The Matterhorn


The north face, meanwhile, remained both renowned and feared. Thirty-one years passed before Swiss guides Paul Etter and Hilti von Allmen made the first winter ascent of the Schmid Route, over two days in February 1962. Today the face has become a classic particularly appreciated by solo climbers, starting with Diether Marchart in July 1959. In 1980 Jean-Marc Boivin skied the east face, then charged up the north face in four hours and ten minutes. Six years later Christophe Profit and Eric Escoffier, two of the biggest proponents of speed enchainments, brought a new form of exploit to the face as they began a race to enchain it with the north faces of the Eiger and of the Grandes Jorasses (the so-called "trilogy"). Although both climbers failed during their initial attempt, in 1987 Profit finished the project, later insisting that the supposed rivalry between him and Escoffier was pure media hype. The need to create such exploits may have reflected a more general change in perspective: with the advent of modern ice axes and frontpointing, the wall had lost some of its aura of difficulty—a fate shared by many ice climbs in the Alps.

Cristophe Profit on the Schmid Route in 1987. Profit and Eric Escoffier, two of the biggest proponents of speed enchainments, began a race to enchain the Matterhorn's north face with the north faces of the Eiger ad the Grandes Jorasses in a single push. Although both climbers failed during their first attempt, in 1987 Profit finished the project. [Photo] Cristophe Profit collection

From Bonatti to the 1980s

On the hundred-year anniversary of the Matterhorn's first ascent, 1965, many people were watching the mountain. Among them was Walter Bonatti. For years he had been one of the premier alpinists on all terrain. Now he chose the Matterhorn's hardest face in the hardest season as the finale of his career.

No direct route yet existed on the north face, though Kaspar Mooser and Victor Imboden had attempted one in 1928. A determined man, capable of succeeding where all others had failed, Bonatti had already performed historic efforts on K2 and Gasherbrum IV and established numerous routes on the Mont Blanc massif. He'd had the north face direct route in mind for a long time, but it only became a solo project after a first, three-day, attempt, with companions Gigi Panei and Alberto Tassotti, ended in bad weather.

Walter Bonatti after opening his historic route on the north face of the Matterhorn. One hundred years after the mountain's first ascent, Bonatti established the Bonatti Route, solo, in winter—the first direct route up the north face, and the concluding coup to his unprecedented career. "I used to head off with just a few wooden pitons, some old hemp ropes and a bivouac. It was often just me and the wilderness for days on end." — Bonatti 2010 [Photo] Walter Bonatti collection

Without friends willing to give it a second try, Bonatti decided to climb the route alone—and discreetly. The media had already reported the "problem" of a direct route, and the centenary threatened to prove an incitement to other climbers. Hence Bonatti set off on February 18, accompanied by three friends in order to simulate an ordinary day of alpine skiing. He prepared himself in secret behind a boulder, then for the next six days struggled against solitude, cold and technical difficulties to attain something that few alpinists had thought possible: a new route on a severe north face, solo, in winter.

Although the new equipment and techniques of the era had certainly helped Bonatti, his spirit, determination and willpower had above all prevailed. After his own attempt to repeat the route, Reinhold Messner stated, "I could have said that I turned back because the weather changed. Instead, I want to say that I turned back because I couldn't go on. What that man was able to do alone on this wall is amazing and unbelievable." Yet on March 8-11, 1994, Catherine Destivelle repeated Bonatti's route, and Messner's words underscore the importance of her beautiful solo winter climb.

Pic Muzio is a big pillar on the right-hand side of the south face. The same year as Bonatti's ascent, over three summer days, Lecco Spiders Giuseppe Lafranconi and Annibale Zucchi climbed the first route on this formation. Primarily aid, the line featured poor rock and frequent rockfall, particularly in its first half. Conversely, on July 14, 1970, another Italian team—Leo Cerruti, Gianni Calcagno, Carmelo di Pietro and Guido Machetto—created a route on unusually good rock (for the Matterhorn) that topped off on the column to the left of the Spiders' line; some consider their Flowers Arete to have the best rock on the mountain.

