|Conditions on the Matterhorn
One of the most common dilemmas we face in our works as guides is deciding if making a particular ascent is a good idea or not. There are many factors involved in this decision, including the weather (present and future), climbing conditions on the route, the nature and severity of hazards on the route, and the skills, abilities, aspirations and goals of both ourselves and our clients.
The Matterhorn presents a particular challenge in this regard, for a number of reasons. It is not an easy peak. Even when in good condition it presents a considerable challenge, both in length, continuous steepness and exposure, and a need to move quickly and confidently. Add to this the fact that it is one of the most sought after summits in the world, and also the importance of good climbing conditions, and we have a peak that sometimes falls into the category of "not a good idea today".
We have created this web page to help you understand at least some of our thinking when we are faced with this difficult decision. Many climbers come to the Alps in the hope of making an ascent of the Matterhorn. Often they find the peak in less than ideal climbing condition and are either surprised or disappointed that, even in mid-summer, conditions may not allow an ascent without exposure to unreasonable risks. We hope that this page will help climbers prepare for a "philosophical" attitude should the peak be out of condition.
The nature of the climb
The Matterhorn is essentially a rock climb. Though crampons are virtually always worn from the Shoulder upward, the main difficulties are rock. The route is continuously steep, but seldom very technically difficult. There are many sections that one might call 4th or 5th class climbing (USA rating) but they are limited in length. And the route is very long, over 4000 feet steeply up from the hut, and another 4000 feet that must be downclimbed in descent.
We rope up in the hut and don't take it off until we return. For most of the ascent you will move simultaneously with your guide separated by only a few feet. When moving together, the climbing will be easy, but still quite steep. The guide, having assessed your movement skills, decided exactly where it is reasonable to move together and where greater security is needed. Where the difficulty increases, the guide often uses quick "belays"–a bit of rope looped over a horn, a bolt, or one of the many iron stanchions in place for this purpose. The party may continue to move together with this form of "running belay". When the going gets even harder, the guide will ask the climber to wait a moment while they climb up a more challenging section and belay from above.
With better climbers we can move together more and belay less. Since belaying takes more time, climber skill has a strong influence on the pace we can assume.
The importance of moving quickly
In general we have about an 8 or 9 hour window in which we try to complete the climb and return to the hut. Typically, we'll depart the hut at about 4:00 to 4:30 am, summit in about 4 and a half hours, and descend in another 4 or 5. The reason we target 8 to 9 hours is not just to catch the last lift down to Zermatt (at least another hour's walk down from the hut), but mostly for the reason that longer days produce more tired climbers. And tired climbers, whether they be clients or guides, are much more likely to make mistakes. Weather can also be a factor. Afternoon cloud buildup, with potential for thunderstorms is a real possibility, especially on the warmer days of mid-summer.
Fortunately, there is a remarkably accurate gauge of how quickly we are moving. The Solvay emergency bivouac hut at 4000m is, time-wise, almost always close to 25% of the total for the hut-to-summit round trip time. So if it takes 2 hours to reach the Solvay, it will take about 8 hours for the entire hut to summit and return. Also, it takes about the same amount of time to go up as to descend.
On the ascent, we carefully evaluate our time to the Solvay. If, even though we may be pushing a good pace, if it takes us much over 2 hours to get there, we may conclude that the summit is not a reasonable goal for that day. Of course we need to take into consideration other factors, for example crowding on the route, or the point at which we need to put on crampons (which slow us down). But in general we are hoping for a fairly quick pace to 4000 meters.
With the Hornli hut at 3260 meters (10,700 feet) the difference in altitude between the Hornli and the Solvay is 740 meters (2430 feet). We will be hopping to climb this 2430 vertical feet in less the 2.5 hours. Keep this in mind during your training climbs!
Snow on the route
Snow on the route is a problem for us. It slows us down, hides hand and footholds as well as potential rock belay horns. And perhaps worst of all, it is downright slippery. In the warmth of the day it melts, creating running water (also slippery) that freezes at night, created verglas, even more slippery and often difficult to see. With snow, we typically have to wear crampons. These also slow us down, and make it more likely to trip, especially on descent.
Snow on the route, and the serious problems it creates, is mostly what this entire web page is about. (Pause here to reflect, then read on).
The good news is that even though the Matterhorn may not be in reasonable condition when you need it to be, there are many other great climbs, many of which are not so sensitive to the vagaries of summer snow storms, or they may simply clear more quickly. Your guide will be able to assess the conditions on a range of possible objectives.
The climbing season
Snow is indeed a problem. In general, on the Matterhorn, the best and safest conditions are when the route is reasonably free of snow up to the Shoulder. Because the peak is so tall, even in mid-summer it can receive lots of new snow. And we have to wait for this to melt in order for it to come into condition.
Fortunately, in the middle of summer, the sun on the east face is quite warm, and if the weather is good vast amounts of snow can melt quite quickly. But it needs warm sunshine, and relatively little wind to reach these high snow-melting temperatures.
Typically, the first really warm days arrive sometime in June. But it takes some time for these early season days to clear all the winter and spring snow from the climb. In an exceptionally warm year, the peak can come into reasonable climbing condition in the latter part of June. But with a more normal season, it is not until mid-July that the route is more predictably in shape.
The end of the season usually comes in early September. Though there can still be quite nice weather in September, the sun is lower is the sky and has lost much of its snow melting power. If a late summer storm put down new snow on the peak, in the first few days of September, for example, there is a good chance that the peak will not come back into condition that year. But if the weather stays dry, the peak can remain in good climbing condition until the first of the fall season snows finally arrive.
There are also the inevitable mid-summer storms. Typically there are 2 or 3 of these each year in the months of July and August. They put down enough new snow to cause a break in the season - several days where the peak is not in reasonable condition. All we can do is wait for the sun to return and do its snow-melting job. 3 or 4 days of sun is typically needed, though this of course depends on how much snow fell, and how intense the sunshine might be.
From year to year we have seen tremendous variation in the number of days each summer when the Matterhorn has been in good condition. 2008 was a notoriously bad year, while in 2003, with its record heat wave, the climbing season on the Matterhorn started very early in June. Because conditions can go from bad to great in as few as 4 or 5 days, it is virtually impossible to predict conditions on any particular day. Typically the best season seems to be mid-July to early September. Remember, however, that there is great variability, and every year is different.
In assessing conditions from afar, we often use the Matterhorn web cam. The cam updates every day about 10am, and gives a good view of the east face of the peak. Better yet, the Matterhorn Bergbahnen site archives a year's worth of photos, so you can look back to any day in the previous year and create a running tally of good verses poor days, gloat over your good luck in choosing a good one, or commiserate with the hundreds of other climbers who were not so lucky. The URL for the Matterhorn webcam is http://www.zermatt.ch/en/Webcams/Berge-1/Matterhorn-4-478-m Use the "Current", "Previous" or "Next" buttons to navigate, or the Calendar.
Here are a few examples from the webcam, with a brief analysis of conditions.
Kathy Cosley & Mark Houston
AMGA Certified • SNGM members
All images, layout and text ©2004 Cosley & Houston Alpine Guides, All Rights Reserved
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