Situated on the Pennine Alps bordering Italy, the Matterhorn is among the most well-known mountains in the world, as well as Switzerland’s most famous landmark.

At nearly three miles high, the Matterhorn is the sixth tallest mountain in the Alps and renowned for its clear-cut pyramid shape. A natural wonder and a bucket-list item for climbers, the Matterhorn is at once a terrifying summit and a breathtaking display of nature’s might.

How Did the Matterhorn Come Into Being?

The Matterhorn formed about 50 to 60 million years ago when Eurasian tectonic plates collided with African plates, thrusting sedimentary rock above sea level. These rocks, which came from the Tethys Ocean, would form the bottom two thirds of the mountain. The top third of the Matterhorn, however, has a different origin.

Soon after the bottom portion formed, a massive fragment of rock from Africa collided with the Alps. A metamorphic rock, or gneiss, was created from the pressure, and this new rock would become the Matterhorn’s top portion. Over time, natural erosion wore away the originally rounded mountain, causing it to take on its pyramidal shape. Interestingly, each of these four worn sides or faces aligns with a different cardinal direction.

The name Matterhorn comes from the German word matte, meaning meadow or valley, and horn, meaning peak. However, Italian locals prefer the name Monte Cervino, which likely stems from the Italian word for forest.

Famous Summits

the Matterhorn with its reflection in the water and Milky Way above in the night sky

The first noteworthy attempt at climbing the Matterhorn was undertaken by Edward Whymper and a team of six climbers on July 14, 1865. They successfully reached the top, but tragically, four of the seven climbers plummeted to their deaths on the descent. That same week, Jean-Antoine Carrel triumphantly scaled the Lion Ridge on the Italian side of the mountain, and just six years later, Lucy Walker took the Hörnli route and became the first woman to successfully summit. At 90 years old, mountain guide Ulrich Inderbinen became the oldest person to summit.

Since that first brave climb, over 500 additional people have died attempting to reach the Matterhorn’s summit, which is roughly three to four people per year. Due to constantly changing temperatures and weather patterns — including screaming winds and heavy fog — it’s difficult to adequately prepare or predict the mountain’s safest routes. However, about 3,000 people successfully finish the climb each year, with many more attempting, failing and descending unharmed.

In 2015, several guides retraced the first climbers’ steps, commemorating their climb with a line of dazzling lights. A single red light was used to mark the spot where the climbers fell, and a moment of silence was held for the 500 others who have since perished.

Transportation to the Matterhorn

Several airports are located near Zermatt, the mountain resort at the foot of the Matterhorn. The closest airport is Sion, and the second closest is Geneva, which tends to offer more flights. Zurich and Milan are also relatively close by. A drive from Geneva offers the quickest route, and train trips from Zurich or Milan are also fast options.

The Matterhorn continues to entrance climbers with its mysterious shape and history. Though many have failed to summit, many more have emerged victorious, prompting others to make their own attempt. The Matterhorn is among the most famous and photographed mountains in the world, serving as a challenge to climbers and a marvel to the world at large.