Alps pt3 - Hornli Hut

Matterhorn from Zermatt just before we board the cable car

The Glacier Express train ride was awesome but it was still exciting to arrive in Zermatt. Sandy and I loved all of the places that we went last year on our trip to the Alps but we both agreed that the one place that we wanted to come back to this year was Zermatt. It's crowded and touristy but the mountains are like nowhere else in the world.

We stayed at a different hotel this year. I picked Le Petit Hotel based on research on Trip Advisor. It was considerably cheaper than where we stayed last year and the reviews were all very good. The one drawback is that it is true to it's name - it is a very small hotel. In fact when you see it from the street it looks almost silly, a tall, skinny, wedge-shaped building where two streets converge. Because the building is small that means the rooms are small. There is basically a double bed with two feet on all sides of it. There is a tiny wardrobe and a built-in desk (with a stool not a chair so it can slide completely under the desk so you have somewhere to walk). But the hotel was fairly new, very clean and even had a bathroom with a real shower stall. Sandy said the real test would be breakfast the next morning which the hotel passed with flying colors.

The Obergabelhorn from Schwarzsee

After checking in we went out to wander around Zermatt. That is pretty easy as it is basically one street. We weren't very hungry since we had been snacking on the train all day so I have to confess that we ended up doing McDonald's for dinner. It was quick and easy. The forecast for the next day was clear skies in the morning so we got all of our hiking stuff ready before going to bed in preparation for an early start. We wanted to take advantage of any clear weather that we got.

Sure enough the next morning was clear. After a quick breakfast we walked to the Matterhorn Express cable car line. We rode it up almost three thousand feet to reach the starting point for our hike. We got off at Schwarzsee, a small lake on the slopes of the Matterhorn. Since we were above timberline the lake itself was not very impressive but the view of the surrounding peaks was. The Matterhorn dominated the view, up close and personal. Our hiking objective was the Hornli Hut, a climbers hut at the base of the ridge that is the standard climbing route up the mountain.

The trail approaches the daunting cliffs of the Hirli

I had done this hike several times back in the mid-eighties when I was trying to climb the Matterhorn. It took my partner and I several trips up to the hut getting in position for the climb before we finally got back-to-back days of good weather and made it up the mountain. But we didn't have to worry about that today. We just needed a few hours of good weather for our hike up and back and that was all we cared about.

Even though we rode the gondola up from the valley we still had a long hard hike. The Schwarzsee cable car station is at 2582 meters. We had to climb to 3260 meters to reach the Hornli Hut. The first third looked like just a very steep slope with a trail switchbacking up it. Then came the Hirli, a series of steep cliffs that looked impossible to get through. If we could somehow make it through those cliffs, above the Hirli was the start of the Hornli ridge itself, a technical climbing route for most of its length. The standard time to the hut was given as either 2 or 2.5 hours. At least we didn't have to carry up twenty or thirty pounds of climbing gear like the climbers going up to attempt the summit.

Steve looks pretty happy during the short level stretch

The trail was short. We estimated that it was only about 2.5 miles. We aren't sure since in the Alps times rather than distances are usually given. But it was steep, climing over 2200 feet in that distance. The first part was just a steep trail. Notice how cavalierly I say "just a steep trail". It was rough, rocky in spots, loose in others. Then the trail reaches the huge rock outcrop known as the Hirli. Somehow the trail finds its way up the cliffs, sometimes with ladders or metal walkways attached to the rock. There is some exposure. After getting through the first cliffs there is a (short) level stretch and we were feeling pretty pleased with our progress. Then the trail reaches the actual base of the Hornli ridge, a huge prow of rock. Again, it looks impossible for the trail to get up but it finds a way. The trail is always steep, with rock scrambling in spots and loose dirt or scree in others. Footing is poor and there is more exposure. And although we had been going for a long time and thought that the hut must be close, the trail just kept climbing. The last section that we thought would take us a half hour took us an hour and fifteen minutes. So our total time of two hours and forty five minutes was slow but we didn't care. We were pleased that we made it to the hut.

Proof that we made it to the Hornli hut

There was quite a crowd on the terrace. There was a mixture of day hikers, climbers just down from the summit, and climbers planning to go up the next day. We had to order something to get a spot on the terrace. Big signs announced "No picnic on terrasse". Sandy and I got cold drinks and an apple torte to justify our spot. It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm and the view from the terrace of the hut was fantastic. All around were four thousand meter peaks. Just behind the hut was a close up view of the incredibly steep Hornli ridge leading up to the summit of the Matterhorn.

Even from the high position of the hut, it is still four thousand feet of steep and exposed rock climbing to the top. Climbers stay at the hut overnight and then usually start out about 3:30 am for the top. It was hard for me to believe that I had climbed it way back in September 1986. But I still have vivid memories of the climb and my summit photograph to prove it. It took multiple tries over a two year period before the weather and other factors lined up so my partner and I could reach the summit. Even back then I wasn't a fast climber. Most parties do the climb in ten to fourteen hours. We took twenty. Because we knew we were slow we left early, midnight, and didn't get back to the hut until 10 pm. But it isn't a race and I was am just happy that I made it up. That's all that counts as far as I am concerned.

It's a long way down to Zermatt

After our snack we started back. On the way down we passed a lot of summit climbers moving up to the hut for the night. Early in the day there are more day hikers who want to get to the hut and then back down to Zermatt. Since the climbers are staying overnight they usually hike up later in the day so they don't have to spend hours and hours at the hut.

Since the trail was steep it was still very hard work even going down. But at least we moved a lot faster on the downhill. We made it to Schwarzsee in less than an hour and a half. We considered having lunch at the Hotel Schwarzsee but by then some clouds had moved in and the wind was blowing. That made it a little chilly to sit outside on the terrace. But lots of other people were there and the terrace was full. They even had a band playing live music. Only in Zermatt!

Instead we took the cable car down. By then Sandy was really hungry for a hamburger so we went straight to The Brown Cow Pub and had a late lunch. After that we bought a bottle of wine and sat on the roof of our hotel enjoying a view of the Matterhorn and pointing out to each other the various spots that we had been on our hike.

Additional pictures

Le Petit Hotel - yes it is that narrow