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A Stairway to Heaven on the Matterhorn

Posted on: November 20, 2015


Patrick Gabarrou near the summit of the Matterhorn, at 65 years old. [Photo] Pierre Gourdin

Sixty-five-year-old French alpinist Patrick Gabarrou is always watching the mountains. He spends a great deal of time in the Alps—he sees them in different seasons, different lights. He discovers features that are not often visible—features less-devoted climbers might miss. More than 30 years ago, the Matterhorn attracted Gabarrou's gaze like a magnet.

Gabarrou has climbed and guided the Matterhorn for many years. His knowledge of the mountain, and the location of its routes, is perfect. He opened several new routes on the Matterhorn, two of them on the famous Zmuttnase ("Zmutt Nose"), an overhanging pillar leaning above the right part of the North Face. The first lines (Cerruti-Gogna, 1969, Piola-Steiner, 1981) on the "Nose" left the big overhang unclimbed. His routes—Aux Amis Disparus (with Lionel Daudet, 1992), and Free Tibet (with Cesare Ravaschietto, 2000)—climbed straight through the big prow. They were the logical next step on the Zmuttnase.

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Following his two routes on the Zmuttnase, Gabarrou pioneered Padre Pio, a 700-meter line on the south side of the mountain with difficulties up to F6c+/7a (with Nicolae Morar, Maxime Lopez, and Cesare Ravaschietto) in 2002. The route topped out on Pilastro dei Fiori, a feature left of Picco Muzio, an important peak on the south side of Furggen Ridge. Padre Pio was an outstanding achievement in its own right, but Gabarrou was unsatisfied. He searched for a solution to reach the true summit after having finished Padre Pio. He does not like to stop below the top.

During the thirteen years after climbing Padre Pio, Gabarrou discovered there was a difficult, but possible way, from the top of that route to the summit of the Matterhorn. Last summer, Gabarrou added this 650-meter extension over four separate attempts. The completion of this line, a 1300-meter route with difficulties up to F7a, coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Matterhorn's first ascent. He finished the route and finally set foot on the summit in August, ten days after his 65th birthday.

The first attempt on the extension was in May. Gabarrou and his partner, Yoann Joly, climbed the Furggen Ridge despite heavy snow to reach the top of Padre Pio. From there they ascended several new pitches of mixed climbing, gaining a pillar on the right side of the south face before retreating. Gabarrou named the feature Simona Pillar in tribute to Simona Hosquet, a young guide who died in an avalanche in February 2014.

Denis Burdet carrying his heavy pack along the Furggen Ridge slopes, on the way to the Furggen Shoulder. [Photo] Patrick Gabarrou

A few days later, Gabarrou returned with Swiss guide Denis Burdet. They climbed the Furggen Ridge route to the shoulder, then abseiled down the south side to the top of Simona Pillar, where they put up a small tent. The following morning, they abseiled to the foot of the pillar (Gabarrou and Joly's previous high point), and climbed new terrain to the pillar's summit, returning back to their bivy at 11 p.m. They spent another night at the bivy, then returned to the Carrel Refuge the following morning.

In July, Gabarrou made a third trip to the Matterhorn, partnered with Nicolas Magnin. Again they climbed the Furggen Ridge to the advanced bivy. Conditions on the mountain were dry so they had to avoid major rock falls. The pair climbed new terrain above the bivouac on a second pillar, reaching an elevation of 4250 meters before bad weather forced them to retreat. They escaped down the Lion Ridge (the Italian ordinary route) during lightning storms and on icy rocks, reaching the refuge at 2 a.m.

Nicolas Magnin opening the route on the Upper Pillar—a feature composed of incredible rock found on the Matterhorn, but nowhere else in the Alps. [Photo] Patrick Gabarrou

In early August, just after his 65th birthday, Gabarrou found himself back on the Matterhorn with partner Pierre Gourdin. They did their first new route together 24 years ago—The Direttissima—on the Dent Blanche (4357m), near the Matterhorn. After climbing the Hornli Ridge (the Swiss ordinary route), Gabarrou and Gourdin rappelled to the previous high point around 4250 meters. After a full day of hard climbing, they touched the coveted summit, shivered through another bivouac, and returned to the refuge. Gabarrou christened the route Padre Pio, Une Echelle Vers le Ciel (A Stairway to Heaven). A devout Christian, Gabarrou imagines he would have taught philosophy if he had not embraced the profession of mountain guide. He explains the route name: "Everyone will find his own stairway to heaven, won't they?"

Although the entire route was established, it has not seen an integral ascent. The team waited at the refuge for a few days, hoping for clear weather and dry rock so they could free it from the start of Padre Pio to the summit, but summer was over on the Matterhorn.

The South Face of the Matterhorn, with the stunning line of Padre Pio. The wall is incredibly steep on this pyramid-shaped mountain. [Photo] Patrick Gabarrou

[Read more about Patrick "Gab" Gabarrou in Alpinist 18—Ed.]

Source: Patrick Gabarrou

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