Matterhorn North Face, Schmidt Route.

Arriving back from Kyrgyzstan on Thursday evening I was feeling weary from the traveling and slightly frustrated from the lack of climbing in the last month. Lots of snow made it difficult to access most of the objectives from our base camp and I cursed my choice of boots on numerous occasions finding the temperatures more akin to winter than summer alpine (full expedition report coming soon). I needed to do something and I wanted to do something big. My long time friend a climbing partner Gav Pike asked if I wanted to drive through to Zermatt on Friday to attempt the Schmidt route over the weekend.

It sounded perfect. I did some research and came across plenty of reports of good conditions with some teams reporting having the mountain to themselves (Check Danny Uhlmanns report here).  I knew it wouldn’t be devoid of people but I had no idea what was in store for us….

We drove through to Switzerland and made our way through town and up the lift to Schwarzee, the closest lift station to the Hornli hut. The hut itself is about 20 minutes away from the start of the route. On the walk up we saw plenty of bedraggled climbers on there way down including a pair of British lads (John and Lee) who confirmed good conditions and lots of other teams.  We speculated on how many other teams there might be on the route and weren’t too surprised to find most tent holes and bivi spots occupied. Settling into the tent that night we discussed tactics and had the fabled “What time shall I set the alarm?” conversation. We decided on 2 am, which in hindsight might have been too late.

When it went off Gav complained it had interrupted his counting of sheep and that his sleeping pill hadn’t worked. After guzzling some water and stuffing fruit cake down our throats, we stepped out into the clear cold night. We had scoped the approach the evening before and soon found ourselves following a good track to the bottom of the face. Turning the last buttress before you head up, I spied two sets of head torches high above. We were happy that the route traverses enough that falling ice wouldn’t be a problem so we lunged across the bergshrund and began firing up the lower slopes. Excellent névé with short sections of mixed climbing led us up to the start of the Ramp where we joined the slower of the two teams.  I let my British courtesy take over and took a belay so they could get on with the first few pitches. It also gave my calf’s a rest from the 400m+ of simul-climbing we had done.  A team which had been hot on our heals arrived shortly after and also waited for us to move off.  The next two teams weren’t as polite and whilst Gav was leading up they arrived and immediately started to move together up the ramp crossing our ropes and clipping our gear.  I stopped the second bloke, a swiss guide from Grindlewald and asked if he wouldn’t mind waiting. “But why? You are sooo slow” he replied. I told him I was glad that a hero had arrived to save the day and explained it was stupid and dangerous to have 3 teams on the same thin ice runnel.  It apparently fell on deaf ears and he continued short roping his client up the 70+ degree ice, with 5m of rope and no gear. Apparently the sleeping pill had kicked in and Gav had decided to slow the pace down thinking we were far enough ahead. After another altercation with the Guide, where I used language that I have never used in anger before, another party who had arrived had also started giving me hassle I finally started moving. Gav realised the world of **** I was dealing with when 6 head torches came round the corner. He quickly took a belay before a short crux wall.  I raced up passing the others whilst untangling the ropes and taking the pro out which often left other teams without any.

From here on we resigned to the fact that we were going to have to deal with the masses. We chilled out and just tried to enjoy the climbing despite often being shoulder to shoulder with other people or tangled in other ropes.  We simul-climbed all but one pitch where we had to turn a corner and soon found ourselves on the upper snow fields away from most other teams. It felt great even for a few minutes to be alone on the face.  The rest of the route and the Zmutt ridge went fine and we found ourselves on the summit 7 hours and 48 minutes after leaving the shrund.  We were happy with the time and on the whole enjoyed the climbing, despite the stress of the amount of other teams.

The descent down the Hornli ridge seemed to take an age with a mixture of down climbing, hand over handing it down the fixed ropes and abseiling.  We took a break in the Salvay hut for an hour or so to re-hydrate and eat some nuts which were our emergency rations.  We continued down with the help of a local who kindly offered to show us the way. It was much appreciated as the Hornli Ridge is a mess of fractured chossy rock that you could easily loose your way on. It was good to meet someone friendly on the mountain!

Back at the tent feeling the strain we discussed at great lengths some of the encounters we had had and what we could of done differently. Gav congratulated me on telling the Swiss guide where to go and we both decided that we wouldn’t actively seek to climb at the weekends.  A good warm up for some more big face action but a disappointing experience on this amazing mountain.

Some photos, some of which (the better ones) obviously courtesy/copy write Gavin Pike.

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