The Matterhorn is the most easily recognised peak in the world. Isolated at the head of the Zermatt Valley, the perfectly shaped mountain needs little introduction and continues to top the ‘must do’ list of thousands of climbers who aspire to climb it each year.
But if this is the first time you’ve considered climbing the Matterhorn, you might be wondering - how difficult is it?
Well, that’s a question we are asked frequently. The fact is, looking from Zermatt, the peak looks nothing short of terrifying and compared to most alpine peaks, the assent looks impossibly steep and uncompromising.
To find out how difficult it is to climb the Matterhorn, we’ve invited IFMGA Mountain Guide, Matt Dickinson to give us his tips on reaching the summit successfully. Having helped hundreds of people climb the Matterhorn throughout his time with Mountain Tracks, Matt knows what it takes to reach the top.
There are three key attributes needed for a successful ascent of the Matterhorn. These are fitness, determination and a thing we call “sure-footedness”. I’ll explain each one in a little more detail separately.
Typically the summit day is between 9-12 hours of pretty much non-stop climbing with short breaks. So it’s physically tough and you need to have extremely good fitness levels.
There is an old joke regarding the lack of rest stops on the climb. A British climber was tired on the approach to the Solvay hut (halfway refuge), so he says to his Zermatt guide "please can we rest and have a drink", to which the Zermatt guide replies "yes, at the Solvay Hut". When they get to the Solvay hut the guide does not stop. The British climber, says "I thought we could stop for a rest at the Solvay hut" to which the Guide replies "yes that's right, on the way down"!
The story is a little tongue in cheek, but it does give you an idea of the type of fitness needed to climb the Matterhorn.
Sure-footedness is of prime importance on the Matterhorn. Sure-footedness is different to climbing ability. I have guided experienced climbers who are not sure footed and non-climbers who are surefooted. This simply means the ability to be agile and secure when scrambling on rock, ice and snow. This ability can be learned by practising scrambling and easy climbing. Climbing on the Matterhorn is not particularly hard, but it is exposed. That means it is important not to take a fall.
Determination is important. But no amount of determination will make up for a lack of fitness. Do the groundwork, build up your fitness levels and prepare yourself mentally before taking on the Matterhorn. Saying that, even if you’re fit enough, the bigger problem is the exposure. Lots of climbers can’t handle the risk and quickly return from their ascent. You need a strong desire and will to make this climb.
A successful ascent of the Matterhorn demands a lot from a climber. Fitness and determination are paramount but technical competence and sure-footedness are hugely important. You need to be prepared for 9 to 12 hours of Grade 2 or 3 scrambling terrain. Many mountain guides, such as Mountain Tracks, offer the training you need.
Take a look at our Matterhorn training weekend here:
- Experience using crampons on snow. The final third of the ascent is often on snow.
- Experience scrambling in Snowdonia or the Culin Ridge. Mountain Tracks offer this training by mimicking as many Matterhorn style grade 2 and 3 scrambles until you are comfortable.
- A period of acclimatisation of around four or five days, including sleeping at altitude. This is often achieved by climbing the Monte Rosa massif.
- Experience sustaining physical effort on hiking or scrambling terrain for long periods of time.
- Experience controlling your body during downclimbing.
It’s critical you have the fitness required to climb the Matterhorn by completing several intensive hikes or scrambles.
The route is both complex and loose, so it is crucial that the leader knows the mountain well. We would never advise attempting the peak without using a qualified guide. We recommend taking a look at our Matterhorn Climber holiday here. Climbing with a dedicated IFMGA Mountain Guide, you will spend 6 full days preparing for and eventually climbing the world’s most iconic mountain, all with an experienced and dedicated professional.
There are four main routes up the Matterhorn. The most popular route, and the route taken by Mountain Tracks, is via the Hornli Ridge from Zermatt.
The other three routes are:
- The South West/Italian Ridge (Lion Ridge)
- The North West or Zmutt Ridge
- The North Face or Schmid Route
Each route has its dangers. You will find long rock climbs with steep snow at altitude and plenty of exposure on all Matterhorn routes. However, Hornli ridge offers a moderately technical ascent and is littered in climbers throughout the summer. The best route overall.
When climbed via the Hornli ridge, the Matterhorn ascent is graded AD with a vertical height gain of 1300m (from the Hornli refuge). The climbing is never more difficult than the British grade 'Moderate'. It is mainly on rock, however, the upper section is usually snow and ice. The most difficult sections have fixed ropes.
It’s important you have the right kit to climb the Matterhorn. During the summer the weather can start out very cold and gradually get very hot by the afternoon. It is therefore essential that you have a variety of layers to put on/take off as the conditions change.
Our recommended kit list includes:
There is no doubt that climbing the Matterhorn is an intensely satisfying experience and one which will stay with you for a lifetime. Plus, everybody has heard of the Matterhorn, so it is instantly recognised by family and friends. If you need a little more convincing, take a look at these 19 reasons to never climb the Matterhorn.
At Mountain Tracks, we offer Matterhorn courses from July - September.
The courses are run over 6 days. They include 4 days of training and acclimatisation climbs around Zermatt or Saas Grund prior to the 2 day Matterhorn ascent.
4 Days Training and Acclimatisation
2 Days Matterhorn Ascent
Participants should have some alpine mountaineering experience before the Matterhorn week, although being an expert climber is not a prerequisite.
For more information or to book this unforgettable climb Click Here.
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.