Matterhorn: Switzerland's Most Famous Mountain

Fast Facts About the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn reflects in Riffelsee Lake. Photograph copyright Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

The Matterhorn is the tenth highest mountain in Switzerland and one of 48 Swiss peaks that are above 4,000 meters in height.

  • Elevation: 14,692 feet (4,478 meters)
  • Prominence: 3,412 feet (1,040 meters); parent peak is Weisshorn.
  • Location: Valais Alps. Also called Pennine Alps, on the border of Switzerland and Italy.
  • Coordinates: 45.976389 N / 7.658333 E
  • First Ascent: First ascent on July 14, 1865, by Edward Whymper, Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, Douglas Robert Hadow, guide Michel Croz, and the father and son guides Peter and Peter Taugwalder.

    Matterhorn's Name

    Matterhorn, the German name, is from the words Matte meaning “meadow” and horn meaning “peak.” Cervino, the Italian name, and Cervin, the French name, derive from the Latin words cervus and -inus meaning “place of Cervus.” Cervus is a genus of deer that includes elk.

    Four Faces of the Matterhorn

    The four faces of the Matterhorn face the four cardinal directions—north, east, south, and west.

    1865: Tragic First Ascent of the Matterhorn

    The first ascent was on July 14, 1865, by Edward Whymper, Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, Douglas Robert Hadow, guide Michel Croz, and the father and son guides Peter and Peter Taugwalder via the Hörnli Ridge, the most common route of ascent today. Just below the summit on the descent, Hadow slipped, knocking Croz off. The rope came tight and pulled Hudson and Douglas and the four climbers fell down the north face. The elder Taugwalder was belaying with the rope over a rock spike, but the impact broke the rope thereby saving the Taugwalders and Whymper from certain death.

    The ascent and accident are recounted in Whymper’s classic book Scrambles Among the Alps.

    Second Ascent of the Matterhorn

    The second ascent came three days after the first, on July 17, 1865, from the Italian side. The party was led by guides Jean-Antoine Carrel and Jean-Baptiste Bich.

    First Ascent of the North Face

    The dreaded North Face, one of the great north face climbs in the Alps, was first climbed on July 31 and August 1, 1931, by Franz and Toni Schmid.

    Hornli Ridge: Standard Climbing Route

    The usual climbing route is up the Hörnli Ridge on the northeast, which is the central ridge seen from Zermatt. The route, graded 5.4, involves 4,000 feet of climbing, mostly scrambling on rock (4th Class) but with some snow depending on conditions, and takes 10 hours round-trip. Some of the climbing is very exposed, and climbers need to be skilled at climbing rock with crampons on their boots. The route, often guided, is difficult but not for adept alpinists. Fixed ropes are left on difficult sections. Route finding is tricky in places, especially on the lower section which is usually climbed in the dark. The descent, when most accidents occur, takes as long as the ascent. Most climbers begin their ascent by 3:30 in the morning to avoid summer thunderstorms and lightning.

    2007: Team Speed Ascent on Hornli Ridge

    On September 6, 2007, Zermatt guides Simon Anthamatten and Michael Lerjen ascended and descended the Hörnli Ridge in a record time of 2 hours 33 minutes. Their ascent time was 1 hour 40 minutes and the descent 53 minutes. Compare that to the usual seven to nine hours required by fit climbers. The previous record of three hours was set in 1953 by guide Alfons Lerjen and Hermann Biner, a 15-year-old Zermatt boy.

    2013: Catalan Runner Sprints the Matterhorn

    Kilian Jornet, a 25-year-old Catalan mountain runner and climber, set a new speed climbing record on the Matterhorn on August 21, 2013. He sprinted up and down the mountain in a mere 2 hours, 52 minutes, and 2 seconds, shaving 22 minutes off the previous round-trip speed record set by Italian Bruno Brunod in 1995. Jornet left the village church at 3 p.m. and reached the summit via the Lion Ridge (southwest ridge) in 1 hour, 56 minutes, and 15 seconds. Jornet told the Spanish climbing magazine Desnivel:  "I felt really good during the climb. At first, I was very warm, but little by little I gained rhythm and altitude, and I felt much better. Arriving at the top was a very special moment. The descent also was perfect, and I am happy because I didn't have to take too many risks.

    I slipped once or twice, but nothing important."

    His record then fell to Swiss mountaineer Dani Arnold in 2015, who beat him by 10 minutes at 1 hour and 46 minutes.

    Death and Disaster on the Matterhorn

    Over 500 people have died climbing the Matterhorn since 1865’s tragic accident, many on the descent. Deaths average now about 12 annually. Deaths are due to falls, inexperience, underestimating the mountain, bad weather, and falling rocks. Many of the mountain’s victims, including three from the first ascent disaster, are buried in Zermatt’s downtown cemetery.

    Disneyland's Matterhorn

    Disneyland in Anaheim, California features a 1/100 scale replica of the Matterhorn that is 147 feet high. Matterhorn Bobsleds is a popular ride on the peak. Disneyland’s website says, “Scale the snowy summit in your racing toboggan and then speed, screaming down the slopes, to a sensational splashdown.” Also Mickey Mouse and friends, climbers in disguise, sometimes climb it.

    Matterhorn in Cartoons

    The Matterhorn figures in two Warner Brothers cartoons. In Pikes Peaker, a 1957 cartoon, Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam race each other to the summit of the Schmatterhorn. In A Scent of the Matterhorn, a 1961 cartoon, the skunk Pepe Le Pew pursues a female cat, who he thinks is a fellow skunk, past the Matterhorn.

    Read More About the Matterhorn

    The Matterhorn: Photographs and Climbing Quotes of a Classic Mountain Peak

    Buy Edward Wympher’s Book

    Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 The classic climbing book from the Victorian age. It recounts Whymper's adventures in the Alps during the 1860s and the first ascent and subsequent tragedy on the Matterhorn.

    Check out the Matterhorn Webcam at Zermatt, Switzerland.