The storm arrived 12 hours early, anouncing itself with an ear-splitting crack at 3:20 am.
More thunder followed, then a faceful of snow blasted through the partially open bedroom window in the Hoernli Hut.
At 4:35 I went down to where breakfast should have been underway. Instead it was dark, the hut staff having decided it wasn't worth getting up for. I stepped out the front door and snow slanted in.
Already two or three centimeters had accumulated. A steady stream of other would-be climbers came down to check out the situation, and we all wandered back to our beds. Breakfast didn't get served until 7:30 or 8:00, and soon everyone was headed down to the valley.
The peak of their dreams would just have to wait for another year.
My own disappointment was tempered by the fact that I've already climbed the Matterhorn twice, including a traverse in 1999 where we hiked from Zermatt to the Italian side, climbed up the "Italian" or Lion Ridge, then came down the Hoernli Ridge. We'd had a storm on that trip, too, which hit us in the Carrel Hut on the Italian Ridge (at 3829m, it is about 600m higher than the Hoernli Hut).
That time also everyone decided to bail, but my friend Mark Jenkins and I waited a day for sunshine to clear off the fresh snow and then we went over the top.
Another storm came in during the afternoon, forcing us to rappel a great deal and finally we spent the night at an emergency shelter on the Hoernli Ridge because we feared avalanches and losing our way if the storm continued. It broke during the night and on our way down in the morning we encountered several parties on their way up.
One of them, a solo Japanese climber, fell to his death later that day. In all during the five days we spent going around the mountain from Zermatt, five people died on the mountain.
In 1999 the Matterhorn's total mortality was about 500. I don't know what it is now.
Neither John nor I have any intention of adding to that grim statistic, and the weather prediction for the next few days starts okay (Saturday) then goes bad for a few days. So we're quite satisfied with our decision to wrap around to the valley on the north side of the mountain and from here join what's known as the skier's haute route, which follows glacier systems from one hut to another all the way to Chamonix, France.
Except we'll turn off to climb Mont Dolent, just on the French border and the end of my long journey.
As I've been writing this on the porch of the Schönbiel Hut I've watched the weather change at least a half dozen times. For a while the Matterhorn was buried in gray and looking like it would vanish entirely. Now there is sun and a cloud plume waving like a flag from the summit. But always the mountain is white. It doesn't appear that the fresh snow has melted at all.
We were wise to move on, to leave the Matterhorn behind. There's often a clash between ambition and wisdom, and this time we've made the right move.