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The Matterhorn

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The mountain of mountains The Matterhorn (German pronunciation: Monte Cervino Italian: also known in French as Mont Cervin is a mountain of the Alps, straddling the main watershed and border between Switzerland and Italy. It is a huge and near-symmetrical pyramidal peak in the Monte Rosa area of the Pennine Alps, whose summit is 4,478 metres (14,692 ft) high, making it one of the highest summits in the Alps and Europe.4 The four steep faces, rising above the surrounding glaciers, face the four compass points and are split by the Hörnli, Furggen, Leone and Zmutt ridges. The mountain overlooks the Swiss town of Zermatt in the canton of Valais to the north-east and the Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia in the Aosta Valley to the south. Just east of the Matterhorn is Theodul Pass, the main passage between the two valleys on its north and south sides and a trade route since the Roman Era. The Matterhorn was studied by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure in the late eighteenth century, who was followed by other renowned naturalists and artists such as John Ruskin in the nineteenth century. It remained unclimbed after most of the other great Alpine peaks had been attained, and became the subject of an international competition for the summit. The first ascent of the Matterhorn was finally made in 1865 from Zermatt by a party led by Edward Whymper but ended disastrously when four of its members fell to their deaths on the descent. That climb and disaster, later portrayed in several films, marked the end of the golden age of alpinism.5 The north face was not climbed until 1931, and is amongst the three biggest north faces of the Alps, known as the ‘The Trilogy’. The west face, which is the highest of the four, was completely climbed only in 1962. It is estimated that over 500 alpinists have died on the Matterhorn since the first climb in 1865, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the world.6 The Matterhorn is mainly composed of gneisses from the Dent Blanche nappe, lying over ophiolites and sedimentary rocks of the Penninic nappes, the gneisses being originally fragments of the African Plate before the Alpine orogeny. The current shape of the mountain is the result of cirque erosion due to multiple glaciers diverging from the peak, such as the Matterhorn Glacier at the base of the north face, forming a horn. Sometimes referred to as the Mountain of Mountains,78 the Matterhorn has become an iconic emblem of the Swiss Alps and of the Alps in general. Since the end of the 19th century, when railways were built in the area, it has attracted increasing numbers of visitors and climbers. Each year a large number of mountaineers try to climb the Matterhorn from the Hörnli Hut via the northeast Hörnli ridge, the most popular route to the summit. Many trekkers also undertake the 10-day long circuit around the mountain. The Matterhorn is part of the Swiss Federal Inventory of Natural Monuments since 1983.


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The Matterhorn has two distinct summits, situated at either end of a 100 metres (330 ft) long exposed rocky crest which forms the Swiss/Italian border. The Swiss summit, with a height of 4,477.5 metres (14,690 ft), lies on the eastern end, above the Hörnli ridge which itself lies wholly within Switzerland and was the route of the first ascent. The slightly lower Italian summit 4,476.4 metres (14,686 ft) lies to the west. In August 1792, the Genevan geologist and explorer Horace Bénédict de Saussure made the first measurement of the Matterhorn's height, using a sextant and a 50-foot-long chain spread out on the Theodul glacier. He calculated its height as 4,501.7 metres (14,769 ft).[18] In 1868 the Italian engineer Felice Giordano measured a height of 4,505 metres (14,780 ft) by means of a mercurial barometer, which he had taken to the summit. The Dufour map, which was afterwards followed by the Italian surveyors, gave 4,482 metres (14,705 ft) as the height of the Swiss summit.[19] In 1999 the summit height was precisely determined to be at 4,477.54 metres (14,690 ft) above sea level. This was done using Global Positioning System technology as part of the TOWER Project (Top of the World Elevations Remeasurement) and to an accuracy of less than one centimetre, which also allows future changes to be tracked.[20] The topographic prominence of the Matterhorn is 1,042 metres (3,419 ft) as the ridge connecting it with a higher summit (in this case the Weisshorn, which is the culminating point of the range west of the Mattertal valley) sinks to a height of 3,436 metres (11,273 ft) at the Col Durand, a saddle between the Pointe de Zinal and the Mont Durand.[21] The topographic isolation is 13.9 kilometres (8.6 mi) as the nearest point of higher elevation is the one-metre (3 ft 3 in) higher Western Lyskamm.[22] Considering mountains with a topographic prominence of at least 300 metres (980 ft), the Matterhorn is the sixth highest summit in the Alps and Europe outside the Caucasus Mountains. It is also the fifth highest summit of both Valais and Switzerland and the third highest summit of both the Aosta Valley and Italy.[23] Locally, it is the third highest summit in the municipality of Zermatt[24] and the highest summit in the municipality of Valtournenche. On the official International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation list of Alpine four-thousanders, which also includes subsidiary summits of higher mountains such as the nearby Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn is the 12th highest summit in the Alps.




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