The Matterhorn: August 13-18, 2007 by Terry Jarrett
Midway through our trip Martin said “We should talk about alternatives to climbing the Matterhorn.” The weather forecast indicated snow from the approaching storm would trump our plans. The previous day, while drinking a bottle of Humagne Rouge wine on our hotel balcony, we had a clear view of the Matterhorn. Now, as Martin named several climbs that would remain in shape after the storm, began the wait to see if the meteorologist was wrong.
Meanwhile, it was a fine day to climb the Breithorn Half Traverse. The client:guide ratio was 2:1 on all climbs except the Matterhorn, where it was 1:1. While simul-climbing as a threesome we learned the accordion move and practiced hornology, in which the rope is passed on one side of a rock horn to create a dynamic belay system of counterbalanced climbers. There were airy sections of ridgeline that tested my faith in hornology. From the Breithorn summit I looked at the Matterhorn across the valley and wondered if our chance to climb it during this trip had passed.
It rained in Zermatt most of the next day, which we spent in the museum and our hotel, wondering how deep was the new snow on the Hörnli Ridge. That evening the restaurant maître d' brought us free Galliano coffees, perhaps because he sensed our apprehension but more probably because Martin’s Stalden accent was a change from tourist twang.
The next morning the hut warden had encouraging news. We rode a gondola to Schwarzsee, hiked to the hut in fine weather and preview-climbed the lower section of the route. Because Martin is a local Bergführer our hut perquisites included a second helping of dinner and a room to ourselves. I slept well without earplugs.
Our round trip began at 04:30 and ended 8½ hours later. We were in nearly constant motion, requiring specific effort to notice things such as the beautiful sunrise. Early on Martin reset a climber’s dislocated shoulder and then tried to convince him to go down. The climber agreed but each time we looked back he was ascending. The climbing difficulty and exposure were less than on our Breithorn route, but of double-marathon duration. We placed no pro but used the fixed ropes and ironware; a climbing technique Spike calls “French free.” Sometimes there was no avoiding the ice chips and gravel dislodged by climbers higher up but our helmets protected us. The biggest dangers in my mind were falling rocks, I sent two big ones down the east face, and being swept off should a higher party fall. We put on crampons above the Solvay hut and, because of the new snow, kept them on throughout the rest of the ascent and much of the descent. The PGS gear list specified steel crampons so I blame only myself that my aluminum crampons now have rounded points. We returned to the hut for lunch and ibuprofen with a Heineken chaser. On the way back to Zermatt I stood in view of the Schwarzsee web cam on the chance someone back home would see me.
Unlike similar programs at other companies PGS began its itinerary 30 miles north of Zermatt. The first two days were spent climbing the Wiwannihorn and Augstchummenhorn (often called “the other peak” by visitors unable to pronounce 5 contiguous consonants). Initially this seemed inferior to programs that start in Zermatt and climb two additional 4,000 meter peaks.
However, the PGS itinerary provided a richer experience. During the initial two days we saw a wider range of countryside, animals and plants than we saw in 4 days around Zermatt. On the Wiwannihorn Ibex climbed just meters away from us. The daunting Bietschhorn dominated the northern view. In the cirque was a herd of endemic bicolor goats and thick-coated sheep cooling themselves on a snow patch. The Wiwanni weather was better than that in Zermatt Valley, and Wiwanni was uncrowded.
We reached the Wiwannihut via an interpretive trail with native plant identification cards. Martin knew where the warden kept the real coffee so we were spared instant. Martin is a coffeeholic and vowed to purchase an espresso machine for every Swiss climbing hut if he becomes a rich guide. He also knew a bottle of Swiss liqueur was cached on the Wiwannihorn summit, with which we toasted our first climb of the program.
Clients typically meet their PGS guide at the train station in Visp on the first day of the program. By prior arrangement we met in the village of Ausserberg, which is on the road to the Wiwannihorn trailhead. There are two hotels in Ausserberg, the Sonnehalde and the Bahnhof. We stayed at the later. It was very convenient to arrive at Zurich Airport, catch a train at the airport station and disembark in front of the hotel.
The online schedule showed two trains going to Ausserberg from the airport (flughafen) each hour. By taking the one leaving at 39 minutes after the hour we didn’t have to switch trains at the downtown Zurich station. Our only train change was in Goppenstein, where we got off the first train, stayed at the same track and platform for 14 minutes (these are Swiss trains, you can rely on the timing), and caught the second train for a short ride to Ausserberg.
Spending a few days in Ausserberg is a pleasant way to get over jet lag and acclimatize. Hiking trails lead from town to the forested slopes below the Wiwannihorn. The local brewery, Suonen, and the grocery store are closed Sundays. The Wiwannihut sells food but it was helpful to have purchased trail snacks beforehand.
The price of the PGS program included gondola rides, rescue insurance and transportation from Visp to Zermatt, which are added expenses with some guiding companies. The program is a good choice for clients who are capable of climbing the Matterhorn unguided but who value local knowledge, especially route finding. Although native Zermatt Valley guides can’t promise a trip will include free coffee, cached liquor, a private hut room or sunny skies the odds are more favorable.
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