Thirteen years later the brilliant, reclusive Slovenian Francek Knez would encounter conditions similar to those found by the Lecco Spiders when he established a line to the left of theirs. "The rock was mostly bad but in the difficult sections it was good," Knez remembers of his route, Trije Musketirji ("Three Musketeers"), which he climbed from June 16-17, 1983, with Tone Galuh and Tucic Jaka. At the ledge below the headwall, a storm engulfed the men, forcing a tedious descent across the top of the east face and down to the Hornli Hut.

The early 1970s were the era of the direttissima, and in 1972, the north face came strongly back into fashion. First Masahiro Furukawa, Masaru Miyagawa and Yoshinori Okitsu opened a direct line to the right of the Bonatti Route with seven bivouacs and considerable pitons and bolts. A month later Czechoslovakians Zdislav Drlik, Leos Horka, Bohumil Kadlcik and Vaclav Prokes put up the most direct route yet from August 11-13. Their itinerary began from the very center of the base of the wall and joined the Schmid Route for its final 250 meters in a nearly vertical line. This route has never been repeated, perhaps because it isn't that different from the Bonatti Route... or because the nearby Zmutt Nose still had room for important new lines.

In January 1978 the Italian valley dwellers got back into competition. Only four climbs had ever been performed on the west face, the Matterhorn's most hidden and unknown, when alpine guides Marco Barmasse, Innocenzo Menabreaz, Leo Pession, Rolando Albertini, Augusto Tamone, and Arturo and Oreste Squinobal made a successful winter climb of Daguin and Ottin's highly direct, and previously unrepeated, 1962 route. Yet a storm came on summit day, bringing two meters of snow to Breuil and Zermatt, and their accomplishment turned bitter when Albertini died during the descent.

In spite of his grief, with this ascent, Marco Barmasse—my father—began his adventures as an aficionado of the Matterhorn. Through his new routes and first winter ascents, particularly on the Italian side, Barmasse made it clear that, with a little imagination, there was still much to be done on his favorite mountain. On March 10, 1983, he made the first winter ascent of the Deffeyes Ridge, with Gianni Gorret and Leo and Luigi Pession. That same year, on September 28, he and Vittorio De Tuoni were the first to climb the southeast spur on Pic Muzio, encountering the usual less-than-perfect limestone. A day after this climb, Renato Casarotto and Giancarlo Grassi left their signatures on the south face with a line that scaled a vertical pillar to end beneath Pic Tyndall. Barmasse carried out the first winter ascent of their route, with Gorret and Augusto Tamone, the following March. On November 13, 1983, with De Tuoni and Valter Cazzanelli, he opened a new direct route on the south face, encountering three chamois at 4300 meters at the base of the summit block.

On September 11, 1985, Barmasse completed a fifteen-hour solo traverse of all the Matterhorn's principal ridges: up the Furggen (with the Bonatti finish, for the first solo), down the Hornli, across the bottom of the north face to the Zmutt Ridge, up that, and then a final descent down the Lion Ridge. (Hans Kammerlander and Diego Wellig would expand upon this feat seven years later, on July 19, 1992, when they ascended the Matterhorn four times in less than twenty-four hours: climbing the Zmutt Ridge, descending the Hornli, climbing the Furggen, descending the Lion's Ridge, climbing the Lion's Ridge, descending the Hornli, climbing the Hornli and then descending the Hornli once more.) On Christmas Day, 1987, Barmasse, Cazzanelli and Nicola Corradi made the first winter ascent of the Flowers Arete. Barmasse, through his exploits as a guide and an alpinist, truly embodies the tradition of Valtournenche climbers, who have always been protagonists on their mountain.

The last highlight of this period of abundant winter climbs and first ascents was a new route on the north face, opened February 21-March 1, 1983, by Czechoslovakians Michal Pitelka, Josef Rybicka and Jiri Smid. The three men climbed to the left of the classic route, with an itinerary that finished on the shoulder of Whymper's Hornli Ridge, and thus, like so many late-twentieth-century ascents, formed a meeting point between modernity and the past.

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