The mountain has four faces, facing the four compass points, with the north and south faces meeting to form a short east-west summit ridge. The faces are tremendously steep, and only small patches of snow and ice cling to them; regular avalanches send the snow down to accumulate on the glaciers at the base of each face. The Hörnli ridge of the northeast (in the center of the view from Zermatt) is the usual climbing route.
The Matterhorn was the last major mountain of the Alps to be climbed, not merely because of its technical difficulty, but of the fear it inspired in early mountaineers. The first serious attempts began around 1858, mostly from the Italian side, but despite appearances, the southern routes are harder, and parties repeatedly found themselves on difficult slippery rock and had to turn back.
It was not until 14 July 1865, after several failed attempts, that the party of Edward Whymper, Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, and Douglas Hadow, with Michel Croz and the two Peter Taugwalders (father and son) tried the Hörnli route and found it considerably easier than anybody expected. But on the descent Hadow slipped, knocking Croz off his feet, and dragging Hudson and Douglas with him. All seven were tied together (a practice long since abandoned), and would no doubt have been lost, but the rope broke, sending the lower four to their deaths on the Matterhorn Glacier 1,400 m below. The bodies of all but Douglas were later found, and are buried today in the Zermatt churchyard.
Three days later, on 17 July, a party led by Jean-Antoine Carrel reached the summit from the Italian side. Julius Elliott made the second ascent from the Zermatt side, in 1868, and soon after John Tyndall traversed the summit. In 1871, Lucy Walker became the first woman to stand atop the mountain, followed a few weeks later by her rival Meta Brevoort.
Today, all ridges and faces of the Matterhorn have been ascended in all seasons, and climbing guides take thousands up the Hörnli route each summer. By modern standards, the climb is technical but easy, and there are fixed ropes all along the route to simplify things. The usual pattern is to take a cable car up from Zermatt, hike up to the Hörnli-hütte (elev. 3,260 m), a large stone building at the base of the main ridge, and spend the night. The next day one rises very early, 2-3 am, so as to reach the summit and descend before the regular afternoon clouds and storms come in.