5 surprising facts about the famous Matterhorn

January 3, 2020, 8:47 a.m.
Train and cable car rides from Zermatt take you up the mountain.
Photo: Ben Bolton

1. The peak of the Matterhorn is actually African rock. The mountain is the result of the collision of two pieces of Earth's crust, the African continental plate and the Laurasian, or European plate. The peak is actually from the African continental plate.

From National Geographic's Digital Nomad:

The Alps in are in fact the aftermath of a major continental collision and the Matterhorn tells that story in its layered geology. The first 11,150 feet (3,400 m) of the iconic peak is a mix of some sedimentary rock with mostly ocean crust from the long-gone Tethys Sea. The remainder of the Matterhorn — up to the peak at 14,780 feet (4,478 m) is metamorphic rock that was basically flung on top of the base when the African plate ran into Europe. Most of the top of the Matterhorn is very hard gneiss — harder (and older) than the rocks that make up the base of the mountain.

2. The four sides of the Matterhorn's pyramid-like peak face the four cardinal directions. Talk about a convenient compass for travelers. According to the Smithsonian, "The north side faces Zermatt Valley and the east overlooks Gornergrat Ridge, both in Switzerland, while the south face points toward the Italian town of Brueil-Cervinia and the western side overlooks the Swiss-Italian border."

It is also a great place to go skiing. You can take a train up to get amazing views of the Matterhorn. (Photo: Ben Bolton)

3. The world's largest snow igloo was built at the base of the Matterhorn. The Guinness Book of World Records confirmed it as the largest in 2016, after construction was completed in January. It was built in the town of Zermatt, and measured 42 feet in diameter inside, with a ceiling height of 34 feet. It was slated to stay open for the entire winter season.

4. More than 500 people have died climbing the Matterhorn. The very first climb, completed in 1865, was a deadly one with four of the seven members of the team dying in a fall during the descent. Since then, the Matterhorn has remained a risky climb, with several people per year never making it back down the mountain.

5. The Matterhorn is the 12th highest peak in Europe. It is also the 10th highest mountain in Switzerland and one of 48 Swiss peaks above 4,000 meters. Around 3,000 climbers summit the mountain per year, with upwards of 150 people making the climb on a peak day.

It is one of the largest attractions in Switzerland. Over 3 million people a year visit Zermatt to ski or see the Matterhorn. (Photo: Ben Bolton)

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in August 2016.