Mastering the Matterhorn

More than a mountain, the Matterhorn is the mountain and – for those of a certain mindset – begs to be climbed. Reader Will Robinson set out to fulfil a childhood dream and conquer the Alpine icon

As I sat at the Hörnli Hut, beneath the pyramidal colossus that is the Matterhorn, looking up at its seemingly endless wall of granite on the eve of my summit bid, anticipation built. My climbing partner, JD, and I sipped beer that we hoped would settle the nerves as the sun set behind the 4,478m peak, casting a huge shadow over the Zmutt Glacier Basin and the town of Zermatt, far below. The thunder of avalanches and rock fall resounded throughout the natural amphitheatre, blending with the chirrup of alpine choughs that had briefly ventured to this altitude to scavenge crumbs left on the hut’s veranda.

As the shadows lengthened, the choughs descended. Now climbers and hut staff were the only living things remaining, surrounded by majestic desolation. As I looked up at the mountain – every bit as steep and imposing in the flesh as I had imagined – I gave thought to what had brought me here: why this mountain?

The answer partly lies in the Lake District. When I was six, my Dad took me walking on a clear winter’s day to Blea Tarn, an isolated lake that sits in a bowl of granite below incongruously named High Street mountain. As I looked up I saw two ice climbers, roped together, inching up the frozen falls above. The sounds of their axes cutting into the ice echoed around the otherwise silent landscape. I was awestruck by their endeavour, how it was they were doing what they were doing, and what it would take to one day do the same. Years later, I was given the opportunity to learn to climb but this only progressed to mountaineering a decade later, spurred on by a pact to climb the Matterhorn – aka the Berg der Berge, the Mountain of Mountains.

But perhaps the fundamental reason I developed such a fascination for this peak is the same reason the Matterhorn has achieved such iconic status elsewhere, both in popular culture (adorning everything from Toblerone bars to Swiss francs) and the mountaineering community: its sheer beauty. An almost perfect four-sided pyramid, it straddles the Swiss-Italian border in unparalleled dominion and, if you’re of a certain mindset, it begs to be climbed.

This mindset is shared by the 3,000-or-so people who attempt it annually. Of them, on average eight-to-12 will die. In order to maximise both our chances of success and survival we hired two International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) guides – Tamsin Gay and Tom Grant – who had both summited the Matterhorn several times before. Not only would they improve our safety, they would also bump us up the mountain’s ‘hierarchy’.

Two men on a mountain

Will (left) and climbing partner James Dartnall stand in front of the Matterhorn’s ‘perfect’ peak – geologists have speculated that the hard gneiss rock found at the mountain’s summit actually came from the African continental plate after it collided with Europe’s

Will (left) and climbing partner James Dartnall stand in front of the Matterhorn’s ‘perfect’ peak – geologists have speculated that the hard gneiss rock found at the mountain’s summit actually came from the African continental plate after it collided with Europe’s

Matterhorn with climber

Climber admiring the view (Shutterstock)

Climber admiring the view (Shutterstock)

Two people in front of sunrise on mountain

Will and Tamsin enjoy the backlit Alpine scenery

Will and Tamsin enjoy the backlit Alpine scenery

This hierarchy was explained to us on the eve of our bid. A ‘gathering of the guides’ was called by the Zermatt contingent, where they laid down the golden rule for the following day, establishing a pecking order in the process. “This is Helmut. Helmut is the lead guide. You do not, under any circumstance, pass Helmut. Alles klar?”

The international guides and their clients (that was us) came next, with unguided parties at the bottom of the pile. As it turned out, the speed at which the Zermatt guides (and the clients who hire them) climb makes Helmut’s status as the head honcho something of a moot point. They are blisteringly fast.

Our alarms barked in the 4am darkness. During a hushed, tense breakfast the eyes of some 20 different climbing parties (due to COVID-19 that’s low – it’s usually double that) darted around the room, appraising one another’s gear, attitude and muesli progress. Nobody wanted to be last out of the hut. Our ‘tier’ had been given a departure time of 4.15am and so we left on the dot… only to see a long trail of glinting headtorches already snaking above. We’d been far too rule-abiding and found ourselves at the back of the queue.

We made steady progress in the pitch black. Then, suddenly, after two hours of climbing, the sun rose, illuminating the tops of 30 of the Alps’ highest mountains in vivid shades of saffron and ochre. The valleys below remained in shadow, giving magnificent contrast to the panorama. The dark void on either side of the ridge I’d just climbed was transformed into a 1,500m drop – always there but now visible. The resultant adrenalin rush made my limbs shake, giving me a few uncontrollable seconds of ‘Elvis leg’.

Once I’d got my extremities back under control we pushed on, ascending constantly for two hours, stopping only to don crampons when increasing ice and snow made it necessary. As we entered the frozen top-quarter of the mountain, the foremost Zermatt guides – having already made the summit – now returned via the same narrow route. The best thing to do when you heard the shout of ‘Durchkommen!’ was to get out of their way, fast, and find something to cling on to.

After what seemed like both an age and no time at all, we found ourselves standing on the summit, hugging, crying tears of joy and disbelief. The mountain’s peak, shrouded in cloud some 30 minutes earlier, had opened up just as we summited, awarding us with a glorious view. We allowed ourselves 15 minutes at the roof of the world, sitting with feet in different countries, taking in the blissful serenity of Switzerland to the north, Italy to the south.

Descent is generally the most dangerous part of any climb, with the lion’s share of accidents happening after the summit is bagged. The Matterhorn is no exception. It was during the descent of Edward Whymper’s successful climb in 1865 (the first time the mountain had been summited) that tragedy struck and four of his party fell to their deaths. It was with this danger firmly in mind that I descended – carefully – back the way we came.

As we dropped below the snow line, we entered the climb’s seventh hour. Our brains and bodies were tiring but we couldn’t afford even the slightest lapse in concentration. Far from trying to bury the discomfort and fatigue, I found myself almost welcoming it; it felt like a form of purgation, framed by the Hörnli Ridge’s stark beauty below and the knowledge that we were inching closer to victory.

Eventually we descended the last fixed rope, to a smattering of applause from some hikers who’d watched our final descent. I was able to really smile then, knowing we’d made it where many don’t and experienced the majesty of this incredible place from a rare and exclusive perspective.

I have yet to go back to Blea Tarn since that memorable day, but now it seems right to return, have a crack at those routes I first gazed up at 25 years ago, and see what things look like from up there, too.

Thinking about climbing a mountain?

Putting your life – and other people’s – on the line is not something to be taken lightly. The author spent three years preparing for his ascent of the Matterhorn. Here are some tips…

Images: Shutterstock

1. Train well

The author practised in the Alps and Snowdonia, improving his technique and grade. He took at course at Plas Y Brenin, the National Outdoor Centre (, where he met Tamsin Gay, the IFMGA guide who went on to guide him on the Matterhorn.

2. Look into financial support

Alpinism is expensive. The author was accepted for a bursary to train in Chamonix with the Jonathan Conville Mountaineering Trust (, which provides subsidised training to people under the age of 30, and helps climbers understand how to act responsibly.

3. Hire a guide

If you don't think you can complete the ascent and descent in a time that could assure safety and success, you must hire a good guide. Having one also ensures you’re more likely to get a preferential place on the ‘starting grid’ on the morning of your ascent. Search for guides through the British Association of Mountain Guides (

For more info on mountain climbing – at any age, at any skill level – try the British Mountaineering Council.