A Guide to the Matterhorn
Switzerland’s iconic Matterhorn is widely regarded as one of the world’s most photographed natural phenomena. This is hardly surprising; the mountain boasts an unusually large and symmetrical pyramid peak that - especially when viewed from the north-east faces - gives it a breathtaking and truly iconic silhouette.
Even if you’ve never witnessed it in person, it’s highly likely you’ll recognise that unique ‘shark’s tooth’ profile in any other context right away. Indeed, it’s graced countless magazine covers, movie sets and product logos over the years: Swiss confectionery brand Toblerone even based their familiar triangular-shaped chocolate bar design on it!
As one of the highest and best-known summits in Europe, the Matterhorn is of course associated with a rich history and folklore all of its own. In this quick guide to the mountain and its surroundings, we’ll dig into a few key Matterhorn facts to note before visiting this stunning Alpine crown jewel for yourself.
Where is the Matterhorn?
Visiting the Matterhorn Switzerland brings you within touching distance of several leading Swiss Alps resorts including Zermatt and, a little further afield, Verbier and Crans-Montana. Each of these internationally famed skiing and winter sports hotspots are hugely popular with tourists and chalet-buyers alike, visiting in their tens of thousands from all corners of the globe each year.
Zermatt itself is the nearest and most obvious destination for those seeking to get up close and personal with the mighty Matterhorn. This quaint and cultured little town nestles on the sweeping green plateaus of a craggy Alpine valley within the remarkably picturesque Valais canton.
Situated directly to the north-east of the Matterhorn itself, Zermatt is perfectly positioned to enjoy the most iconic view of the summit. It provides a truly magnificent backdrop while enjoying some much-needed leisure time - be it on the piste, or from the deck of your Swiss chalet with a glass of locally produced wine in hand! A direct Zermatt-Matterhorn cable car service takes you in style and comfort from the heart of the town centre up to the renowned Glacier Paradise viewing station in around 45 minutes. (For more information, check out our recent article about travel from Zermatt to Matterhorn.)
Some key facts and FAQs about the Matterhorn
How tall is the Matterhorn?
The mountain rises to 4,478 m (14,692 ft) above sea level, making it comfortably one of the taller ‘four thousanders’ in the Alps region (and sixth-highest in Europe, outside of the Caucasus range separating our continent from Asia). It also enjoys added impact due to its unique topographic prominence; unusually for most of the peaks in this densely-packed mountaineering paradise, the Matterhorn is approached on all sides by numerous low-lying foothills and plains.
How was the Matterhorn formed?
Some 200 million years ago, the ancient Panagea continent began to break apart, forming two other vast landmasses now containing Europe and Africa respectively. Over the ensuing 100 million years, peripheral chunks of these newly formed supercontinents gradually drifted free from the main masses, settling further north or south.
The Alps were formed when one particular chunk - the Apulian plate - broke away from Gondwana (incorporating modern Africa) and collided with what we’d now call southern Europe. Interestingly, the Matterhorn belongs to an area that was historically on the Gondwanan plate, while nearby Monte Rosa was always part of the more northerly Laurasian landmass.
It’s also worth noting that the familiar jagged peak of the Matterhorn was formed much more recently - in the past million years or so - through erosion. At one time, the mountain would’ve had a much smoother profile, somewhat akin to a giant hill.
What does ‘Matterhorn’ mean?
The German word ‘matterhorn’ is a compound formed from the names of Zermatt itself, and the Mattertal (Matter Valley) that the summit overlooks. In both cases, the word ‘matt’ derives from an old Germanic term meaning ‘alpine meadow’ - fitting, given the lush Alpine flora you tend to find all over this area when the lower-lying snows recede over the milder summer months.
When was the first ascent?
The full first ascent of the Matterhorn was made in July 1865 by English mountaineer Edward Whymper, whose route up saw him start in Zermatt and approach from the Swiss side via Hörnli ridge (where the Hörnli hut, a well-known climbers’ rest, sits today). Prior to this, various attempts had been made from the Italian side of the mountain, without anyone successfully reaching the summit.
Although various known routes up the Matterhorn aren’t considered an especially technical challenge today, it was one of the last significant Alpine peaks to be scaled, due in no small part to its incredibly imposing silhouette.
While Whymper’s historic 1865 climb will forever be credited as the first real success, it was also an event heavily marred by tragedy. Four of his party died in an accident on the descent, with three of the bodies later recovered on the Matterhorn glacier. The body of Lord Francis Douglas, a Scottish climber who perished on the way down, remains missing to this day.
While the upper slopes of the Matterhorn remain cloaked in snow 365 days a year, the weather in the immediate area surrounding it - and indeed, for many of the towns and resorts close to the mountain - is seasonal.
Since so many visitors flock to the region for skiing and winter sports, peak times are typically dictated by snowfall, most notably in the months between October-May. Spring and summer tend to see a much milder climate; while plenty of snow remains on the higher glaciers and slopes year-round, the valleys and pastures at the foot of the Matterhorn are ideal locations for enjoying forest hikes, trail cycling and lake bathing throughout much of June, July and August.