Weekend Warm-Up: Matterhorn

Climbing
The Matterhorn from the Rothorn summit station. Photo: Shutterstock

Edward Whymper spent five years working toward his first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. But he paid a high price when the climb ended in horror. For the rest of his life, the dream-become-nightmare haunted him.

With the arrival of the railway to the Alps in the 1850s, so too came tourists. Small villages like Zermatt at the foot of Matterhorn had previously been just peasant villages. Now they flourished with activity. People arrived from all over Britain and Europe to marvel at the scenery.

Before long, men became interested in climbing mountains for pleasure. Soon, the sport of mountaineering was born.

The Golden Era of Mountaineering

In 1857 came the world’s first mountaineering club. Academics, lawyers, and the like joined the Alpine Club with a bonded interest in scaling mountains across continental Europe and Britain. Over the next decade, they picked off first ascents of most of the peaks in the Alps, birthing the Golden Era of Mountaineering. But the Matterhorn remained untouched.

Edward Whymper began climbing after he’d been commissioned to illustrate the mountains between Switzerland and Italy. Photo: English-heritage.org.uk

Whymper was an unlikely mountaineer. Contrary to “Cambridge at play”, as the men of Alpine Club were known, he was a “commoner”. Born the second oldest son of 11 children to a painter and engraver, Whymper dropped out of school at an early age. He relied on his artistic talent to earn a living illustrating scenery. In 1860, at the age of 20, he received a lucky entry into a world frequented by the upper class.

A publisher commissioned Whymper to draw the mountains bordering Switzerland and Italy. Sent abroad for the first time, he was thrust into a world he hadn’t seen before. He quickly became fascinated by mountaineering. Before long, he had obsessively traded drawing mountains for climbing them.

Over the next few years, Whymper completed a series of expeditions that satisfied his hunger for climbing. His granddaughter, Nigella Hall, describes him as “determined, with terrific willpower”.

The 4,478m Matterhorn was among the last major peaks in the Alps to be summited. When the first climb ended in tragedy, it ended the Golden Era of Mountaineering.

The Matterhorn towers 4,478m between Switzerland and Italy, in the extended Monte Rosa area of the Pennine Alps. It’s a star among its peers, eye-catching with a near-symmetric pyramidal peak. Too complex to dare too early in mountaineering’s rise, the Matterhorn was not to be underestimated.

The Matterhorn didn’t impress Whymper at first. But this changed when he heard other climbers laud it as such a worthwhile goal. He resolved to lead the first expedition up its flanks. He began by enlisting a competent guide to join him.

Italy’s Jean-Antoine Carrel had acquired a reputation as one of the best in the world. He joined Whymper on three attempts on the Matterhorn from the Italian side, but they were unsuccessful. Each time, they came within 30m of the summit. The pair eventually parted ways. Whymper, undeterred, attempted five further ascents without Carrel.

But the race to be the first to summit the Matterhorn was on, and many climbers were keen to beat Whymper to it. Whymper knew that he needed to speed up his efforts if he was to have the glory. In the summer of 1865, he re-enlisted Carrel to guide him once again.

Treachery

Although Carrel agreed, he was deceptive. He’d secretly joined an all-Italian team attempting to beat Whymper to the summit. The Italian team set off the night before Whymper expected to depart with Carrel.

Carrel was motivated partly by nationalism. He also knew that if he summited with Whymper, he would only be an afterthought. But if Carrel summited first with the Italian team, he would be a hero to all Italians.

When Whymper woke to discover that Carrel had already set off, he quickly rustled together a new team. Lord Douglas Francis, Charles Hudson, Michel Croz, three Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder, plus his son, also Edward, and his second son Joseph left with Whymper via the eastern side of the mountain, three days after the Italian party.

Specialized equipment wasn’t yet available in the 18th century. The Alpine Club developed a dedicated climbing rope a few years later, replacing the heavy ropes used before. But Whymper and his team brought ordinary rope, tied to each man’s waist, and their axes were heavy, wood-handled devices.

Their shoes were similar to those worn in farmers’ fields, with hobnailed leather soles to maximize grip. Their tweed suits helped with warmth and protection from wind. But they became heavy when wet and took a long time to dry.

Success

In the end, Whymper’s group made it to the summit ahead of the Italians, with Whymper and Croz racing ahead to be the first to summit.

“The slope eased off, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race, which ended in a dead heat,” Whymper recounted in his book, Scrambles Amongst the Alps. “At 1:40 pm, the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.”

The joyous moment was even more glorious as they witnessed the Italians 200m below the summit. Whymper’s team jeered at their rivals, who turned back defeated while the triumphant seven men spent 60 minutes on top of the world, enjoying their victory. Whymper had worked for years to achieve this pinnacle moment.

But no summit is complete until each man returns safely, and that was not to be the case.

Tragedy

Soon into their descent down the Matterhorn’s North Face, Hadow gravely slipped. His rope, tethered to the rest of the climbers, pulled with an almighty force. Douglas, Hudson, and Croz tumbled behind him, the force breaking the rope to free Whymper and his guides from certain death.

The first ascent of Matterhorn in 1865 ended in tragedy when four men fell to their deaths. The event plagued Edward Whymper for the rest of his life.

The four men fell 1,200m down the North Face, bashing into rocks as they tumbled to their deaths. Limbs ripped from their bodies, skulls sliced in two, their injuries were not survivable.

Rescuers later retrieved pieces of all the men’s bodies except that of Francis, whose corpse was most likely stuck in a crevice. He was never found.

When Whymper returned to Zermatt, he was met with outrage. The commoner who had long wanted to be the first to summit the Matterhorn had now done so, but at a cost of four lives. He stood trial, accused of cutting the rope that saved his life, but he was freed when no evidence backed up the claim.

The Aftermath

Nevertheless, the trauma that Whymper felt was all-consuming.

“Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances — Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them,” he wrote.

After the Matterhorn, Whymper conducted other great explorations, including Greenland and his study of altitude sickness in Ecuador. In Ecuador, he even teamed up with Carrel, who later died from exhaustion on the Matterhorn. But as time passed, Whymper’s reclusive lifestyle became even more so. He married a woman 40 years his junior when he was 65. But the marriage lasted just four years.

Eventually, haunted by the burning question of fault in the deaths of his men, Whymper chose to die alone behind the closed doors of a hotel room, denying medical treatment. He was 71 years old.

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About the Author

Chasing Dreams Travel

Alex Myall

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency.

Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.

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