It’s 4:15am and I am standing in an impatient scrum of alpinists. We’re waiting, waiting for a fellow with a key to the door that lies between us and the mountain. Finally, at about 4:19 – one minute ahead of the annointed hour – a jolly Zermatt guide appears, makes his way to the front and to a roar of appreciation, unlocks the door. And then the scrum surges forward, into the cold dark night.
We had wanted to climb the Matterhorn ever since spending some time in Geneva. And with Cath’s back preventing her from riding on our Summer vacation, we opted to spend a couple of weeks climbing in the Alps. On this day, Cath’s back and headaches got the better of her and she scored a sleep in. Not so for me.
Yet barely 200 metres from the hut, at the foot of the first difficulty, a 25 metre cliff, there I was lining up in another queue, still 1200m of chossy rock, snow and ice from the summit. The Matterhorn is a popular peak. At bottlenecks like this steeper cliff, queues form. But once over the obstacle, on easier ground, we move fast – very fast. Paolo, my Icicles guide, is determined. And he skilfully identifies short-cuts that have us moving quickly over steep ground and past slower parties.
By the time we reach the dingy Solvay hut mid-way up the mountain, dawn is breaking and there are fewer and fewer parties ahead. We stopped briefly to put our crampons on just below the summit block and then kept moving. By this time, well over 4000m high, I was getting a workout akin to trying to hold Bleeksie’s wheel up Commonwealth Ave – riding a duallie. Happily, slower parties ahead would give me a chance to regain my breath, in time to do it all again a minute later. Think 3fidi Parlies at altitude?
A few steep pitches of rock lead to the final snowy slopes to the summit. By now, a bit of a cloud had started to form over the top. But not so much as to obscure the view down the very steep 1000m north face. Paolo’s rule number one of alpine climbing comes to mind – don’t fall!
At the summit, there’s scant room to move on the ridge, barely two boots wide. In the distance, the lower Italian Summit beckons. But we opt for descent, to beat the crowds. We make the hut after a round trip of about 6hrs 30mins – a fast time I am told. Certainly, Paolo seems pretty pleased to have beaten all but two of the local Zermatt guides back. I am spent, but also very, very happy.