Adventures With My Chimp Part 3: The Matterhorn

Posted by Andy Tomlinson on Feb 21, 2020

In this, the third and final part of "Alpine Adventures With My Chimp", Andy Tomlinson describes a climb he made of the Matterhorn's Italian Ridge. This had been the culmination of a brilliant week that had seen him complete a series of memorable ascents, including the Papillons Arete and Dent du Geant. Despite this success, his "chimp" had never been far away and often influenced his decisions. Further information about the "chimp paradox" can be found here.   

"After climbing the Dent du Geant, we returned to the van early the following morning, phoned the Guide Office in Cervinia and booked beds at the Carrel Hut for the next night…the first hurdle overcome, as this hut only sleeps 40 and there is now a strict booking policy [policed!] to ensure no overcrowding. The weather was looking good, so an attempt on the Lion [Italian] Ridge on the Matterhorn looked on. I was excited and apprehensive! 

We reached the campsite at lunchtime and, whilst it was still 30mins from Cervinia, it was the closest, with the added attraction of great showers and a good restaurant…all we needed!  The original idea had been to attempt the traverse of the Matterhorn…up the Lion and down the Hornli, but friends had done this recently and came back with off-putting tales of a long descent down the Hornli to the Hut, expensive hut fees and lift costs back to Cervinia. Their advice…go up and down the Lion Ridge! A useful tip too was to phone the Abruzzi Hut and book a lift in the Land Rover ‘taxi’ that left Cervinia at 8am for the Hut so saving two hours and 800m of ascent. I could not resist. 

We arrived at the Guides Office as arranged and the ‘taxi’ arrived a few minutes later. What a way to gain height…Jeremy muttered something about cheating…I thought it 20 Euro well spent! 

Starting out for the Carrel Hut, visible on the ridge

The route from the Abruzzi winds its way up around small outcrops and past memorials, which Jeremy found interesting but I, and my chimp, preferred to avoid. Higher, the path became vague climbing sloping rock with loose gravel, steeper at times and with melting snow. It was gruelling, not helped by the heavy sacks which included 4 litres of water for the next 48hrs. We made good progress until we caught up a couple of Eastern Europeans who had roped up. We decided to do the same and waited. They were very hesitant and, whilst waiting, two Brits soloed by. I lost patience, passed them and then Jeremy took the lead. He was quiet, not happy and it became tense as I was happier moving more slowly as care was needed with the consequences of a slip was unthinkable, whilst ahead, Jeremy,wanted to get over it quickly. We were soon at the Col del Leone and happy again! The final ascent to the hut started up sloping ledges covered with gravel and scree-like paths. We arrived at fixed ropes, crossed the Seiler Slabs and arrived at the bottom of the Whymper looked steep and, after a return of glances [my chimp was twitching somewhat!], Jeremy agreed to go first…it was very steep and a struggle with heavy sacks. Once up, we were soon at the hut...what an amazing position, although I didn't particularly relish looking down, as it allowed the chimp to start grumbling again! At 6pm we queued for the use of a stove to boil water for dinner [we had taken dehydrated food].  By chance we had the best beds...the bottom bunk and at the wall, so space for ourselves, allowing for a good night.

Andy leading fixed ropes above the Echelle Jordan

Teams started stirring at 3am, but we had opted for a more leisurely start and, with both of us awake at 4.45am, we were up. Forcing down a breakfast bar and some water, we were roped up and ready to go at 5.45am. As planned, we were the last out and had the route to ourselves. I led off from the hut...I offered and Jeremy agreed...later he told me he had engineered this…and it worked as it settled the chimp and got me hooked. Swapping leads, we trended rightwards away from the ridge on sloping ledges and some fixed rope, alternating risk with security! The Mauvais Pas passed and, next, the now very small ice field of the Linceul (shroud) protected by a Via Ferrata type wire was followed by more sloping ledges with the option of going off route (which a team ahead had done). A move back left and up led to the Corde Tyndall a 20 metre almost vertical chain, perfect for protection with quick-draw placements, and so to the ridge proper at around 4000m. Importantly the chimp seemed quiet. 

