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Saturday
Sep272014

Matterhorn North Face

Last week I climbed the Schmidt 1931 route on the north face of the Matterhorn (Cervin in French or Cervino in Italian). Its a 1200 meter line that begins from the Hornlihutte and traverses out before committing fully to the center of the north face.

East face in the sun on left and North Face on right. Hornligrat in the middle.

Giulia Monego was my partner for this route, and we had a great time. She is a professional ski mountaineer and extreme skier on The North Face team as a Global Athlete. She has skied all over the world putting up first descents in the process. She is also a skilled alpinist and is in the middle of going through the aspirant guide course in Aosta Valley in Italy. 

Looking back down the initial ice and snow slopes. Photo Giulia Monego

The Schmidt Route is not overly difficult at any point and we found it in incredible condition, packed full of consolidated snow and ice and very little dry climbing. That said there exists very little option for meaningful protection so we opted to simulclimb most of the route with a few decent belays here and there.

Me following low down on the ramp. Photo Giulia Monego

The route begins with a few hundred meters of 40-55 degree snow/ice climbing to where you meet a rock wall which is passed by a ramp system called, The Ramp. 

For reasons unknown to us, pehaps simple dumb luck, we were the only team attempting the route that day, and evidently the only team climbing the Matterhorn at all. So we enjoyed, for the first time in my experience, Solitude on the mountain. The night before the climb, as forecast, was windy and cold, with snow falling throughout the night. 

Giulia following on the ramp low on the route

The alarm went off at 2:30 am, and due to lack of motivation to bravely face the blowing snow and wind, our start was slow and it was 3:45 before we set off from the tent into the near whiteout to navigate onto the base of the route. Previous tracks were largely covered and it was difficult at times to locate the correct start of the opening ice face. But once there we continued upward, eventually using a running belay with ice screws because of intermittent heavy spindrift that threatened at times to compromise our stances. Eventually at 6:45 the first openings of ambient light arrived and so did we at the base of The Ramp. We entered the ramp via a short but steep mixed pitch which had a few pieces of fixed gear (stuck cam and piton) after which a 60 meter rightward traverse led into the ramp proper.

Me entering the Ramp. Photo Giulia Monego

The ramp itself was straitforward routefinding and terminated at the fork of two routes. On the left was the exit to the Horni ridge via a beautiful ice gouloutte. From the ice gouloutte the route traverses horizontally right around a corner on some delicate but not difficult ground and then continues up and right for another hundred meters or so until you reach a fixed pin anchor which is obvious because it is equalized but a huge old white rope. From here you climb one pitch strait up on nice grade 3+ ice and probably at the top of the ice you are supposed to make a sharp right turn and traverse horizontally until you reach another fixed anchor. Unfortunately we missed that turn because there were no tracks to follow and we continued upwards until a point where our options were a thin grade 5 ice smear or a poorly protected traverse on a sloping rock ledge.

It was at this point we noticed the proper route and the fixed anchor down and right of us, Giulia came up and we rappelled back on route. From that fixed anchor we traversed around the corner and could finally see the Pulpit. We passed the pulpit on the right and continued up endless snow and very easy mixed slopes for a few hundred meters until we met the Zmuttgrat, and then another 150 meters to the Italian Summit.

Giulia selfie on Italian summit with me in background on the way to the true, Swiss summit.

We arrived at the summit at 1730, didn't stop for any summit photo together because a very cold west wind was blowing and we really wanted to make at least the Solvay before dark. 

Giulia on Italian summit

A long, but casual descent to the Solvay followed. There were not so many tracks left over after the new wind and snow, but luckily I had been on the Hornligrat numerous times and roughly know the way. We were very tired so we took our time and arrived eventually at the Solvay where two Russian climbers were sleeping before their summit attempt the next day. 

Descent to Solvay, photo Giulia Monego.

We slept in till 8 and descended the Hornligrat in full sunshine and then to Zermatt for Coca-colas and a drive back to Verbier.

I was super impressed by the route, the exposure, and the idea that it was first climbed in 1931 was inspiring. Schmitd and his parters must have had balls the size of Pomplemousse (grapefruits) to head up into such imposing terrain with the equipment and knowledge at the time. And also huge kudos to Ueli Steck for climbing the wall in under two hours. That, in and of itself, is baffling.

Me and Giulia the base of Horligrat, where the route starts. Photo coutesy of random passerby.

Giulia and I enjoyed a very unique and solitary experience on the wall, had bad weather and quite cold conditions at the start, but had a very good time overall. It was a climb I'll never forget.

We took 2x60 meter ropes. In retrospect there is no need for two ropes if you are fully committed to the wall. But I highly recommend no less than 50 meters of rope, 60 is best, because of the distance you often have to travel between decent, or half-decent pieces of protection. I can really see why it is not that much different in terms of safety between soloing and using a rope, though there are numerous tricky sections that can be adequately protected with the rope. We found very snowy and ice conditions which seemed optimal for speed and security while climbing. We brought 8 ice screws, I would recommend 6. We brought a single set of cams from 00 metolius to number 2 camalot. I would take next time 0 (purple) metolius through number 2 camalot. Of course if you climb this route in drier conditions perhaps more rock gear would be useful. We each had (of course) two technical tools, and dual point crampons, which seemed much more useful for the snow and ice conditions on the route than mono points. 

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