I stand looking out above the pink-hued clouds in the Aosta Valley surrounded by gnarly mountaineers and wonder when I am going to be rumbled as a fraud. The 50-bed Carrel Hut perched high on the Lion Ridge of the Matterhorn is full and I am one of just two women surrounded by 48 tough-looking guides and their clients.
My climbing buddy, Charlie, and I had just scaled the vertical rock wall under the hut using the fixed rope that gave me serious flashbacks to the gym rope from my schooldays three decades ago.
We both had serious misgivings about what was ahead of us but both replied nonchalantly “yep, all great”, when asked how we felt about the equally steep rock face ominously looming above the hut that we would need to tackle at 4am the following morning.
The Matterhorn (aka Monte Cervino) stands sentinel on the border of Italy and Switzerland. The two popular routes to its 4478m summit are the Hornli Ridge from Zermatt and the Lion Ridge from Cervinia. The Swiss side is easier but, being busier and with looser rock, we decide on the harder route from Italy.
Now, if you are reading this and considering climbing the Matterhorn – read the next bit carefully! Go at the right time! July-September is best but this is obviously still subject to the vagaries of late or early snow. We previously tried to avoid this peak summer holiday time by going late June/early July but each time the fixed ropes were buried in snow and the avalanche risk high.
Having finally learned our lesson, we arrive in Cervinia on the Friday 28 August. There is a weather window the following day and then it is due to close in. We have got to go for it! So, fresh from sea level living with no chance of an acclimatisation peak, we set off up the mountain the next morning. Fourth time lucky.
After the unacclimated slog, the vertical face beneath the Carrel Hut at 3829m looks impossible. Lucky for me, Charlie leads up the fixed rope, so I have the comfort of a lovely top rope, hauling myself up while my crampons skitter on the rock.
We reach the hut and quickly grab a bunk in the dorm that smells predominantly of cabbage and sweaty men. The hut sleeps 50 people on alpine style bunks. 20 on the lower bunks, 20 on the top bunks and then 10 squeezed into the claustrophobic attic space with no windows or any form of exit except the hatch that you climbed up through. Not sure fire regs mean anything up here.
And you need a strong stomach to face the squat drop toilet. The whole time we were there a large turd was obstinately perched on the rim defying gravity. There was a mixture of nationalities up at the hut and I can confirm that turds are cross-culturally humorous.
After a broken sleep of snores and moans, creaks and groans, morning comes. As we set off, I notice that the other female, a Russian with amazing nails (how does anyone climb and still have amazing nails?), is not attempting the summit with her team. I walk a bit taller.
Using a mixture of moving together ‘alpine style’ and pitching the steep sections we reach the summit of the Matterhorn on Sunday 30 August 2015. This is an extra special year as it marks the 150th anniversary of the first ascent by Edward Whymper and his team in 1865. Respect to these guys who did it with heavy gear and very little protection.
But the mountain is only half-climbed until you are back down. The descent back to the hut is long and gruelling and should not be under-estimated! We abseil the steeper sections and arrive at the hut, battered, at around 7pm. We could push to get down to the valley floor tonight but decide to eat the other half of last night’s tea and stay another night in the luxury of the hut.
Clouds are bubbling up as we leave the hut on Monday and we look back up the mountain praying everyone that set off with their headtorches that morning stays safe.
Back down in Cervinia, I brush my teeth, go for a beer and tick my Matterhorn obsession off my list.
When to go
Unless you have experience in Alpine climbing I would recommend hiring a guide. If you wish to climb this independently, both the Lion and Hornli ridge routes are included in the guidebook: 4000m Peaks of the Alps by Marco Romelli and Valentino Cividini.
Dates: Mid-July to end September
Cost: Although the hut is unmanned, there is a €20 charged for the overnight stay which you pay to the guide in the hut or in the guides’ office when back down in the valley.
Website: The website for the Matterhorn Alpine Guides is www.guidedelcervino.com