How the Matterhorn got its iconic shape

The Matterhorn with its four steep cliffs is without a doubt one of the most impressive peaks on our planet. And the King of the Alps is most impressive when seen from the town of Zermatt. Here you look up at the sharp Hornli ridge with the east wall to its left and the world-famous north wall to the right. Seeing the iconic peak of the Matterhorn is a view you’ll never forget!

A glacial horn

But the Matterhorn was ‘born’ as a rounded shaped mountain when the Alps were pushed up (between fifty and a hundred million years ago). Its pyramid shape as we know it today was formed only much later by the interplay of weathering and erosion. The familiar shape of the Matterhorn was formed by glaciers and is called a glacial horn. The weathering and erosion processes that created this particular pyramid took many millions of years. Yet we can largely reconstruct what has happened, in a very simplified explanation.

Weathering and erosion

After the Alps were pushed up by the collision between the African and Eurasian plates, there were glaciers on the rounded shaped top of the mountain. On hot days the glacier ice melted, causing water droplets to seep into the rock through cracks and crevices. As soon as the water froze and expanded again, pieces of the mountain broke off. The loose debris was then pushed forward by the downward pressure of the glaciers which are constantly in motion. The moving mixture of ice and debris scraped new debris off the mountain.

Four cirques growing towards each other 

This is how a glacier can erode a mountain wall further and further, creating a cirque which looks like a semi-circular bowl on a mountain slope. Due to the hollowing effect of glaciers, cirques ​​can grow towards each other. This creates a ridge. As soon as three or more cirques on different sides of the mountain work their way towards each other, a horn can be formed. In the case of the Matterhorn, there were four large cirques that created the iconic shape.

Too steep for ice and snow to stick

By now, the four walls have been hollowed out so much that they are so steep that ice and snow hardly stick to it. Ice and snow tumble downwards and are collected at the foot of each wall. The glaciers of the Matterhorn are therefore no longer at the peak, but lie at the bottom of the four rock walls. The Zmutt Glacier at the bottom of the west wall is the largest.

Enjoy the view!

When hiking the Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to take in the mind-blowing views of this iconic mountain, the King of the Alps.

Read more about geology of the Alps

How were the Alps formed? A short guide to the geology of the Alps

Simone van Velzen

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