Looking up, the ridge seemed to go on for ever and Pic Tyndall, our first objective, looked miles away! The ridge was mostly easy, but exposed, with variable rock and the occasional icy step or two...all a bit unnerving and great fodder for the chimp! We were moving well, unaffected by the altitude but Pic Tyndall was not getting closer and we had been going over 2hrs [Guide Book time 2½ hours maximum!]. My chimp was becoming unsettled again with the old mantra “we are going too slowly, wasn’t I too old for this game”. With it, my human brain started to have doubts, so I placated it by setting a turn-around time of 3 hours should we not have reached Pic Tyndall. We continued, finding about enough gear (there was also the odd bolt and peg) and as I looked up, yet again, to what we thought was Pic Tyndall, I saw a Cross on it. Ahead, the ridge now appeared to flatten suddenly clicked...the large lump high up was, in fact, the summit of the Matterhorn! The altimeter confirmed we were at just over 4200m as we reached a point at the end of a crest (Pic Tyndall), which we then moved along...very reminiscent of Sharp Edge. The chimp was silenced...2:45 to here, a little over guidebook time, but moving well...3 hrs more to the summit it said! 

The ridge, with a couple of down climbs, led to the Enjambee (gap), from where we climbed upwards, zigzagging, to fixed ropes. Up these and then the ladder (Echelle Jordan), steep but straightforward. A few more pitches and we were on the summit, 5:30 after starting. The chimp was silenced! We thought about crossing to the Swiss summit, but it was like a zoo with people and ropes criss-crossing and looking decidedly unsafe, so we left it. A quick photo, then in to descent mode. 

Jeremy arriving at the top of the Echelle Jordan

A mix of abseiling, moving together and down-climbing saw us pass well recognised points in reverse. Hunger and tiredness were slowing us by the time we reached the top of Corde Tyndall. We abseiled this quickly and, mistakenly, thought we were getting close to the Hut. I led down a gully Jeremy was certain we had was very steep, but as he was so insistent, I went down, leaving plenty of gear. Once in the gully he realised we had not climbed it so we rigged a lower-off, all very slow, taxing and stressful, although the chimp remained quiet. We were now taking more time than expected and route finding was tense. Just above the Hut we caught up with a young Italian couple. Unfortunately they wanted to abseil the fixed rope section so we lost another 30 minutes, arriving back at 6.45pm. As the Guide Book states, it is quicker moving together down ropes…another lesson. 

View down to the Carrel Hut on descent, from just above the Corde Tyndall

A quick turn around and off at chimp wasn't looking forward to this! We abseiled the Whymper Chimney then moved together quickly down ropes, gravelly rock steps and paths to the Col del Lion. The section where we had been slowed by the Eastern Europeans passed quickly on soft snow. The light was starting to fade and tiredness was blurring our thought processes. Time was lost by errors such as putting crampons on unnecessarily. I ended up a long way behind...the chimp got anxious. It was near dark and there was still one awkward section to negotiate…Jeremy found the key passage...phew. Darkness descended, and with it, paths were less obvious…and we wandered! Eventually the Abruzzi Hut appeared at 10.30pm! The guardienne organised a huge sandwich and mattresses for the to sleep after a long and very focused day. There was great elation and quiet satisfaction, as another long-held ambition was fulfilled. Oh, and the Chimp had finally been silenced...seems to happen once descent commences!

The Matterhorn dominates Cervinia, but is not as 'perfect' a mountain from this side as from it is just a huge lump of structured rock, with both Pic Tyndall and the summit easily seen. We looked up at it frequently as we descended the next morning. Back at the van we enjoyed a proper brew, packed and headed for Chamonix, where we headed to Bar National for pizza and beer, then on to Geneva Airport. With Jeremy safely delivered for his flight home I drifted gently north and home over the next 3 days, undisturbed by my chimp.

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