountain derives its name from the German words Matte, meaning meadow, and Horn, which means peak.

The Matterhorn has four faces which face the four compass points: the north and east faces overlook, respectively, the Zmutt Valley and Gornergrat ridge in Switzerland, the south face fronts the resort town of Breuil-Cervinia in Italy, and the west face looks towards the mountain of Dent d’Hérens which straddles the Swiss-Italian border. The north and south faces meet at the summit to form a short east-west ridge. The faces are steep, and only small patches of snow and ice cling to them; regular avalanches send the snow down to accumulate on the glaciers at the base of each face. The Hörnli ridge of the northeast (the center ridge in the view from Zermatt) is the usual climbing route.

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The Matterhorn was one of the last of the main Alpine mountains to be ascended, not because of its technical difficulty, but because of the fear it inspired in early mountaineers. The first serious attempts began around 1857, mostly from the Italian side; but despite appearances, the southern routes are harder, and parties repeatedly found themselves having to turn back. However, on July 14, 1865, in what is considered the last ascent of the golden age of alpinism, the party of Edward Whymper, Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, Douglas Robert Hadow, Michel Croz and the two Peter Taugwalders (father and son) was able to reach the summit from the the Hörnli route in Switzerland. Upon descent, Hadow, Croz, Hudson and Douglas fell to their deaths on the Matterhorn Glacier, and all but Douglas (whose body was never found) are buried in the Zermatt churchyard. Three days later on July 17, the mountain was ascended from the Italian side by a party led by Jean-Antoine Carrel and Jean-Baptiste Bich. Julius Elliott made the second ascent from the Zermatt side three years later in 1868, and later that year the party of John Tyndall, J. J. Maquignaz, and J. P. Maquignaz was the first to traverse the summit. In 1871, Lucy Walker became the first woman to stand on top of the mountain, followed a few weeks later by her rival Meta Brevoort. The difficult north Zmutt Ridge was first ascended by Albert F. Mummery, Alex­ander Burgener, J. Petrus and A. Gentinetta on September 3, 1879, and it wasn’t until July 31–August 1, 1931 that the extremely difficult north face route was first ascended by Franz and Toni Schmid.

Today, all ridges and faces of the Matterhorn have been ascended in all seasons, and mountain guides take a large number of people up the northeast Hörnli route each summer. By modern standards, the climb is fairly difficult (AD Difficulty rating), but not hard for skilled mountaineers. There are fixed ropes on parts of the route to help. Still, several climbers die each year due to a number of factors including the scale of the climb and its inherent dangers, inexperience, falling rocks, and overcrowded routes.

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The usual pattern of ascent is to take the Schwarzsee cable car up from Zermatt, hike up to the Hörnli-hütte (elev. 3,260 m/10,695 ft), a large stone building at the base of the main ridge, and spend the night. The next day, climbers rise at 3:30 am so as to reach the summit and descend before the regular afternoon clouds and storms come in. Other routes on the mountain include the Italian ridge (D Difficulty rating), the Zmutt ridge (D Difficulty rating) and the north face route, one of the six great north faces of the Alps (TD+ Difficulty rating).