Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Matterhorn's fascinating recent and geological history

Barbara and I are skiing this week in the highest mountain area of Switzerland, the Pennine Alps. We are staying in the town of Zermatt, which is almost surrounded by the high mountains, and is dominated by one of the world's most famous mountains, the Matterhorn.

 The Matterhorn lies on the border between Switzerland and Italy. Its summit is 4,478 metres (14,690 ft) high, and it is a little scary just to look at, with its four steep faces, facing the four compass points, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps. It was one of the last great Alpine peaks to be climbed, by a party led by Edward Whymper in 1865 and ended disastrously when four of its members fell to their deaths on the descent. The north face was not climbed until 1931, and is amongst the six great north faces of the Alps. From 1865 – when it was first climbed – to 1995, 500 alpinists have died on it.

What is less well known, however, is that its upper portion is actually a part of ‘Africa’, thrust bodily northwards over Europe during the Alpine oregeny.

The formation of the Matterhorn (and the whole Alpine range) started with the break-up of the Pangaea continent 200 million years ago into Laurasia (containing Europe) and Gondwana (containing Africa). While the rocks constituting the nearby Monte Rosa, Switzerland's highest mountain, remained in Laurasia, the rocks constituting the Matterhorn found themselves in Gondwana, separated by the newly formed Tethys Ocean.

100 million years ago the extension of the Tethys Ocean stopped and the Apulian plate broke from Gondwana and moved toward the European continent. This resulted in the closure of the western Tethys by subduction under the Apulian plate. The Alpine orogeny itself began after the end of the oceanic subduction when the European continental crust collided with the Apulian continent. The African plate bulldozed its way inexorably into Europe, the relentless forces forming a series of nappes, folds sheared so much that they fold back over on themselves and break apart, which is why Alpine geology is so complex. The fact that the nappes allowed relatively older rocks to be folded over younger rocks perplexed geologists for decades. The Matterhorn acquired its characteristic pyramidal shape, which presented such formidable challenges to Whymper et al, in much more recent times, by natural glacial erosion over the past million years.

It is certainly an imposing sight, presenting a dramatic backcloth to all who walk and ski in this wonderful area.

I know that many of our blog readers come over to Europe to ski, so my views may be of use to you.

Zermatt is probably the most beautiful area that we have skied in. It is also one of the most expensive. The restaurants in town are good but expensive, and the ski passes are some of the most expensive in Europe, but this pays for the excellent lift system and maintenance of the slopes. These are great for intermediate-advanced skiers, but probably a bit demanding for beginners, who may prefer the long 'blues' of nearby Saas Fee. Zermatt's runs are mainly graded 'red' and are very long, one being over 8 miles into the village. There are few easy 'blues' and also few 'blacks' which may discourage advanced skiers.


  1. Dear MEI Blogger Chieftain:
    I am the American author of a new biography entitled “Triumph and Tragedy: the Life of Edward Whymper,” published last fall and now available in the UK and the US.
    Yesterday, through Google Alerts, I received a link to your MEI blog about your recent skiing holiday in Zermatt. I, too, love this town, having been there in 1984 when I made my own ascent to the Matterhorn summit, known in Whymper’s day as the “impossible mountain.”
    I particularly enjoyed your description of the Matterhorn’s geological history. My book offers a much shorter version of the same story, based on “Echo from the Swiss Underground,” a beautifully illustrated booklet published by the Swiss National Science Foundation in the mid- to late 1990s, I believe.
    “Triumph and Tragedy” is the engrossing life-story of the most interesting, most controversial mountain climber of the 19th century. I think you would enjoy reading the book and perhaps also telling your friends about it. My author’s website can be reached at or
    I am sending this reply as “Anonymous” only because I would prefer, and be pleased, to have people CONTACT ME at my e-mail address,, rather that at one of my web domains.
    With best wishes,
    Emil Henry

    1. Many thanks for this Emil, and congratulations to you on having climbed the Matterhorn. Just looking at it makes my legs turn to jelly!

    2. A friend has emailed to ask if I could elaborate a little on the formation of the Matterhorn, maybe with some illustrations, but I feel that I should not push the geology too hard after viewing this video:

  2. Wonderful blog with great photos which do justice to this beautiful area. Wish I had seen this earlier, as I do a little guiding and the description of the geology is fascinating and will be very useful.
    Thanks again
    Paul Chadwick, Milton Keynes, UK

    1. Thanks Paul. Can't believe that it is 5 years since we visited this stunning Alpine region.

  3. Just seen this fascinating article. I visit the Matterhorn region frequently but was not aware of its geology. I wonder what geoloists would have thought about the upper layers being older than those below, before the discovery of plate tectonics?

    Roy Parkes, Liverpool, UK

    1. There must have been a lot of head-scratching Paul. As down here in Cornwall, trying to make sense of the Lizard Peninsula (posting of 25 July 2010) or the amazing chevron folding near Crackington Haven (posting of 25 May 2010)


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