It's strange how big lumps of rock and ice can generate such strong emotions within us. The Matterhorn is a world icon, a mountain that inspires, dominates and entices us despite its threatening scale and presence towering over Zermatt and the Hornli Hut. It's a real mountain but still just a lump of rock and ice. Climbing it will no longer mark you down in history but the personal journey that takes you there is an emotional roller coaster, full of highs and lows of equal scale to the mountain. This is exactly how it was for Marc and I am delighted to have been able to help him achieve one of his big ambitions.
Marc and his wife Helen climbed Mont Blanc many years ago with me. We had pretty tough weather on the day and they both did a great job of reaching the summit. Marc has been to many adventurous parts of the world and is an experienced trekker. Climbing the Matterhron was a step up from what he normally takes on though and we needed to do some training and acclimatisation before the big climb.
Our first day out of Zermatt was up to the Kleine Matterhorn. We walked across the south side of the Breithorn to the foot of the SW Ridge of Pollux. We were both feeling great, despite the sudden exposure to the altitude of 3800m. Often this is really quite a big impact on people but we were both getting on fine so we decided to climb Pollux. The scrambling on the SW Ridge is really nice and there is a short section with fixed chains to get round a steep tower. A narrow snow crest leads up to the summit, a snowy top surounded by the giant Zermatt peaks. With one 4000m peak done on the first day we were very happy when we got down to the wonderful Guides d'Ayas Hut for the night.
For our second day we went for Castor, a slightly higher peak, this time climbed all on snow and ice with a beautiful narrow crest at the top. An early start got us to the top before the sun got round to our side to soften the snow. There was an icy section on the way up that was quite delicate on the way back down and we were grateful to be past this before the snow got soggy in the afternoon heat. It has been a very warm summer in the Alps and the glaciers and faces are showing little snow cover left now at the end of the summer season. Walking around the glaciers, even at this high altitude, was nerve wracking going over narrow and thin snow bridges over enormous crevasses.
The icy conditions heled us to decide to take on the full Breithorn Traverse for our last day of training. It is possible to start the traverse half way along but it looked easier to get on to the end of the ridge at Roccia Nera. Doing the first half of the traverse adds another 2 hours to the day but we'd had a nice early start and the weather was perfect. Narrow snow crests are interspersed with interesting rocky peaks with steep abseils along the ridge. Once we got to the more popular half traverse it was all on rock for a long way with beautiful scrambling on great rock in a super spectacular place. We got to the top of the Breithorn feeling great and feeling ready for The Matterhorn.
It's important to build in rest days to your Alpine programme. Marc and I went down to Zermatt for lots of food and a very good night's sleep at the Youth Hostel. If you want to find clean and simple accommodation with all the facilities you need and a very good breakfast, plus an amazing view of The Matterhorn, the Youth Hostel is hard to beat. After a night here and a gentle amble up to the Hornli Hut we were in the right place at the right time for our climb.
The hut was only half full so it was not too busy at the start of the climb. There was also a staggered start so the Zermatt Guides could get ahead and the rest of us were not left standing at the first steep section waiting for 10 or 15 minutes. Even so, Marc and I felt the pressure and headed off a bit too fast in the first hour. It's so easy to get caught up in the rush and push too hard. We settled to a nice pace for us and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise just before we got to the Solvay Hut for a rest and a bite to eat.
We put on our crampons at the foot of the fixed ropes and managed to get past all the racing snakes already on their way down without too much fuss. The snow cover was just right and the weather was perfect with no wind at all and a little warm sunshine through the high level cloud to keep us warm but not too hot. We got to the summit and shared the moment with a group of French guides and climbers who were just as delighted to be there as we were. Sometimes everything does come together very nicely and this is how it was for Marc and me this time. The weather, climbing conditions, training and acclimatisation all came together at the same time to give us a brilliant climb and a very important summit for us. Well done Marc, great climbing.
It's never too soon to start thinking about the winter in Scotland! After many years of climbing Tower Ridge, I’m convinced that it is a one ice axe route. Most of it is relatively straight forward and long sections of it are really quite simple. You might need two ice axes in certain snow conditions on the Great Tower but you can always borrow your partner’s axe for that one move. This is the conclusion I’ve reached after many ascents in all sorts of conditions. But when I look back on my first ascent of Tower Ridge in winter it’s an odd conclusion to come to.
My friend Richard was up staying with me soon after I moved to Fort William in 1995. Before I moved here I thought it would be very easy to find climbing partners but that’s not how it was. In the days before the internet was there to help like minded people come together I spent a lot of time out soloing routes, walking the Munro’s and getting to know the hills and crags. When Richard came up for a visit he came predominantly for a skiing trip. I had other plans though and I wanted to make use of having a climbing partner.
Tower Ridge is a climb I had done in summer not too long before. It’s not hard and the route finding is quite simple on a relaxed, warm and dry summer’s day. In winter I had been climbing routes at harder grades than Tower Ridge and they had all gone well. One of my solo climbs had been Point Five Gully which felt great. I did not realise at the time that the Spring of ’95 was to go down as one of the best for a decade and Point Five Gully was probably more like grade IV than the benchmark V it is more commonly. Still, for my third ice climb I was quite chuffed.
