We had one extra day while in Zermatt recently, and we knew in a flash that the thing to do would be to hike to Hornli Hut. The hut lies part way up the Matterhorn, and serves as the base for the mountain's most popular climbs. The hut is perched on a shoulder on the north ridge of the Matterhorn, also known as the Hornli Ridge. From the top of the lift a two hour hike will take you up the steep north face and across beautiful ridges, ending on a shoulder with mountain views and alpine history unmatched anywhere. Make no mistake, it can be an exciting hike, and is not one to take lightly.
We awoke to fog and mist, with no view of the mountains from town. Somewhat bummed that it would be another cloudy day, we walked over to the ski lifts at the upper end of Zermatt. Two lifts took us up to the Schwarzee hut, where the hike begins. Like everything in Switzerland, the lifts are expensive. In 2013, the ride up to Schwarzee was 49 Swiss Francs per person (about 55 US dollars at the time of our trip).
Mist swirled around us as we rode the upper lift. Nearing the top of the station, we suddenly emerged above the clouds, to bright blue skies, white snow and jagged peaks. All morning the mists would rise and fall, sometimes engulfing us, and sometimes partially cloaking us in wispy, floating clouds of vapor.
The hike starts out easily, then avoids switchbacks and attacks the mountain directly, as is typical of Swiss trails. The mountain is surprisingly steep, and much of the walk climbs the shady north face. This normally wouldn't be an issue, but our hike in mid-September followed a couple of small early season storms, and even the lower mountain had a thin layer of new snow and ice. After about an hour of hiking, the route flattens out and crosses a ridge, then again climbs rapidly up the cold and shady north face. The trail is carved into the hillside here, and in a few places a slip would be fatal, or at least extremely unhealthy. Numerous fixed cables are in place and most are well positioned to help protect the icy and coldest parts of the trail. But there are a few unprotected sections that were icy and required extreme care. We opted to scramble up the ridge at the worst part to avoid a particularly icy and exposed section. Climbers who were descending that morning were all wearing crampons, while we went carefully upward in our running shoes. As we neared the hut, the trail wrapped around the east face, and became warmer, less icy and less exposed. The risk fell away and we were free to fully enjoy the view of the Breithorn and other nearby peaks we couldn't identify. If you are climbers like we are, your hike up will be also filled with a certain amount of wonder at all the alpine history that surrounds these peaks like an invisible parchment, visible only to the few. As much as any mountain on earth, the Matterhorn is the home of alpine climbing.