From Unconquered to Ultraks: A Brief History of the Matterhorn

[Editor’s Note: Robbie Lawless, who usually hosts our Run Tramp interview series, was in Zermatt, Switzerland a few weeks ago when some of the most recent Matterhorn excitement went down. Here, he pens an abbreviated history of how this mountain has attracted adventurers for hundreds of years.

We published two additional stories related to the Matterhorn the day we published this story: Matterhorn of the Gods, which talks of drawing inspiration from others, and an Interview with Kilian Jornet on his Matterhorn FKT.]

“The proud peak which rises to so vast an altitude, like a triangular obelisk, that seems to be carved by a chisel.” Those were the words that Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss geologist, used to describe the Matterhorn way back in the late 1700s in his book Voyages dans les Alpes.

Matterhorn

The Matterhorn. Photo: Droz-photo.com

It’s hard to argue with ol’ Horace’s overtly macho and colourful definition; the iconic peak is pretty damn impressive. It resembles how a toddler would draw a doodle of a mountain–one of those out-of-proportion sketches that defies the laws of physics–except there it is in front of your eyes. Rub them as you may, blink hard, shake your head a little, and open. It’s still there, standing massive and proud over the village of Zermatt, Switzerland to the mountain’s north and Breuil-Cervinia, Italy to the mountain’s south. To ignore it is a futile exercise; it’s the alpine equivalent of the elephant in the room, the zit on the end of a nose. Try as you might, the Matterhorn demands your attention.

But this is nothing new, it’s always been that way.

The Golden Age Of Alpinism is the title attributed to the period when a vast majority of the Alps’ most famous peaks were first ascended, a time when the Eiger, Aiguille du Midi, Monte Rosa, Grand Paradiso, Dom, and many other myth-spun mountains first had their snowy, summit canvases decorated with hob-nail footprints. In the mid-1800s, a group of well-to-do British gents with eloquent names such as Francis Fox-Tucket, Lord Francis Douglas, and Florence Crauford Grove took on the Alpine peaks with gusto and urgency–first in the name of science and then simply for the sheer glory and adventure of it all. For, as we know well, climbing mountains is jolly-good fun, ol’ boy. There was, however, one mountain that remained unclimbed. A mountain that sent waves of fear and awe in equal measure through the ranks of tweed besuited, brandy-swigging men in their newly formed Alpine Club in London. The mighty Matterhorn.

The first ascent of the Matterhorn plays out like a barely believable Hollywood script. Adventure, deceit, secrecy, tragedy, death, glory, conspiracy, it’s all there. And that’s not even taking into account the synchronised, competing attempts for the summit: one from the Swiss side by the Englishman Edward Whymper and one from the Italian side by his one-time guide and now rival Jean-Antoine Carrel. Carrel was determined to see an Italian, namely himself, as the first to stand atop the mountain and had turned against Whymper, forcing him to head for Switzerland to seek local guides to try the summit from the unproven Hörnli Ridge. Whymper’s party of seven were ultimately successful. He and a local guide named Michel Croz reached the summit together while 500 meters below on the Italian side, a disheartened Carrel turned for home upon seeing his foe’s summit celebrations. Whymper’s joy was short-lived, however, as four of his party, including his summit buddy Croz, fell to their deaths while descending.

The year was 1865 and the Matterhorn success marked the final curtain of those glorious, golden years as well as the start of a new fascination to climb the mountain from every face, ridge, and angle. When routes were exhausted, climbers began to focus on speed ascents. The first ascent had taken two whole days from Zermatt. Since then, the lure of the Matterhorn never waned. It’s just that things were about to get quicker. A lot quicker.

Matternhorn - long view

A long view of the Matterhorn. Photo: Droz-photo.com

Fast forward 130 years to 1995 and a 33-year-old Italian by the name of Bruno Brunod, an artisan builder and one of the original Skyrunners, ascended and descended the Matterhorn from Breuil-Cervinia on the Italian side in three hours, 14 minutes, 44 seconds. Think about that, almost 45 hours quicker than the original summit expedition. Not to take anything away from Whymper’s achievement, but those guys probably spent over three hours stopping to smoke their pipes on the way up. Brunod’s record was all the more remarkable because of the conditions he had to endure, as the International Skyrunning Federation’s (ISF) Lauri Van Houten remembered in an interview with me, ‘There was vert-glace on the course and the ropes were thick with frozen snow so he didn’t use them. There were also some climbers on the course who blocked his way.” For 18 years the record stood, Bruno’s untouchable time. It became known as the toughest record of them all.

