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The Matterhorn in Switzerland: Facts and History

Updated on January 18, 2011

The Matterhorn - a mountain in the Swiss Alps

The Matterhorn in Switzerland is one of the world's most distinctive mountains. With its triangular shape, it looks almost like it was drawn by a child. It is not, however, the tallest mountain in the Alps, nor even in Switzerland. Nonetheless, it has always presented an irresistible pull to climbers and tourists. A Matterhorn climb is on the 'must-do' list of many keen climbers.

I was lucky enough to see the Matterhorn up close during a wonderful summer visit to Zermatt, a beautiful town high in the Swiss Alps. Here I share some of my photos as well as some interesting facts about the mountain.

The Matterhorn, Switzerland

The beautiful Matterhorn mountain, as seen from Zermatt in Switzerland (image copyright WordCustard)
The beautiful Matterhorn mountain, as seen from Zermatt in Switzerland (image copyright WordCustard)

Some Quick Facts About the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn is 4,478 metres high. That's 14,692 in feet.

The mountain straddles Switzerland's border with Italy, where it is know as 'Il Cervino'.

The mountain was first scaled by Edward Whymper and his ill-fated party of climbers in 1865. The attempt ended in tragedy when the rope supporting a number of the climbers broke and they plummeted to their deaths. You can see a fragment of this rope in the museum in Zermatt today (pictured below).

Miss Lucy Walker was the first woman to make the ascent in 1871 -- at a time when the typical English Victorian lady was more likely to be sitting in the parlor with her embroidery. The American Meta Brevoort reached the peak shortly afterwards, with her dog Tschingel.

The mountain has climbed many lives over the decades. You can see the graves of several of the climbers in the graveyard in Zermatt (pictured further below). Some of them were very young.

Rope and ice axe from the first ascent of the Matterhorn (copyright WordCustard)

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The Matterhorn has claimed many lives

How to visit the Matterhorn

If you want to spend some time around the Matterhorn, you will need to stay in Zermatt. That is no hardship, however. It is a beautiful town located at 1 mile above sea level, with magnificent scenery on every side of the valley. It can be expensive, although there is a large choice when it comes to accommodation and there are also a couple of supermarkets for self-catering.

Find out more about Zermatt in my visitors' guide to the town here: Zermatt, Switzlerand - Guide for Visitors

The town is car-free, although can be reached by road or by the cog-railway. The nearest airport is Geneva. Wherever you stay once in Zermatt, you only have to look out a window or walk outside to see the dramatic shape of the Matterhorn towering over the valley.

You can get to the Matterhorn itself on foot, walking through meadows and woods, or you can travel part of the way using public transport. Either way, you will pass through some spectacular scenery. You can reach the Klein Matterhorn, which sits beside its taller namesake, by cablecar. At 12,739 feet, this is snowy and cold even at the height of summer, so wrap up warm!

The Magnificent Matterhorn

Climbing the Matterhorn

So you want to climb the Matterhorn? With experienced guides ready to take climbers up to the peak and back in a day, the challenge is more achievable now than ever before. But all the same, it is not for the unprepared. Even if you consider yourself a physically fit and experienced climber, it is worth pausing to read the account of Jerry R. Hobbs: Climbing the Matterhorn

There are several guides to choose from. Mountain Spirit is just one of them. You will spend the night at the Hornli hut and make an early start in the small hours of the next morning. As they and Jerry Hobbs all caution, the ascent can get very busy during the peak summer months so the early start is essential. Allow for anywhere between 7 and 11 hours for the climb to the peak and back.

Ski Zermatt features photos taken during a Matterhorn ascent.

For an alternative view, see these amazing photos by Dany of Air-Taxi Zermatt. I took a tandem paraglide with this guy  during my time in Zermatt. That's another story.. but if you are interested you can read about it here: A Tandem Paragliding Experience in Switzlerand.

The Matterhorn at Sunrise (Time Lapse Video)


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