The route continues… somewhere…

After working a few different angles in the scree covered couloir, we found what looked like a secure rock tie onto. We pulled out our xeroxed copy of the route description and read through it yet again. But somehow “look for the yellow-brown rocks next to tower, go L 3 Meters to the chimney and continue up ridge 50 Meters to tower” was not a good enough explanation for us – imagine that.

As we folded up the papers and tucked them away, a loud bang gave me a visceral reaction. Carl and I both immediately looked up the mountain and around us – hoping not to see any movement…
We had been hearing that sound all week in Chamonix – the sound of rock fall; the sound of a very large boulder slipping out of place and falling down the mountain causing a rock avalanche to be released.  When you’re tied at half way up a couloir where most rockfall will come blasting down at you obliterating anything in its path, this is NOT the sound you want to hear. Fortunately, in this case we didn’t see any falling rock.

With an hour spent on navigating the scree covered couloir, we looked at the clock; it was 10:45AM. We were 5 hours into the climb  at this point and way off schedule. If we were going to be able to make the summit at all, we’d need to know exactly where we were going and start moving quickly. As we discussed our options, a group of German climbers mounted the top of the ridge we were below. We had heard from climbers at the Hornli Hutte that they got stuck at the top of the mountain the day before and had to stay in the emergency Refuge 75% of the way up the mountain – the Solvay Hut.

The Solvay Hut is the last salvation for a climber stuck on the mountain after dark. There’s no heat, no water, no sheets, pillows or blankets. It will get you out of the elements if there’s a storm, but won’t help much beyond that unless you have a sleeping bag and food in your pack to get you through the night. The German climbers didn’t seemed too thrilled to be coming down a day late, and they seemed to be a bit worn from spending an entire night at altitude… but they WERE alive and happy to be able to get off the mountain.  We were thankful for their presence as they were able to point us to the route!

Carl and I hustled up the ridge as fast as we could. The climbing grew steeper as we got higher, but we were able to move much quicker now that the hand holds didn’t move and we had a more secure route to move on.  In addition, by this point we were becoming accustomed to the exposure the Mattherhorn presents in the way of shear cliffs and our climbing took on more of a smooth bounding and leaping technique.  Carl made mention on several occasions that he was blown away by the growth of my climbing skills over the past few weeks, and that it was only because of this growth that we were able to now move quickly on the Matterhorn.
Placing less protection and moving quickly seemed to be the choice approach for Carl others who were making timely progress on the peak.  It meant we could move quicker, spend less time in “the danger zones”, and have a chance to rapidly ascend the peak.  On the flip side, it meant that Carl could take a 75 foot plunge before there was any chance of the rope stopping him, the same rope I was attached to.

In many cases there simply was no place to fix an anchor and I found myself mounting a ledge to find Carl using a body belay to secure me incase I pulled out a rock or slipped while climbing.  It was of very little comfort to know that if I biffed it on a handhold or foot hold and took a plunge, Carl would be joining me for speedy tumble down the east face of the Matterhorn… but it was the way this peak is climbed.  Go fast, go light, or go home. As we got to a bend in the ridge, we could see the Solvay Hut clearly. Unfortunately, the ONE valuable piece of information the guidebook DID have to offer: It takes twice as long to get down as it does to ascend – so if you haven’t made it to the Solvay Hut in the first 3 hours, you should turn back. We were now 5 and a half hours in and just approaching the hut.

Many climbers we talked to referenced The Matterhorn as as one of “The Most Difficult Mountains to Navigate”. The guides that worked on the mountain said that you can expect to get lost the first 5-10 times you climb it, and navigating after nightfall is the worst decision you can make.  We knew that we could stay in the Solvay hut if we didn’t get down before dark, but we didn’t have any sleeping bags or food to get us through the night so it would be a rough 24 hours for both of us.  It seemed like a risky move to continue without a clear route past the hut – but we both wanted to push on.

