The Matterhorn

What power must have been required to shatter and to sweep away the missing parts of this pyramid; for we do not see it surrounded by heaps of fragments; one only sees other peaks – themselves rooted to the ground – whose sides, equally rent, indicate an immense mass of débris, of which we do not see any trace in the neighbourhood. Doubtless, this is that débris which, in the form of pebbles, boulders, and sand, fills our valleys and our plains.

–Horace-Bénédict de Saussure

The most famous mountain on the planet by name is likely Everest, the world’s tallest.

But how many people could identify Everest in a mountainous perp walk? Below are the four highest mountains in the world; which one is Everest?

Photos by My Discovery, Zacharie Grossen, shrimpo1967, and Gille

If you picked B, congratulations. In order, the crags are Kanchenjunga, Everest, K2, and Lhotse. They are all beautiful, but I suspect only the most obsessive of mountain connoisseurs would be certain of their identities.

If we shifted the premise of fame to the attribute of recognizability, one mountain would stand out above the rest. Though this statement is just an educated guess, I would surmise that before the Himalayan expedition explosion in the middle of the 20th century, the world’s most famous mountain and the most recognizable might have been the same. Before we explored the world’s highest and remotest ranges in Asia, the Alps were the center of the climbing universe. Mountaineering began in earnest in this mighty field and has, in many ways, remained the epicenter of the sport.

Though it’s not the highest mountain in Europe or the Alps, one picturesque pyramid looms largely in the imagination of many lovers of peaks: The Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn - photo from

What a resplendent wonder!

If you feel you you’re one of the few people in the world who have not seen the Matterhorn in photos before, perhaps another view might elicit a memory.

The Matterhorn, topped by its chocolate representation - photo by sidyas

The chocolate brand Toblerone and the Matterhorn are so intertwined that they threw the logo on their packaging in the 1960s. One origin story for the shape of the bars – a unique string of triangles – stems straight from the mountain.

Some historians peg the first “modern poster” to be a 1908 creation by Emil Cardinaux, a tourism advertisement for the town of Zermatt, which sits near the base of the Matterhorn. One can certainly see the influence of this piece on the following decades of nature posters, including the wonderful WPA National Parks posters in the United States.

Traditional artists flocked to the Alps to paint this mountain, too, producing some incredible landscapes.

Emil Cardinaux' 1908 tourism poster
The Matterhorn by Edward Theodore Compton, 1879
The Matterhorn by John Ruskin, 1849

The Matterhorn straddles Switzerland and Itlay, in a western portion of the range called the Pennine Alps. The peak rises 14,692 feet (4,479 meters) above sea level, making it the 9th-highest crag in the Alps.

We can thank glaciers for the stunning shape of the Matterhorn’s pyramid. Composed of Paleozoic gneiss that was trusted upward sometime during the Cenozoic, the Matterhorn was then chiseled by ice during the Quaternary glaciation. The many glaciers of the region happened to carve four faces, which almost line up perfectly with the cardinal directions, creating a pleasing pyramidal structure.

The north face of the Matterhorn is part of “The Trilogy,” a triumvirate of the “great north faces of the Alps.” These vertical faces are considered to be the toughest in Western Europe. In addition to the north face of the Matterhorn, the other two are part of the Eiger and the Grandes Jorasses.

In addition to forming wonderful geometry, the four faces of the Matterhorn also provide a different view from each direction:

Photos by Krist@f, Jackph, Francofranco56, and g.naharro

The name Matterhorn derives from two German words, matte, meaning “meadow”, and horn, meaning “horn” or “peak.” A normal translation is “peak of the meadows.” In Latin, the mountain was Mons Silvius or Mons Sylvnaus, which translates to “mountain of the forest.” The Italian name – Cervino – comes from the French moniker – Cervin. These terms are corruptions of the Latin name; at some point, humans started to say Selvin or Servin, instead of Silvius or Sylvan. The geologist Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who studied the mountain, changed the first letter to a “c” because he believed the name was related to “deer,” which is cerf in French and cervo in Italian.

The physical appearance of the Matterhorn struck fear into mountaineers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Its vertical relief led many to believe its faces were unclimbable. As such, it was one of the last major Alpine peaks on which humans stood. Various attempts to scale the peak began earnestly in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Not until 1865 did a party led by Edward Whymper triumph atop its apex; it was Whymper’s seventh expedition up the Matterhorn. Tragically, four of the seven to make it to the top perished during the descent when a rope snapped.

The famous north face was not scaled until 1931. Incredibly, despite its favor with mountaineers, the west face was not climbed until 1962. Despite its appearance, the Matterhorn is no longer considered one of the most technically challenging mountains on the planet. However, a combination of international draw, its inherent difficulties, and the long history of Alpine exploration has made the Matterhorn one of the deadliest peaks on the planet. More than 500 people have died on its slopes, approximately 12 per year. For comparison, Everest’s total is somewhere north of 300 deaths.

Map created with GPSVisualizer
Standing on the summit - photo by oargi

Somewhere in the range of 3,000 intrepid souls manage to summit the Matterhorn each year.

Millions of people travel to Zermatt in Switzerland to get a view of the Mountain of Mountains (or Berg der Berge) from a distance without the risk of dying.

Arriving in the Alps and spying the great pyramid in the distance must be quite the experience. Even photographs endow one with the ability to imagine the wonder ancient Europeans have attributed to this mountain for centuries. Loading up on some Swiss chocolate in view of the Matterhorn would be quite the holiday.

The classic pyramid in the distance from Zermatt - photo by Chensiyuan

Further Reading and Exploration

Matterhorn – Official Zermatt Tourism Website

Matterhorn – Encyclopedia Britannica


Matterhorn – Monte Cervino – Summitpost

Matterhorn – Peakbagger

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