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The Matterhorn; learnings and limitations

The Matterhorn is a huge and near-symmetrical pyramidal mountain in Switzerland whose summit is 4,478m high, making it one of the highest summits in the Alps and Europe. First summited in 1865 by Edward Whymper, it is an emblem for alpinists and photographers alike.

The previous day we'd made the two hour walk from the Schwarzee lift in Zermatt up to the Hornli hut at 3260m altitude. It wasn't too bad at first - past a picturesque lake and up winding scree paths which got progressively steeper and icer as we reached the hut. It's recently been refurbished for the 150th anniversary of the first ascent and is basic but comfortable. At 140 Swiss francs a night you get the pleasure of a shared dorimitory with wooden bunks (I was with my teammate Richard and three Swiss guys) and a three course dinner (pork, spatzle and veg, fruit salad). Sorted out our kit for a quick start and then hit the sack around 9pm to get some good rest for the day ahead.

Awoke at 4am, apprehensive yet excited to attempt the Hornli (AD) route up the Matterhorn. The electricity in the dorms wasn't switched on until 4.30am so we dressed in the dark and packed our rucksacks in anticipation of the long day ahead. There must have been around 60 guides and clients down at breakfast. We quickly swallowed down the cheese, ham, and bread with sweet tea. The system is that the local Swiss guides go first (having been up and down the mountain numerous times over the year therefore setting the fastest pace) followed by the other guides/clients and then the self-guided climbers. My guide Bertrand and I managed to edge our way towards the front section and as soon as the doors of the hut were unlocked at 4.50am we were off.

It was still night, but the sky was lit up with stars and we all had our headtorches on - which resulted in a twinkling line descending behind us. The only sound was our hard breathing and the crunch of loose rock under our boots. We did have to wait a little on the fixed ropes on the first couple of pitches but as the route went on the teams naturally spaced out and we slowly zigzaged our way up the mountain up the first couloir. The pace was quick and so I found it tough going both mentally and physically scrambling up the steep and sustained rocky route even though the grade was technically no more than a VDiff. The combination of the altitude as well meant I struggled to catch my breath and my heart was pounding. As the sun started to rise it became clear how exposed we were but also how stunning the views were over the clouds and valley below.

We reached the Solvay hut at 4003m after around 3 hours then pushed on past to the Upper Moseley ledge. We had been wearing our crampons on the approach to the hut given the ice and snow ledges but now took them off again as the route became more rocky again. It was at the bottom of the next section of fixed ropes against slabs when I saw the other Jagged Globe team (Richard and Andy) ahead - they had decided to turn back. I carried on up another few metres straight up the first slab. My upper body strength has never been my strong point and so found it particularly difficult to pull myself up on the rope and nervously edge my crampon spikes into the rockface. The next part was a traverse along another slab, holding onto another fixed rope. It was at this point I decided to also turn around - we were at 4,100m and Bertrand and I discussed that it would be another 2 hours to the top and perhaps another 6 down which felt very daunting in the circumstances.

I always knew that this mountain would be tough but I felt very anxious and out of my comfort zone and started to feel uneasy about the potential dangers of carrying on. As we were just connected by one rope to each other, if I slipped then I wouldn't be just putting myself in danger but Bertrand too. I was cognizant of the story of the first ascent 150 years previously and how the inexperienced Douglas Hadow had slipped on the descent and taken three others with him falling to their deaths. As the great mountaineer, and one of my personal heroes, Ed Viesters once said "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory".

Could I have reached the summit? Maybe I had the fitness and determination but in my heart I knew it would have been reckless and beyond my technical confidence, therefore huge reliance placed on my guide to get me both up and down safely. Is that how a mountain should be fairly tackled?! I respect the moutain hugely and the people who climb her. I saw how the other climbers sped past me on the route, confident and steady in their footwork. I felt amateur and uneasy in comparison. To really enjoy the mountain safely and climb her properly I realised I needed to be more self reliant, experienced and confident in my abilities. This was not the year for me to summit - I just wasn't ready.

As we started back down again I had tears in my eyes and the disappointment lay heavy in my heart. However I also felt proud of how far I'd got. The four hours down was harder than the ascent with slow but careful progress over the steep terrain and route finding difficult at times. Even worse we could now obviously see where a fall could take you! En route we saw Andy and Richard ahead - suddenly we heard a shout as Andy was hit by a falling rock from above onto his foot. Thankfully he was fine. We finally reached the hut four hours later at just after 1.30pm.

We had some chocolate and a radler to toast our personal achievements then Andy broke the news that we hadn't booked into the Hornli hut that evening afterall but would be trekking back to Zermatt. It was another two hours along the icy path, followed by moraine and a dirt track. The morning's climb ran through my mind constantly and I pondered how I needed to train to make a more successful attempt in the future. It was with great relief when I finally reached the hotel and I could take off my heavy boots and have a long hot shower! My arms and legs were covered in bruises and scrapes form the mornings adventure but I'm thankful for only superficial injuries. Dinner with Andy and Richard in the evening in the hotel (salmon and potatoes washed down with a nice glass of red!). Collapsed in bed at 10pm.

The day had been a great experience and I felt privileged to have climbed the Matterhorn to such a height. Of course the goal was to get to the summit but above all else my skills and confidence have greatly improved and the week has been a fanatastic learning opportunitiy. I now know my limitations and feel even more motivated to learn and change in order to be a better mountaineer. I hope to come back another day and climb the mountain again once I have the experience it derserves. As Henry Ford once said "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more wisely".

Exploring the corners of the world - from sea to summits

A keen traveller, explorer and mountaineer, I've undertaken expeditions to some of the world's toughest and remote environments including rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Follow me on my next Endeavour!

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© 2016 by Kate Hallam

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