Monte Cervino (Italian Ridge, AD+)

Italian Ridge at left

Better known as the Matterhorn, this famous peak has two close and near-equal-height summits, one each in Switzerland and Italy. Whymper’s famous and catastrophic ascent was made from the Swiss side, up the Hornli Ridge, and that remains the most popular route. The Italian route, up the Lion Ridge, is slightly harder and less crowded, though it still sees quite a bit of traffic. The route would actually be quite a bit harder, but as far as I can tell, the Italians saw the Swiss making money guiding tourists up their ridge (1200€ a head these days) and decided that they wanted a piece of the action. Thanks to dozens of fixed ropes and chains, and a super-sketchy rope ladder passing an overhang, the Italian Ridge is now suitable for clients.

Ibexes on approach

After getting a proper alpine start for the south-facing Jorasses route, I got a lazier start for the Matterhorn, leaving the large parking lot in Breuil-Cervino around 5:30. I did not expect it to be a long day, I was concerned about rime from the previous day’s high clouds, and the ridge is mostly west-facing, so it receives little morning sun. There is a dirt road all the way to the Aosta hut, but there are also more direct trails, including both social ones and the official trail number 13. I was not really going for speed, but put in a decent effort on the hike past the now-quiet hut.

Monsieur Carrel

Above, I followed a cairned trail for awhile, then wasted 20 minutes on a stupid detour across a snowfield, thanks to inattention and not remembering the guidebook description well enough. I realized my mistake, then returned to the leftward cleft through a cliff band, where I found the boot-pack again. Beyond that, I found bits of trail and crampon marks as I climbed a mix of slabs and talus, then regained the boot-pack on the snowfield below Lion Point. The helpful crowds had made nice stairs, and a perilously narrow walkway with a very bad runout, around the southern side, so I was fine continuing with an ice axe and no crampons on my nearly-dead trail runners.

Sketchy “chimney” below hut

Most hut approaches are nontechnical, even if it is necessary to add hand-lines or blast steps. The approach to the Carrel hut, at 3829 meters, is another story. After following fixed ropes up some slabs, I was confronted with a vertical face called the “Whymper Chimney.” There was nothing chimney-like about it; rather, it was a 30-foot face with a hand crack and some extremely polished feet. There was a fat rope anchored to the top and to a few bolts along the way, plus a couple of cord loops to pull on or use as stirrups. I prefer not to use fixed gear when I can avoid it, partly for style, and partly because it feels sketchy, but climbing the face was definitely beyond my abilities. I made it about half-way up the rope before chickening out, then carefully descended and rested my forearms.

Defeated before even reaching the hut?! Not if I can help it! The left side was hopeless, but it looked like there might be easier ground around to the right, which consists of various slabs and talus slopes of different steepnesses. I retreated down one of the ropes, then made my way to the most promising of these, which was topped by a chimney and chockstone that looked possible, or at least secure. My persistence paid off, and after some stemming, chimneying, and groveling, I topped out over the chockstone onto another talus ramp. This ramp led under the south side of the hut and up to the deck; unfortunately people often pee of this deck, and while I did not suffer a direct hit, I had a strong desire to wash my hands.

More fixed ropes

Back on-route, the fixed gear went next-level, with probably a couple dozen fixed ropes between hut and summit, along with other random bits of aid. I had gotten into the European mood by now, happily standing or pulling on whatever sketchy horrors had been installed. On the one hand, they made the climbing easier; on the other, they concentrated the climbers on one path, and the nearby rock was incredibly polished by crampons and boots, making all the holds less secure. I am not sure whether or not I could have climbed the route in its original condition.

Flat step along ridge

I passed a couple guided groups on the south side of the ridge, getting a surprisingly late start, then returned to the ridge via a steep pitch to climb on or left of the crest, eventually moving to consistent snow. I somewhat sketchily avoided crampons for awhile, but after getting a good look at the route ahead, I saw that it was mostly snow, and stopped at a flat section of ridge to put on the spikes.

Sketchy self-releasing rap device

The crowds began to become a problem here, as I had to climb through rope teams both ascending and descending (I was apparently the only solo climber). The flat stretch of ridge ended with a downclimb to a notch containing a twisted little gendarme. It looked fragile, but other people had clearly used it, so I stemmed off it to get into the gap, then continued up snow and ice on the other side. Above, I passed a pair of Frenchman rappeling using a crazy-looking device from Beal to do full-length rappels on a single strand. It looked like a short piece of rope with two pieces of flat webbing braided around it, tied to the anchor on one end and the rope on the other. After rapping on the single strand, the climbers released this device by yanking their rope a dozen times, slowly unraveling the braid. This seems like a terrible idea, but… I guess it works?