As we began to move again, we saw a large cloud front moving in on the mountain. This was the nail in the coffin for us. Moving up the mountain without a clear route was difficult, but trying to navigate through a storm at the same time was a different story altogether. Neither Carl nor I were interested in entering into situation with risks that we could not predict or back out of.  Making the decision was not hard, but turning around was.  We had set a goal for ourselves, and had gone through all the steps necessary to succeed, but the cards were quickly stacking against us.  The challenge at this point was finding the route back down. From the start, this was the challenge we were warned of – staying on route coming DOWN was the dangerous part of the mountain.

One of the particularly dangerous parts of the descent was how it was supposed to be executed. On most mountains, you face the rock for most of the descent and climb down and used fix lines, rappels, or walk offs to descend the mountain.  While there are several points on the Matterhorn where you do this, the recommended method for 90% of the decent is to face outward and slide or jump down to the rock below while your partner above feeds you out slack on the rope. This can be a faster way to descend but it is definitely a less secure way to travel, especially for the last climber coming down, which in this case was thankfully Carl.

As we made it to the bottom of the ridge we were on (still many hours from our starting point), we stopped for a minute to squeeze some Hammer Gel into our mouths to keep our energy up. This turned out to be fantastic timing as we bumped into a guide and their climber who had made the same decision to turn around. It felt great to have our decision confirmed, but it also gave us a lot of security as the guide knew the mountain well. And as it turned out, the guide actually slept in the bunk next to us when we climbed Mont Blanc. Having a little rapport with this guy was fantastic – and definitely helped the language barrier.

We traveled down the mountain at a pretty good pace – only using about half of our rope to get over an occasional ledge. We were moving ahead of the guide, but asked them to point us in the right direction as we climbed. This proved to be amazingly helpful as on at least 10 separate occasions we were ready to head down a different path just before the guide called out behind us and pointed us towards the route.

As Carl and I made it back to the Hornli Hutte, and then went on a several hour journey to the lift.  Both of us were quite frustrated with the fact that we had to  turn back before summiting, especially given our fitness and acclimatization level at this point, the speed at which we were both physically able to move up the peak, and our lack of fatigue due to constant fueling with Hammer Nutrition Products.   Ultimately we both knew that it was the right decision to turn back, but it leaves a hole in our hearts as we’ll need to leave Zermatt tonight.  The Matterhorn Summit will be looming until we make it back to the Hornli Hutte someday…


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A Hornli Route

The weather forecast in Zermatt looked good after the storm.  With a couple days of sunshine, the majority of the snow and ice on The Matterhorn should have melted off, offering a relatively safe route up the mountain.  With this in mind, we booked two nights at the the refuge at the based of the mountain; The “Hornli Hutte”.  As with Mont Blanc, our plan was to sleep at the refuge the night before, wake up very early the next day and head for the summit.

Two days after the storm, we woke up early to prep for the journey.  We made a decision to bring a longer rope with us, so a quick run down to one of the local climbing stores was necessary.  We ultimately went with a 70 meter rope, which we really looked at as our safety net.  The downfall to carrying this rope is it added another 10 pounds to my pack – very unwanted weight.  I also had the good fortune of paying entirely too much for the rope – which is really to be expected in Zermatt.  Can’t put a price on safety though right? Well – I guess the climbing store can actually…

We unpacked, organized and repacked all of our gear, xeroxed our route from a guide book and headed off to the lift.    We weren’t entirely sure what equipment we’d need on the mountain, so we brought EVERYTHING with us.  Worst case scenario we could leave things at the refuge – but at least we’d be prepared.  But that just bumped up the weight of our packs again.  What we WERE certain of was the exact amount of Hammer Gel, and Hammer Nutrition fuel we would need.  This is a staple in our diet while climbing.

From the city of Zermatt, we had to take two cable cars and then hike half day hike to get to the Hornli Hutte.  Our last minute packing left us running to catch the last cable car with our now VERY heavy backpacks and boots on.  With the time on our trip running out and uncertain weather conditions, this was our one and only chance to climb the Matterhorn. Fortunately we are fairly well acclimatized at this point, so the 6,000 ft elevation of Zermatt didn’t slow us down too much.


While being acclimatized is nice – the “little” half day hike up the Hornli Hutte was far from pleasant.  Between the obnoxious weight of our bags and the pitch of the route, the journey to the hut alone felt like an adventure.

