<p>From tragedy to triumph, the iconic emblem of the Swiss Alps has seen it all.</p>
Photo: Pascal Gertschen

Triumph and Tragedy on the Matterhorn

From tragedy to triumph, the iconic emblem of the Swiss Alps has seen it all.

Published at: 30 Apr 2018
Last updated at: 9 Nov 2023

Discover the history of the majestic Matterhorn. Straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy, the Matterhorn is one of the most famous peaks in the world.

Serena Norton
Serena Norton

Conquering the Matterhorn

Situated in the Pennine Alps, straddling the border between Switzerland and Italy, sits the majestic Matterhorn, one of the most well-known and distinctive of all Alpine peaks. With an elevation of 4,478m, the Matterhorn is the 12th highest peak in (western) Europe, the 10th highest mountain in Switzerland and one of 48 Swiss peaks above 4,000m.

The Swiss-German name for the peak comes from the words “matte” meaning meadow and “horn” meaning peak. This “peak in the meadows” is recognised by its symmetric pyramid shape and its four steep faces which align with the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. The north side overlooks the Swiss Zermatt Valley whilst the south points towards the Italian ski resort of Breuil-Cervinia.

After a number of attempts, chiefly on the Italian side, the Matterhorn was successfully ascended on July 14, 1865, by the English illustrator, climber and explorer Edward Whymper. However, the climb was marred by tragedy with four of his party losing their lives in a fall just below the summit during the descent.

Three days after Whymper’s triumph, the mountain was conquered from the Italian side by a party of men from the village of Valtournenche, led by the Italian guide Giovanni Antonio Carrel. On July 22, 1871, English born Lucy Walker became the first woman to reach the top of the Matterhorn. This was particularly impressive since Lucy’s feat was completed in a long flannel skirt. The oldest person to have climbed the Matterhorn is Ulrich Inderbinen, who achieved this incredible feat at the age of 89 years.

old hornlihutte with view of east face of matterhornPhoto: Zermatt Tourismus
Members of the Alpine Club in ZermattPhoto: Seiler Hotels
View of the beautiful Matterhorn in winterPhoto: Kurt Müller

Climbing the Matterhorn today

Over the years many people have flocked to Zermatt in an attempt to replicate Whymper’s success. The best time to climb the Matterhorn is from mid-July to mid-September with the most popular route beginning at the Hörnli Hu(3,260m), which is home to the Matterhorn Base Camp. Involving 4,000 feet of climbing, the climb is long and demanding, usually taking around six hours up and five hours down.

It is essential climbers have previous mountaineering experience and it is important to remember that the weather on the mountain is dangerously unpredictable. Over 500 people have died climbing the Matterhorn, both on the ascent and descent.

A more popular and arguably easier venture to undertake is the ‘Tour of the Matterhorn,’ a 148 km hiking route connecting six valleys via Zinal, Arolla and Breuil. The views are breathtaking and the terrain varied. With two glacial crossings, this route should only be attempted by experienced alpine walkers.

The total ascent is 9925m but the route stays mostly below 3,000m thus keeping the chance of altitude sickness to a minimum. The route takes you through a wide variety of villages with different mountain cultures so not only do you get to experience the Matterhorn from all angles, but also a wealth of fauna and flora.