In 1990, after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Kilian Jornet did it. He done it good, did it like he knew he could. Twenty two minutes quicker, that’s what the record books will say, two hours, 52 minutes, two seconds. Jornet’s approach to the record was like that of a highly skilled surgeon; he carved it up with a focus and expertise that only years of study and preparation can bring. He was equipped with an innate knowledge of his subject–the Matterhorn–that hours upon hours on the mountain brought. He picked the best line, at the best time of the year, with the perfect weather conditions, and the best support crew. A truly professional job executed by a freak-of-nature athlete.

Matterhorn - Kilian Jornet

Kilian running in front of the Matterhorn. Photo: Droz-photo.com

That’s arguably the main difference between Brunod and Jornet’s Matterhorn times. Where Brunod trained before or after long days of manual labour, Jornet is a modern, full-time athlete with the luxury of an undistracted commitment to the mountain and an undisrupted window for his attempt. As Brunod put it in an interview with Aosta Sera, an Italian newspaper, “I was expecting Kilian to beat my record, he’s a professional athlete, rather than in my day, where we done these attempts almost as a hobby.” Brunod also claims that if he had had perfect preparation and conditions back in 1995, then he would have broken three hours. This from a guy who worked with Jornet on the days before his attempt and calculated that he’d run 2:52. He’s got form. So the unbreakable record is dead; long live another unbreakable record.

Kilian’s exploits meant that all eyes were on the Matterhorn once again and three days after his summit dash, the Skyrunning circus rolled into Zermatt for the inaugural Matterhorn Ultraks. Ultraks is the newest arrow in the ISF’s race quiver. A race that uses the Matterhorn primarily as its focal point, the ace up its sleeve. The Ultrak’s concept–a ski-mountaineering race in the winter and a mountain race in the summer–is a unique proposition and the brainchild of Michel Hodara, one of the organisers and a guy with a background in sports marketing. “For us, we wanted to set up a race from a marketing mind,” he said in an interview with me. “A race that responds to a need from the public, the resort, and the competitors.” His original plan was to have the same course for both the summer and winter events but when Zermatt was chosen as the venue, they had to change their plan, “We came to Zermatt and they were so enthusiastic, but we had to change the courses for the two different events. We thought, it doesn’t matter! We can keep the same fundamentals but craft it a little differently,” he remembers. He had his location; now they needed a route.

“We wanted to do the race that suits the place. We think the 46k route is the best possible race you can have here in Zermatt,” said Hodara with a smile, before adding, “It offers the best of Zermatt.” Indeed it’s difficult to disagree. With approximately 12,000 feet of steep climbing over the course, with the first 13k a sustained climb to the 10,200-foot summit of Gornergrat, it’s a brutal introduction to the Swiss Alps. As Kilian and Emelie Forsberg continued their season-long domination by winning the first ever Ultraks, and as the spectators showered their admiration on the bruised and battered runners, the ever-present Matterhorn stared silently down from its lofty position.

The undisputed star of the show with the best seat in the house.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Have you visited the Matterhorn and been equally swayed by its impossible aesthetic?
  • What other stories of adventures on the Matterhorn not covered in this brief rundown of the mountain’s history, both past and present, would you like to share?
Robbie Lawless

is a runner, graphic designer and the editor of RunTramp.com. His fascination with the simple act of moving fast and light on ones own two feet – and with the characters that are attracted to it – keeps him both in work and in wonder. He hails from Ireland but now calls Sweden home.

There are 6 comments

  1. Anonymous

    This ascent made extensive use of fixed lines. To compare this achievement to the first ascent or any climb made without aid is completely meaningless.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      Anonymous,

      There were many, many things different about the first ascent from any modern climb made on the mountain, with fixed ropes and bolted chains being just one of them. The gear used during the first ascent included shoes, clothing, and climbing "tools" we wouldn't take near a mountain today. (Well, they relied on wool clothing largely, and we still wear a lot of wool as our base layers.) There was no hut in which climbers could shelter safely from weather. Little route knowledge existed besides what previous unsuccessful parties brought back. And perhaps more intangibly influential, no precedence. You are absolutely correct, it's best to contrast–not compare–historical and modern, aided and unaided, and summer and winter Matterhorn climbs. This article, in my opinion, does a good job in setting up the contrast between a couple significant historical and modern Matterhorn climbs.

  2. Jeff H

    If you really want to understand what climbing was like in the 1860's and the 6 attempts it took Whymper to finally summit the Matterhorn, check out "Scrambles Amongst the Alps" his account with illustrations by the author (he had a day job too!). Also note that Whymper (and Croz) where truly athletes climbing quickly with heavy antique gear often in terrible conditions over completely unknown terrain. It's great reading still 150 years later.

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