The challenge of a lifetime

On the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, TGO reader Rick Kay describes his recent experience climbing the mountain to raise funds for survivors of the Nepalese earthquake

Illustration photo of The challenge of a lifetime

It's often case that a daunting prospect in the mind is relieved and informed by the cold light of reality, but sitting in the cable car en route to Schwarzsee, the take-off point for the new Hornlihutte, the Matterhorn towers with a menace which does nothing to allay the sense of foreboding. This is a big rock.

It's Saturday 11 July, 2015, in Chamonix, the day after I realised a personal dream and successfully climbed the Matterhorn. Lunch by the river, the cost seems immaterial. I'm very much here to enjoy it. Its sunny and warm and I'm writing a few notes in the L'Atelier Cafe.

It was two years ago that my son, Nick, suggested we climb Mont Blanc as a '60th Birthday statement' so we did and the die was cast. Time ambles on, so at 62, and counting, in February this year, I booked the Matterhorn climb, this time with a professional guide, and so began four months training in earnest.

The cable car doors open and Olly, my guide, leaps out. What is it with guides and leaping? I leap after him. Two hours later and we have hiked ourselves and our gear up to the new Hornlihutte. IKEA on a mountain. It's comfortable, friendly and expensive. The terasse looks up the remaining 1200m of the Matterhorn. Still looks dreadful. Dinner and early night, got to be up at three.

It's now 3.10am and I'm untangling my harness. The doors are opened and we are on the track. The sun will join us in about an hour and a half. For now it's navigation by headtorch. The crescent moon is little help. There's a steel step and a fixed rope and everything turns vertical. Ten minutes in, an we're truly climbing.

The lower section is a pathfinder's nightmare, a series of ridges, chimneys, ribs and short walls, mainly stable. The Matterhorn is an essay in suspending loose rock at altitude. Everything moves. To stray from the travelled route is to step off the north ridge of Tryfan onto a Welsh slate mine spoil heap.

We climb on into the sunrise. The top section of the mountain, now towering overhead, turns blood red, visually stunning, but a mixed metaphor. Headtorches off, all is now visible, up and down.

The pathfinding gets easier as the choices become more limited. Mixed climbing. Plenty of bolts and spikes. The odd bit of tat left as runners in worse conditions. But today is perfect. Low wind, full sun, dry rock and no storms forecast. Still, the less time exposed, the safer the climb, so we're at it like a pair of fellrunners. Not age appropriate, but focus is focus, and I'm not letting this go lightly. I keep up, my breath a few lifetimes behind.

Two hours in and we reach the Mosely slabs. These have played on my mind throughout training. Vertical climbing at altitude breathing like a train. But, at last, the reality is a relief. Careful climbing, barely V.Diff, practically ignore the fixed ropes and all that heaving. Probably the most enjoyable couple of pitches I have climbed in many an outing, and at the top, the Solvay hut. Emergency shelter and first rest point. Ditch a layer of clothing, climbing in shirt sleeves from here. Half a litre of water and a French energy bar which tasted of nothing I can describe, and we're off up the upper Mosely Slabs.

Still great fun, but don't tell Olly, he'll only want to go faster. "Are you OK?" he asks, "Do you have a headache?" He barely waits for an answer, he can see my wide eyed expectation and he sets off up the next pitch.

From here the climbing is a mixture of short pitches, easy ridges (with ridiculous exposure) and scrambling chimneys and slabs. The air is thin, were well over 4000m now, and the top still looks forbidding and distant.

The top section was my second dread. All I could envisage was an exposed steep ice climb up the slab to the right of the ridge, but, like the rest of the mountain, it is weathered and broken, and the slab is pitted with ledges and gullys. We are still climbing on rock, avoiding most of the snow and ice, crampons still stowed in our rucksacks.

We are about 100m below the summit. A steel Madonna is clearly visible just below it, the team above us stops to put on crampons. Olly checks the route and suggests we try without. This would be a first for him, and almost unheard of on the Matterhorn. OK, let's try it. We overtake the other team and take pole position.

Olly reaches the Madonna and belays around her neck, a feature of his climbing I had noticed on La Tour Rond in the Valle Blanch, a couple of days earlier. I climb the last pitch, a couple of skiddy snow crossings without crampons, but conditions are good and the boots hold firm. I reach Olly, a quick hand shake and pause to sort out cameras and I head up the thin snow ridge to the summit. Olly points out the highest spot, almost exactly the size and shape of my boots, and we take a few photos.

Conditions are still perfect: light wind, even on top, bright clear sunlight, and 29 4000m+ peaks surround us, like a guard of honour for Europe's most impressive pyramid. What on earth am I doing here? How on earth will I get down?

A helicopter circles below. No, that's not the way.

I now face the biggest down climb I've ever contemplated! My knees and quads are completely spent, but after 11 hours on the mountain we offload our kit onto the terrasse of the Hornlihutte, flop down onto a bench and order a couple of drinks, with plenty of water.

In four days time the mountain will be closed to climbers to stage the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Edward Whymper's first ascent on 14 July 1865. I feel proud and privileged to be climbing in such an auspicious window.

The red arrows fly past, leaving a red white and blue trail around the mountain. A practice run no doubt. But for me it's a climber's pat on the back. I'll take that.

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Rick climbed the Matterhorn to raise money for victims of the Nepalese earthquake. Sponsor him here.