The lure of the Matterhorn and why so many risk their lives to climb it

To mark the 150th anniversary of the first woman to climb the Matterhorn, Olivia Jane is preparing to make the 4,478m ascent of this unforgiving and exposed peak. William Cook catches up with her in Zermatt

Friday 13 August 2021 13:29
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<p>The Matterhorn, an object of fascination</p>

The Matterhorn, an object of fascination

In a quiet corner of the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt, Switzerland’s highest ski resort, there is a room full of faded photographs of Britain’s bravest (and most reckless) mountaineers. These are the pioneers of mountaineering – those heroic, foolhardy Victorians who scaled the most perilous peaks in Switzerland with the most rudimentary equipment, dressed in the sort of tweedy garb you might wear for a Sunday afternoon stroll.

These photos all look much the same, but one face stands out amid the crowd. Among this sea of men is one woman, Lucy Walker, the first woman to scale the Matterhorn in 1871. To mark the 150th anniversary of her climb, a young British mountaineer called Olivia Jane has come to Zermatt to follow in her footsteps up the Matterhorn, and I’ve come here to meet her. I want to find out why this mountain has always been such an object of fascination. I want to find out more about Lucy Walker. And I want to know what drives Jane to do something most of us would never dare to do.

Approaching Zermatt by train, on a single track that clings to steep hillsides and straddles vertiginous ravines, you begin to realise what an ordeal it was for Alpinists such as Lucy Walker to even get here, let alone climb the Matterhorn when they arrived. The train only takes an hour from Visp, at the mouth of the valley (ascending 1,000 metres en route), but this line wasn’t built until 1891. When Lucy came here, 20 years earlier, the only way to reach Zermatt was on foot, along the old mule trail that runs up the valley.

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