Totally bomber…

The ridge turns to rock and steepens to a final headwall below the summit. I took off my crampons, then fought my way through more parties toward the crux, working around ice and snow where possible, and cautiously sketching my way across a few patches. The crux Jordan Ladder, installed to overcome a slightly overhanging step, is the absolute pinnacle of Euro-sketch: a 20-foot rope ladder with 1×1-inch wooden rungs. The ropes are partly iced over, and almost everyone climbs the wooden rungs in crampons. Some of the upper rungs had metal shields duct-taped to them to lengthen their lives. I cautiously and unhappily made my way up this horror-show, moving both feet up a rung, then wrapping an elbow around one rope to spare my grip.

Swiss summit from Italian

Above, it was mostly easy rock and a boot-pack to the Italian summit, where I found two groups of two hanging around the cross. It had taken me about 5.5 hours from car to summit, which I thought was a good time given my detour lower down and unfamiliarity with the route. However, I was nowhere near Killian Jornet, who climbed it town-to-town in about three hours. Just like on Mont Blanc, I can understand his rate of ascent, but it is absolutely incomprehensible how he manages it over complicated technical terrain. At my best a few years ago, I was maybe 20% slower than Killian on the Grand Teton. However, on Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, I could probably do no better than twice his time.

Climbers traversing toward Swiss summit

One of the pairs at the summit left soon after I arrived, but I spent a good 10-20 minutes talking to a young Austrian couple, who were friendly and spoke excellent English. An annoying tourist helicopter kept buzzing the summit, so after jokingly suggesting we moon it, I was egged on to actually do so on one of its closer passes. I hope the tourists enjoyed the view of my pasty buttocks. It was warm and almost wind-free, and tempting to hang around longer, but I still had the descent to deal with, and hoped to get in another peak in the next day’s good weather. I said goodbye, then crossed the perfect snow arete to the Swiss summit on an excellent boot-pack. The Italian summit at least had a few rocks on which to stand or sit, but the Swiss one was just snow, so after taking pictures of Zermatt, Monte Rosa, and (maybe) the Grosser Aletschgletcher far to the north, I crossed back over the Italian summit and headed down.

Looking down from upper headwall

Above the ladder, I passed a young guide and client, who noted my footwear and helpfully warned me to be careful of the wet rock on the descent. I thanked him, then made my careful, crampon-less way down past the evil Jordan Ladder. On the steep section below, there was a bit of a shit-show, with two teams sharing their ropes to rappel, another team of three, and a party of two climbing up. I waited, climbed through when I could, and eventually extracted myself from the tangle. As usual, I used my crampons more going down than up, keeping them on from below the ladder to where the route drops off the south side of the ridge above the hut. Though I do not enjoy it, I am getting better at using them on rock.

Monte Rosa

After some minor route-finding trouble, I reached the hut again, and was about to pass by silently when a young woman sitting on the deck greeted me in what sounded like American English. She and her boyfriend turned out to be from Slovakia, but she had clearly had an American teacher, and spoke excellent and only slightly accented English. Since the weather was perfect and it was only early afternoon, I hung out for the better part of an hour talking to the couple. Though they had done a lot of hiking in the Tatras, and trad climbing near Bratislava, they had done relatively little mountaineering in the Alps. They had previously done the Breithorn from Breuil-Cervino (using a tram), and were spending the day acclimatizing at the hut before hopefully climbing the next day. (As it turned out, it snowed that night, ruining their summit bid.)

I was reluctant to leave, partly because it would be hot down in the valley, and partly because I did not want to climb down the rope or the pee-slope. I finally left, descending some semi-sketchy slabs to the top of the rope and, after psyching myself up for a bit, committing to the thing. I used one foot-loop at the top, then descended it like I was rappeling, leaning back on the rope to keep my feet stuck to the rock rather than using the meager footholds. Down was definitely easier than up, and I made it to the bottom with forearms only slightly tired.

I passed more climbers above and below the narrow snow traverse, then boot-skied a bit and jog-walked the trail back to town in no particular hurry, reaching the car a bit less than 12 hours after starting. I took off my soaked shoes, had a snack, then drove down the Cervino valley, back through Aosta, and up the Bionaz valley to sleep at my next trailhead.

Death in the Afternoon

Rest in peace

Ernest Hemingway said that “there are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Presumably, what elevates them from games to sports is the possibility of death. Though I do not plan to do any motor racing or bullfighting on this trip, I will be doing much more mountaineering, often with many others doing the same nearby. I suppose it is inevitable that I will witness the ugly consequences.

Hanging out at a stance below the Jordan Ladder while waiting for some people to finish rappeling, I heard a loud sound on the south face. Another climber nearby shouted something, and I leaned out a bit to look. Maybe a thousand feet below, I saw two climbers, roped together and bouncing out of control down a snowfield, having already fallen probably 1000 feet from the ridge above me. The sound was surprisingly loud for only 300-400 pounds of matter; it seemed much louder than a similar amount of rockfall. As in the past, I was verbally reduced to irrelevant cursing, but utterly attuned to the details of events that took place over a couple of seconds. Before the climbers disappeared off the snowfield into the void below, I noted the color of their packs and clothes, and tried to see the color of their rope, to tell whether it was the couple I had just met on the summit. Later I found out that it was, two twenty-somethings from Austria.

