NORTH-EAST (HORNLI) RIDGE
First ascent party FWA: C Meade, J Lochmatter and J Pollinger, 3 Jan 1911,
although the ridge had been descended on the 17 March 1882
by the first party to climb the mountain in winter (via the Lion Ridge).
Valley Base: Zermatt
The Normal Route, the first ascent of which produced one of the most famous episodes in the entire history of mountaineering. Despite being the easiest of all the ridges and on the whole less steep, it is a very long and serious route is often severely underestimated and on which many people have come to grief. A short axe and crampons should always be carried but in perfect conditions snow is only likely to be found on the Shoulder and close to the summit. The technical difficulties are not at all high but they are sustained and in order to complete the round trip from the Hornli hut in a day, parties will have to move together on a short rope for the entire climb, using the fixed equipment for running belays on the harder sections.
The rock is inherently poor, though on the correct route much of the loose material has now been removed by the boots of countless climbers. However, on a good day there could be 200+ people on the ridge and stone/all will be inevitable. Despite the passage of feel, which have scratched, polished and in places produced a relatively distinct track in the rock, there are few good landmarks to aid route finding and a number of false trails. Parlies are strongly advised to make a thorough reconnaissance of the first 300m the afternoon before (at least as far as the point where the route-first hits the crest of the ridge), to locale the best line out of several possibilities. The ridge contains many gendarmes before the Shoulder is reached, so the route does not follow the crest but instead climbs in a series of zigzags or curving traverses up the E flank. In recent years a ‘new’ and safer way has been followed to the R of the ‘old’ and more eroded route in the first section. The standard starting time from the hut is 3.45-4.1 Sam and on busy mornings it is vital to get away promptly so as to be well-placed in the stream of traffic. This starling lime should allow a maximum of one hour's climbing in the dark; starting earlier will almost inevitably lead to nighttime route finding difficulties for parties unfamiliar with the mountain and is not recommended.
In dry conditions there is no rock climbing more than 11/11+, though the section above the Shoulder wofild be at least Ill-r without the fixed ropes. Poor visibility and snowfall greatly augment ihe seriousness and difficulty, especially ill descent. Fresh snow dears surprisingly slowly. Local guides avoid the route if it is snow, covered and newcomers are well-advised to do the same. Despite many disparaging remarks over the years and not unjust comparison to a circus, this remains one of the Alps great classics, and should be on everyone’s list .... but be prepared to share it with a host of other tickers. 1,220m
Follow the well-worn path in the shale above the Hornli Hut and after 5 min reach the initial rock band on the ruige. Climb it for 20m (II), then move L on a ledge before climbing back R and up a steen crack (3m: II) to a track below the crest. Make a rising traverse L up the rubble field above, to reach the first big couloir coming down from the crest. Climb a short distance up this loose couloir, then move out L via a chimney. Slant up L on the E Face for a short distance, then as soon as easily possible return R towards the edge of the couloir. Zigzag up quite steeply over short steep steps and through a large chimney-couloir on the R to another rubble field. Make an easy rising traverse L to a second big couloir (this couloir can be gamed some distance tower but with greater risk of stonefall). Climb only a short distance up this couloir before moving L up a steep open chimney/gully to a ledge. Again, traverse L for just a few metres (the old route continued traversing to a third couloir), then break up R to climb steeper rock more or less parallel to the second couloir. Continue straight up to arrive, for the first time, on the crest of the NE Ridge below a gendarme (clhr: all this section has many false trails leading up to gendarmes on the crest and should be thoroughly reconnoitered the afternoon before).
Climb up the lower section of the gendarme, then traverse round L and down the far side. Continue up the well-worn crest, passing L of a second gendarme, and traverse across a couloir (snow-covered in early season) to reach the start of a prominent system of ledges which slants up the E face parallel to the ridge. Follow these ledges for around 15-20 min to where they merge into a rubble field. Climb up this loose ground for c60m to a broad horizontal ledge. Now slant up the E face to a prominent rib and climb it, through several short chimneys, to easer-angled terrain. Continue to a conspicuous gendarme on the L which lies c50m below the crest of the ridge. Move L, then climb past the gendarme and diagonally up through a couloir which can be tricky when snow-covered early in the season. Up on the R is a prominent tower (Pt 3,746m). Climb to its right-hand end then follow a ledge L past a level spot with a plaque and the remains of an old wooden hut (c1hr).
After turning the tower on the L, slant up below the crest for well over 100m to a rock rib. Climb it (II) and continue L into a large but shallow amphitheatre. From this point the Solvay Hut is clearly visible and the correct route to the summit becomes progressively more obvious. Cross the hollow until directly below the hut, then climb up to a steep slab. Climb this slab - the Moseley Slab (named after an alpinist who unroped and fell to his death at this point in 1879) - in the R corner (II/II+) and reach the hut (4,003m: Ihr)
Traverse I. from the hut on steep rock and up to a narrow slab. Climb this direct for 15m (the Upper Moseley Slab: II/II+) reaching the crest as soon as possible. Follow the crest over large blocks, turning a 10m red tower on the L, to the Shoulder (45min).
Above lies a snow/ice slope. Climb it (c40°: large metal stanchions for belay and rappel anchors), keeping L of the crest, to where the angle eases. Continue up rock or snow to the big rock step (referred to in French as the Tete du Cervin) below the summit “Roof”. Climb the step using the fixed ropes in place (or scorning them by climbing on one side or the other at III+/IV-: probably not an option in the morning rush).The first ascensionists avoided all of this section on the N face well to the R, which is where they met with disaster on the descent.
At the top of the step follow a steep snow/rock slope up the Roof (path in the scree if dry) in an exposed position to the summit (c2hr). The ascent should take 5hr or at the most 6hr from the Hornli Hut and the descent will normally take as long if not slightly longer. For this reason parties taking more than 'guidebook time' to reach the Solvay Hut (more than say 4hr) would be well-advised to turn back.
Traffic congestion can easily extend the time given, though fast guided parties have completed the round trip in less than 7hr.