Hörnliweg – 9.50 miles / Ascent = 1,039m / Descent = 1,327m
Another promising forecast and the desire to make the most of this fine weather led us to choose this walk to the Hörnlihütte (3,260m) from Schwarzsee. The Hörnlihütte makes for a satisfying objective: perched on the side of the Matterhorn, it’s location alone gives it the feel of a serious mountain day out, let alone the enjoyably gnarly route required to get there. There’s more than a bit of effort required – even though it’s not a particularly long walk taken simply as a there-and-back outing – with enough ascent to provide a challenge given the altitude.
The usual launch pad for tackling the Hörnliweg is Schwarzsee, a small lake at around 2,580m conveniently served by a two-stage gondola ride from Zermatt. We arrived at about 9.30am, and already there were plenty of people about. It’s a popular route, and on days like this it’s best to expect company.
The little lake of Schwarzsee lies just down from the gondola station at the foot of a rocky rib that extends from the Matterhorn. On the far side is the small chapel of St Mary in the Snow – of which more later.
A clear path leads beside the lake and soon begins to zig-zag upwards towards the ridge. There’s a short, flat section where the path crosses a streambed, then it’s upwards again to eventually level out near a small stone cabin (which can just be made out in the photo above).
From this promontory the views are extensive: not only back across the valleys and surrounding high mountains but to the base of the Furgggletscher (great word, that: how many more do you know of with three consecutive consonants the same?) as well. The Hörnlihütte is also visible from here, and for those not sure where it is, a sign points right to it.
The next section of the route follows a rising traverse along the side of the ridge. In places, metal walkways have been installed to span the
missing path more indistinct sections of the route.
As we continued to rise, we could clearly see below us a path (not shown on our map) heading off towards the Trockener Steg, and we filed this information away for future reference. Before long, a final set of switchbacks led up to a nick in the skyline and we popped out on to the ridge.
From here, the way was clear. A distinct, undulating path follows the ridge – not along the actual crest, but on a safer, less exposed line to one side – and there are new views to appreciate over the Zmuttbach valley to the Dent Blanche (4,357m) and the mountains beyond.
After a fairly simple half-mile or so, we reached the base of the final climb – a series of zig-zags up a narrow fin of rock, weaving back and forth between the crags and eventually gaining the Hörnlihütte after some 300m of vertical gain. It’s not especially difficult, but the north-facing aspects can hold on to any ice and snow around and the sides drop away quite steeply. Think something like Striding Edge on an average 40° gradient, and you’ll get the general idea. It’s not quite as exposed as that, but a slip here would likely test your insurance cover to the full and bring a premature end to your holiday.
In the photo above, the path can be seen zig-zagging up the left hand side of the crag in the foreground, and there are some people there to provide a sense of scale. A side-on view (taken later in the week) shows the ridge and the final climb (marked in red) with the Hörnlihütte shown left of centre.
Last time we did this climb there was quite a bit of ice and snow about, which resulted in some uncomfortable moments. This time we were a bit more prepared: conditions were much clearer this time, but there were still a few slippery patches which we felt more confident about with Yaktrax on – although it must be stressed these are in no way a substitute for crampons should conditions require them.
Also unlike last time the route was pretty busy, and when we reached the hut we found out why: they were open! The top was crowded and full of people eating at the hut, so we drifted to one side to eat our lunch. I didn’t manage to get a photo of the hut, so here’s one from our previous visit in 2006.
The view today was like this.
The Hörnlihütte (3,260m) can be considered in one of two ways: either the last point before reaching the Matterhorn proper, or the first point on it. Either way, this is where many aspiring summiteers begin their adventures. For us, though, this was as close to the Matterhorn as we’ll ever get.
As we ate our lunch we saw a party arrive back down, at least one climber looking very much the worse for wear – badly sunburnt, exhausted and fixed with a thousand yard stare. It just goes to show, even in this day and age with modern equipment, techniques and information, the mountains will always have the last say in whether they let you summit.
The return route was a simple matter of retracing our steps. Shortly before reaching the Schwarzsee, we took a minor path to bring us out by the lake at the chapel of St Mary in the Snow. We popped in for a quick look round and found this picture on the wall.
Legend has it that two Italians were out climbing when bad weather descended. Lost and afraid for their lives, and having exhausted all other options, they prayed for safety - promising to build a chapel in thanks to the Lord if they were helped. Luckily for them, two Zermatt mountaineers happened along to rescue them, and true to their word they built the chapel on the very spot their lives were spared.
As there was a little time left in the day, we decided to get off the gondola at Furi and have a drink before walking back to Zermatt, adding an extra couple of miles. It had been another warm and sunny day, especially at lower levels, and the gentle trundle downhill was a nice way to relax and wind down after our earlier exertions.