The other climbers around suggested calling 911 (112 in Europe), but apparently none spoke Italian, so I pulled out my phone and, with a crappy signal, made the call. The operator spoke some English, and apparently transferred me to mountain rescue, but they couldn’t understand me with the weak signal, and hung up. More dazed than scared, I made my way carefully down the rock to a low-angle section where I tried calling again 10-15 minutes later with a better signal. Apparently someone else had already called by then, and the mountain rescue person told me that they were sending a helicopter. “They usually end up at the bottom,” he chillingly remarked before encouraging me to be careful on the way down. So I did, moving slowly down the ridge as the helicopter came and went to the snowfield at the base of the south face, eventually finding the bodies and departing for good.

I lived to climb another day, while they did not, and there is no lesson to be learned beyond the obvious one that death is real and close in the mountains. They had experience and all the proper gear, and were moving roped as one is supposed to. I was in worn-out trail runners, downclimbing unroped. So it goes.

7 responses to “Monte Cervino (Italian Ridge, AD+)

  1. Janie says:

    First of all your descriptions are really wonderful. And secondly, the tragedy that you witnessed just brings to the forefront, how precious, yet precarious, life is for all of us. Safeguard it.

  2. Bob says:

    Hi Sean,
    Congratulations on summiting the Matterhorn and the Grand Jorasses! I enjoyed all the pictures of the sketchy gear in place to get you up and down those mountains. A compilation of those pictures would make for an excellent coffee table book.

    I’m truly sorry that you had to witness the deaths of the two climbers. What a horrible thing to have happened. I don’t know what else to say about that.

    I wrote to Salomon requesting that they consider sponsoring you given your amazing ‘feats’ – pun intended – in the Alps, and elsewhere, whilst using their product. I don’t think they even bothered to read my letter. I received a generic reply from them telling me to compete in Salomon-sponsored events/races and maintain an active online presence in order to get noticed by a Salomon recruiter. Sorry buddy, I tried.

    Stay safe Sean.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Yeah, at this point I’m more likely to be gaslit than supported by Salomon. I guess I’m not good enough at Instagram or something.

      The Italian Ridge was uniquely sketchy, with all the fixed gear and people roped up in questionable ways. I’m looking forward to getting back on more normal mountains.

  3. Sarah Syed says:

    “I had gotten into the European mood by now, happily standing or pulling on whatever sketchy horrors had been installed.”

    I laughed so hard at this — you are a wonderful story teller. and imagining you finding a solid hold, only to discover the pee — oh my, how different climbing in the Alps is.

    Very sad to hear about the death of the young couple you had enjoyed talking with on the summit. I wonder what happened, why one wasn’t able to arrest the fall.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      There’s more fixed gear here than anywhere I’ve been in the States or Canada, but the Matterhorn was in a league of its own.

      As for what happened to the couple, I imagine they were moving short-roped, with no pro in place. Many people seem to do that here, with the more experienced partner leading going up, and following going down. They seem to believe that this provides some safety, and maybe it does, but it looks too much like a suicide pact to me, as it seems like on terrain where you would actually want a rope, you would be unlikely to catch your partner. This may have worked better in the old days, with larger rope teams, though the tragedy on the first ascent of the Matterhorn suggests it wasn’t so safe back then, either.

  4. Global Warming is a scam says:

    Great story and lots of good comments here. Personally I am very happy about the fixed ropes and other devices and Via ferratas. Without them, honestly, I would not be able climb the peaks and see the views that I have. The same goes for the mountain huts and biowacs. In America they have nothing of this, the routes aren’t even marked. It seems in America they do their utmost to prevent normally fit people from going to the harder mountains, while in many European countries they facilitate it. I climbed Mt Whitney one time and the California guides from other teams were screaming at us from littng a fire from dead wood near the lake to keep warm.

    1. drdirtbag says:

      Hah! There are very specific rules on building fires in the Sierra, especially around Mount Whitney, since the area is badly overused.

      The US has a different philosophy of how to develop and recreate in the mountains. For example, there is almost no helicopter-supported infrastructure, so any development can be reached by vehicle or horse. Also unlike the Alps, which have been continuously inhabited for millenia, with paths and infrastructure developing during that whole time most mountains in the Lower 48 are only recently inhabited, and if Natives lived in them before, they did not build much in the way of infrastructure that we use or have adapted today.

      America has a concept of “wilderness” that barely exists in the Alps. And it is nowhere near as wild as some other places I have visited, like Canada and the High Andes. Part of the pleasure of climbing elsewhere in the world for me is understanding and working with the local approach to mountains. I enjoyed the “jungle gym” on the Italian Ridge — it felt right — but I wouldn’t want to see the same done to routes here in the States.

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