The accommodations at the Hornli Hutte was a few steps down from the Cosmique Refuge.  There was one toilet on each floor, no running water and no heat.  Of course, what we were most concerned with was certainly a bed to sleep in and a good starting point for the climb – which the hut certainly provided.

In addition to the extravagant accommodations, the hut offered some good conversation with fellow climbers.  We met a couple climbers from Holland who clearly had experience and some insight on the route.  With their guidance, we paired our backpacks down to nearly nothing.  Before the end of the day my pack was locked and loaded with no more than my ax, emergency kit, very long rope, fuel and water.  We packed a number of carabiners and slings on our harnesses as well, but it was roughly 20% of the gear we hauled up to the Hut.

We went to bed at 8PM that night – aiming for a solid 7-8 hours of sleep.

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Gettin’ Hornli in Zermatt

After a few grateful hours of sleep and a traditional french breakfast (7am breakfast for us), we left The Cosmique Refuge, hiked the ridge to L’Aguille du Midi and took a tram back to our friends and family in Chamonix.  A shower, toothpaste and real food never felt so good.  Carl and I were both happy to finish such a long climb.

After a couple hours of rest and relaxation with Heather and Drew, we started on our journey to the next mountain:  The Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn is one of the most iconic mountains in Europe, and is located in Zermatt, Switzerland.  Zermatt is was first identified on a map in 1495, but was thought to be settled many years before.  One of the particularly interesting facts about Zermatt:  No road leads there.  The closest you can get is a town by the name of “Tasch”, where you must take a train in to Zermatt. The Matterhorn itself was first summited by Ed Whimper inn 1859… half his team didn’t make it down alive after the first successful summit.


After the train ride in, Carl grabbed my arm and we quickly embarked on our explorative mission: setting the stage for our next climb.  We needed to know weather conditions, the gear needed, the suggested route, cable car and train schedules to get the highest point on the mountain and refuge lodging accommodations.  Unfortunately, there’s no “one stop shop” for this.


After talking to the people at The Zermatt Information Center and several climbers in a variety of climbing stores, we felt like we had a decent grip on the “lay of the land”.  Despite differences in personal skill, each person we talked to echoed the same thoughts:  As long as you stay on the route, you’ll be fine with the the gear you have.

Carl Drew is one of the most planned, well though out, prepared people you’ll ever meet in your life.  We have all the gear you could possibly need.  Carl was pretty clear on the gear we’d need – but what neither of us was clear on:  How much rope we’d need.


*** A Little Mountaineering Lesson ***

Mont Blanc Crevasse


The significant threat on Mont Blanc was falling into Crevasses.  Of course there was some threat of falling off a ledge or sliding down a several thousand foot slope – but the most significant danger were the apparent and hidden crevasses.  The goal in this environment is to keep enough rope between you to allow time to react if someone falls, but not so much that they could hit the bottom or a crevasse if they fall.

The significant threat on The Matterhorn is falling off a the mountain.  No crevasses, no snow, just unstable rocks, unsecured movements and very, very step ledges.  This was a threat while climbing – but is considered a much larger threat during the decent from the summit.  The likelihood of slipping and falling is much higher when you can’t see the footing below you.  If your rope is too short – you may not be able to lower your partner to the ledge below you while descending.

The Matterhorn Rock

We own – and have been using a 30 meter rope up until this point.  The only time we could have used a longer rope thus far was during the Mont Maudit decent.  But in Zermatt, EVERY person we talked to addressed this specifically:  30 meters should be fine, IF you stay on route.  The implication:  if you get off route, you won’t be able to get down with a  a rope that length.

We took two significant things from this:
1) We needed a longer rope.
2) The route was not easy to follow.

As with any climb, the weather plays a huge role when attempting The Matterhorn.  This particular mountain is unusually dangerous after snow or rain.  There is very little security as you climb – a small slip could have a fatal result.  Unfortunately our arrival to Zermatt was met with a viscous thunder storm – which meant snow and ice on the mountain.


Our hope is that after a couple days of sunshine the mountain will be in good enough condition to climb safely.

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