by Denis Trento
My history on the Matterhorn can be summed up in two isolated appearances on the normal Italian route many years ago. The first, an attempt that failed due to strong wind, was also the last time that my then future wife, Fabienne, set foot in the mountains with me.
The second visit also dates back almost to the Paleolithic period. Suffice it to say that at the time, Manfred Reichegger was still a young man, and Davide Spini was still convinced that he had the right build for competitive ski mountaineering. The climb with them, though, met with much better luck, and we were able to enjoy a beautiful summit, even though it was already late autumn.
In the past 10-12 years, I hadn’t looked for the Matterhorn again, and it didn’t look for me again either. The idea of skiing on its east face has actually always been one of the few unfulfilled dreams of my very strong friend Davide Capozzi. Although he has been able to ski practically everywhere over the years, with this face he always held back, waiting for the right conditions to be able to ski it from the 4,200-meter elevation of the shoulder.
Given the complexity of this slope and its exposure, these conditions occur seldom and last for a very short time, thus only rarely allowing for a full descent, and only in April and May at most.
But in 2020 the weather, like many other things, no longer offers any certainty. And so, after an almost summerlike end to lockdown, the weather in early June seemed more like late November.
In the rare brief windows between one storm and the next, I still had the opportunity to do some nice descents, in part to not lose too much form, but above all not to lose contact with the conditions in the mountains.
But the calendar was now showing nearly the end of spring, and the first clearing would probably be the last chance to ski something noteworthy.
With the arrival of a small high-pressure ridge, as usually happens my mind began to fill with the craziest ideas. To get some oxygen to the few neurons surviving after too many days of high-altitude hypoxia, I needed to go for a bike ride. Riding up the Little Saint Bernard Pass was also an opportunity to take a look at the southwest side of Mont Blanc and to say hi to my friend Loppi on his first camper-van outing.
Strangely, it wasn’t the oxygen or the panorama that reprioritized the projects, but a simple message I received on the switchbacks above La Thuile, from the reliable and always motivated Alessandro Letey, who on his webcam tour had noticed a lot of white on the Matterhorn.
Frankly, I wasn’t thrilled to break the armistice I had signed many years ago with that mountain. And the fact that our mutual friend and mentor Capozzi had pulled out of the project, since too many factors pointed to its unfeasibility, gave me pause.
In the end, the choice to go and see was dictated by the many uncertainties that are always involved in skiing at altitude on Mont Blanc, by my curiosity to finally see that face up close, and by the short and easy approach that this would require.
With either option I might have to abandon, but at least on the Matterhorn I wouldn’t be alone in a strange place.
We spent the night preparing and getting to the start, and at 4:30 a.m., when we were approaching the Colle del Breuil, it seemed that one of the many ugly scenarios we had imagined the evening before was already materializing: the clouds that cling to the face already early in the morning.
Since we were ahead of schedule anyway, we decided to try to wait. Visibility didn’t improve with daylight, but we had the feeling that the fog would clear sooner or later, so we stubbornly persisted, to the point of absurdity, jumping up and down in the whiteout and the wind for more than an hour and a half.
Then all of a sudden, like in a film, the sun broke through the fog and the Matterhorn appeared before us in perfect conditions.
Now, given the lost time, all we could do was run up as high as possible.
By the beginning of spring, skiing on the east side normally means starting the descent at the time when we were attacking the climb, but, as I said, the weather now needs to be assessed by the day, and the very low temperatures would probably grant us a few bonus hours.
For two hours we climbed heads down along the face, although in the last half hour we did start to look up frequently, given the large quantity of icicles of varying sizes dangling from everywhere on the upper part of the face, which were beginning to follow the path dictated by the force of gravity.
Around 8 o’clock we passed the 3,800-meter elevation of the Solvay Hut, maintaining a trajectory that, given the conditions, would surely have led us to the shoulder. At 8:30, after having reached 4,000 meters, I realized that time was running out and that allowing ourselves to be tempted by the beautiful snow could lead us to make unwise choices.
Although not entirely convinced, Alessandro also accepted the idea that unfortunately the time had come to descend.
We had to console ourselves by skiing more than 800 meters of the face in splendid conditions — and then paying the price by sinking in up to our stomachs on the way back up to the Colle del Breuil, before making up for it again with the possibility to ski directly to the car.
The descent certainly deserves its renown: steep, long and exposed for the entire length, in a truly magnificent setting. And being able to ski it at a time when people are normally on the beach adds a special flavor.
The regret remains that because of the fog we weren’t able to take full advantage of this unexpected opportunity and climb the additional 200 meters that would have made for a “true” descent of this face — but like every other mountain, not even the Matterhorn can escape from its location.
We’ll be sure not to let it wait another decade!