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First Ascent Guide Kent McBride on Guiding the Matterhorn
Posted on September 16, 2010

Kent McBride’s window of opportunity to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland was closing due to a forecasted storm. He had 24 hours to assemble his group and help guide them up the most dangerous mountain in Switzerland.

By Kent McBride

I received a call from a fellow guide who I was scheduled to work with on guiding a group of climbers up the Matterhorn. My friend said the weather was forecasted to get worse later in the week, and we needed to leave right away so that our clients would have a better chance to summit.

Our group quickly drove two hours to Täsch, Switzerland, where the car was parked because they are not allowed in Zermatt. After a half-hour train ride to town and a 10-minute walk to a gondola, we finally arrived at the starting point to climb the Matterhorn. The hike gains about 2,200 feet in an hour and a half. From the minute you leave town, the peak looks very intimidating, and it should because it has killed more climbers than any other mountain in Switzerland. We arrived at the Hörnli Hut, where our boots came off and hut slippers came on. Our group took the rest of the evening to relax, sip Swiss wine and discuss the conditions on the Hörnli Ridge.

There are a lot of traditions and unique rules at the Hörnli Hut. The two unique rules are no one is allowed to get up earlier than 4 a.m., and no one can leave the hut to start climbing before the senior Swiss guides leave at 4:20 a.m.

Having Swiss guides lead our group was a big advantage because the terrain was very difficult to read in the dark. The beginning had fixed ropes to pull on because it was difficult, steep, and everyone was too tired to move quickly. Along the way we occasionally saw plaques bolted to the rock, recalling past climbers who had fallen off the mountain. These areas often have an added bolt, cable or fixed line in hopes of preventing another accident. The next major stop was Solvay Hut at 13,080 feet, which is an important time check for guides because it’s about a quarter of the way up the mountain.

The climbing itself wasn’t very difficult. We were on solid fourth- and fifth-lass terrain in boots and crampons. What people struggle with is the fast and steady pace, as well as the location and sustained intensity of being above 10,000 feet, which magnify the odds of taking a misstep. Four hours up and five hours down was our goal. The thought was that if you could climb at that pace, you would be too tired and more likely to make a mistake coming down.

We only stopped once to put on our crampons and wind shells. The fixed ropes helped pump the climbers’ arms that were not used to climbing steep rock with crampons. The last few hundred feet before the summit were covered in snow and ice.

We were able to make it to the summit in about four hours. The summit was sharp, exposed, and lay near the center of the Alps. It took us longer to descend because of the vast exposure that was in our faces. It took our group roughly six hours to get down the mountain. Once we arrived at base camp, we hiked down the trail to the gondola, back to the town of Zermatt, onto the train, off in the car, and home to play with my baby in Chamonix. From the time I received a phone call about the upcoming winter storm, to the hike and back home was a little over 24 hours.  It was just wonderful.

Author: - Thursday, September 16th, 2010

  1. Cathy Kelly

    Way to go Kent! Taking on the Matterhorn…what stories for your little one to hear and for that matter us too! Great post…. I’m tired just reading it! What a 24 hour day!

  2. kerry Stanovsky

    Hi Kent, isn’t there a escalator on the Matterhorn yet. The Swiss will never get it. Hope to see you in Jackson when I go up for Mike’s private ski lesson he hired me for in January. Say hi to Penny. Kerry

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