So I was full of confidence as we walked in and I even felt slightly aggrieved at having to bring the grade down to a lowly III (as it was then) to give Richard a chance at being able to climb it. He was a skier after all. It was an average day with good snow cover. We got to Douglas Gap fine and up the awkward groove onto the crest of the ridge. The ridge looks completely different in winter and the best route is not always obvious. There was no trail to follow so I just followed my nose. Since we were climbing a ridge it made sense to stick to the crest of the ridge so off I went.
After the first horizontal section the usual route in winter follows a snow ramp out right to avoid a steep section of the ridge and up simple enough ground back onto the crest from the end of the ramp. If you follow the crest this steep section is quite tricky and draws you left up steepening grooves. After a look up one of these and a bit of head scratching I thought I spied a way forward but not with just my one ice axe. I would like to say I scurried back to Richard but it was a lot slower and more precarious than that. I teetered back down, got his axe and carried on up the pitch with a good deal of swearing. Richard now needed the ice axes and a bit of time to follow the pitch. It was certainly ground that required two ice axes. So after a few more, thankfully easier, pitches we got to a level section of the ridge.
Time wasn’t marching on as much as leapfrogging forward. A check of the watch at one point would reassure me that we were doing OK. The next time I checked, the time had taken a great leap forward and we were well behind schedule. It seemed like we had done a significant amount of climbing already so I convinced myself that we had climbed the Little Tower and the steep section ahead must be The Great Tower. If this was right, the time of day was OK but we still needed to crack on, so we did.
What we thought was The Great Tower went much more smoothly even though we did not find anything much like an Eastern Traverse. At the top of this tower our hearts sank. Not only was the light starting to leave the mountain but what was obviously The Great Tower was standing high above us still. We found the Eastern Traverse, blindingly obvious when we got there, and successfully traversed along to the foot of the Fallen Block Chimney just as it was about to get dark. With all of my confidence from the start of the day chipped away by the relentless ridge it was me that suggested extending the Eastern Traverse and making our escape. I had heard of many enforced bivouacs at Tower Gap and I was determined not to make it another one. So we went across to the foot of Tower Gully and kept going to make the long descent of Observatory Gully and back home in the dark. My drive for the summit had been completely broken so even the thought of climbing the grade I gully of Tower Gully was too much. My tail was firmly between my legs.
Seventeen years and perhaps a hundred ascents later, I climbed Tower Ridge with Martin and Chris in April of 2013. The ice climbing conditions were spectacular that spring and we had long periods of settled weather to enjoy them. The guys had booked just one day with me, specifically to climb Tower Ridge. We were very lucky to have a day of perfect weather and brilliant snow on the route. Not only was the climbing brilliant on the squeaky solid snow and occasional bits of dry rock but we were surrounded by the best climbs in Scotland perfectly iced and glistening in the sunshine. We watched the black dots of climbers on Orion Face pick their way up, dwarfed by the scale of the face.
Chris and Martin had been on a winter climbing course at Glenmore Lodge. They wanted to experience the next level in their climbing progression and to enjoy a classic at the same time. They were both competent and secure climbers and they had no problem with the level of climbing. Had they known that the conditions would be so good they might have decided to tackle the climb by themselves. However, they were just as happy to enjoy the experience without the extra pressure of having to make route choice decisions and find the belays. They got to enjoy an amazing day on an amazing route and to soak up every detail of the experience.
It’s easy to think that hiring a guide takes away all the challenge and satisfaction of climbing. But winter climbing is a team game. I depend on my clients to do their bit just as much as they depend on me to do mine. I try to make sure they realise the seriousness of the climb and to include them in the decisions we make on the day. Hopefully, my clients feel like they are climbing with another of their regular climbing partners, one who is quite keen to do most of the leading.
I dread the day that someone on my rope takes a tumble off the Eastern Traverse. It is a drop of a couple of hundred metres below your feet and the protection is quite spaced. A slip would result in quite a swing across this void, leaving you dangling on very steep ground and probably unable to climb back up to the traverse ledge, especially with just one ice axe. It would be a tricky situation to resolve and in a very intimidating place. I coach people in what to do on the traverse and try to make sure they are doing it right but at the end of the day I just have to hope there is no slip or stumble. Similarly at Tower Gap, I need my clients to make themselves secure after they climb down into the gap and to belay me as I climb down. If I slip I rely on them to hold the rope properly and that the anchor they have tied in to is secure.
So as Martin and Chris climbed out into the sunshine at the top of the route to see the view from the Paps of Jura to Ben Wyvis and the Skye Cullin to Schiehallion they knew they’d had one of the best climbs of their lives. Tower Ridge is always a brilliant experience however you climb it and whatever kind of weather you get. But on days like this, there is nothing better in Scotland and, therefore, the world.
Is there anything more satisfying than exploring the Scottish mountains on a winters day? Staring out into a sea of snow-blanketed mountains? Solving the puzzle of which climb is the best option in Scotland's ever-changing conditions? Taking on the elements to stand at the top of the UK's highest mountain? Returning home exhausted but already looking forward to what the next day's adventure might bring?
We don't think so, and that's why we want to share this incredible season with you! Join us this winter! https://www.abacusmountainguides.com/winter-guiding.html
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.