American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The North Face of the Matterhron

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1969

The North Face of the Matterhorn

Graham R. Thompson

THE alarm woke me slowly at one A.M. I turned on the cot and looked out the window. To my dismay the sky was full of stars. It was awful to have to roll out from under the blankets, but I would hate myself later if I did not. Besides, Denny Eberl would kill me. How many times have I gone through that reasoning early on the morning of a climb?

The cold night air drove off the numbness of sleep as we made the short hike from the Hörnli Hut to the base of the northeast arête. There, instead of going straight up the ridge on the normal route, we turned down onto the Matterhorn Glacier and traversed westward for several hundred meters beneath the still benighted North Face.

By the light of our headlamps we consulted the postcard that we carried as the best route guide we could find. Where we were standing seemed to be as good a place as any to start climbing up. Unlike the Walker Spur, the Eiger, or any of the other great Alpine north-face climbs, the North Face of the Matterhorn has no definite route. One simply climbs onto the face and then picks the best-looking way up with a constant eye out for rockfall.

We were not alone. A hundred meters to our right there were three Japanese climbers. The face had not been climbed yet that summer, but the short race that developed between us was not for that! It was, rather, to see who got to be the stone kicker, and who got to be the stone ducker. The Japanese won, going up the six or eight hundred feet of 50° ice at the foot of the face and getting off onto the rocks at a lower level than we did, then shooting up the first rocks, establishing themselves permanently ahead for the next two days. It was just as well: the Japanese proved to be light-footed and knocked off far fewer rocks than we did. Judging from the spacing of their chopped steps, which we saw when we wandered across their track during the next two days, the leader was fifteen feet tall. That was strange because he seemed to have normal dimensions when we talked with him both before and after the climb. He must have had those pills that the Jefferson Airplane sings about: “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small …”

The face was mostly ice-covered and so was in good shape. I had the feeling, however, that nothing there was really attached, and I think we would have backed off the climb had there not been the ice to hold together all that loose rock. I kept thinking “What if an earthquake ... ?”

We headed straight up at first, over the iced rock, occasionally ducking accidental volleys from the Japanese followed by shouts of “OK?”, “OK!”, and exchanges of smiles and waves. The climbing was nondescript. It was nowhere extremely hard, but nowhere did it let up. My strongest feeling during the climb was a bewildered annoyance that there was no place to sit down. Anything that has the nerve to protrude on the North Face of the Matterhorn is quickly swept away or pulverized by the great amount of material that flies down the face each year.

The pattern of climbing was set early on the first day. There were few good holds: often the best handhold was an axe stuck in the ice or into a crack in the loose rock. We would scrabble with our crampons to get a purchase on ice or rock, or worst of all, on snow-covered rock where we could never see what was going on. Then we would move up on an insecure foothold with an insecure handhold and start over. You get used to this kind of insecurity after a while, though, especially if you can make yourself believe that that pin in the loose block sixty feet below is really pretty good. You try to forget how easily the crack widened as you drove the pin, and then how the pin practically fell in the last half of its length. “Oh well,” you think, "the angle of pull was good.” On the stretches of solid ice it was a real relief to thunk a foot down and feel the crampons bite instead of grating along rock with a nerve-jangling noise.

After climbing almost directly upwards for several hundred feet, traversing occasionally to avoid nasty looking bulges, we began to head slightly left toward a large and mostly mythical couloir which we had read about in a borrowed British guidebook. The British guide was fairly accurate in some respects, such as indicating that the summit is near the top of the mountain, but aside from that sort of information we found that the descriptions were often as likely to get us into trouble as out of it. We solved the problem of the questionable couloir by ignoring it and climbed a few more leads of the mixed terrain.

We had been moving since two in the morning, even forgetting to stop for lunch. Night was coming and we realized we should have been higher.

We had seen no good bivouac sites behind us, and ahead it looked no better. I came to a 16-inch-wide sloping ledge at the top of a short steep snow-slope. Denny went on for one more lead, but found nothing better on the nighttime face. The bivouac was a shambles. We kept slipping off the little ledge and strangling each other with the bivvy sack that we had somehow snarled up with the rope. Denny could sleep if I lay over in his lap so he could lay his head on my back, but contorted like that I could only lie still for ten minutes at a time. Worst of all we had decided not to bring a stove along. There was no meltwater on the face, so, saving half a pint in our canteens for breakfast we rattled with thirst all night long.

In the morning we gobbled the last of our water with some food and started off again. We thought we could make the summit before noon. A few leads ahead of us the Japanese looked like colorful circus balloons floating slowly upwards as they got underway still fully dressed in their flashy bivouac gear. We moved up, delighted with the weather and at being so high on such a fine face. The few dark clouds moving among peaks in the distance seemed no cause for our concern. The climbing was exactly the same as the day before: sustained, rather difficult, and as always, requiring a constant eye upward for flying rocks. On one lead I noticed three old pitons driven within five feet of each other. None of them was good, but I marveled at the ingenuity of our predecessors at having found in such a small area, three receptive cracks in that generally peg-hostile rock.

A few leads above our bivouac I heard a shaken yell of “Rock!” from Den, about forty feet above. I tried to crawl into the face as a three-foot block flew over me. The ledge that Den had been standing on had come unstuck and had left him hanging from his hands looking for a new place to stand. Finding no other footholds for going up or down he finally muscled his way up and went on.

At about ten A.m. we could see the Japanese crossing the twin summits. It should have been another hour or two for us, but now those bad-looking black clouds which had seemed so innocent in the morning were chasing us from the north. The sky darkened rapidly and snow began to fly, and then to fall hard. We heard thunder articulating the dangerous content of the storm. Then there came a simultaneous flash and shriek as the Italian summit a hundred meters above us was ripped by a direct hit. “Christ! Knock in a pin quick!” I drove my axe in deep while Denny banged a piton into the rock. He had the pin in and was reaching for it with a carabiner when there was another loud shriek and the sky above the summit was filled with light. I got a sharp jolt in my knee which was against the snow. I leaned on the axe and braced in case Denny had been hit harder, but he was all right. He retreated quickly to the snow where I was, and told me that as he was about to clip into his pin a spark about eight inches long leaped out of it and got him in the hand. We stood in the deepest snow we could find, for protection against getting more shocks from the rock, and trusted in the safety envelope of the summit to protect us from direct hits.

We stood there for an hour as the storm terrified us with its light and noise show, and swamped us with a constant light snow avalanche. Finally the clouds began to dissipate. We waited till the sky cleared in mid-afternoon before starting off again. The intense cold wind, which sweeps up the North Face and meets the wind from the south at the summit ridge to form the famous Matterhorn plume, took the place of the storm.

We zig-zagged up a few more leads, now mainly fighting the high wind and the cold that it brought. The climbing was easing off, and soon we were under the Italian summit, then on it, then climbing past the big iron cross toward the Swiss summit with romantic memories of Whymper and the thousands of mountaineers who have followed.

Summary of Statistics.

Ascent: First American Ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn, August, 1968 by Dennis D. Eberl and Graham R. Thompson.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.