The Matterhorn’s Story: Crowning the King of the Golden Age of Alpine Mountaineering

Any mountaineer worth his salt knows the Matterhorn, even for the lay person simply mentioning its name will conjure up an image of a near perfect canine tooth of rock, ripping skywards out of an alpine glacier; Or as Lord Minto said,

It is impossible for words to convey any idea of the immensity of this pyramid, regular and symmetrical in form, as if it had been design by an architect, and rising to a prodigious height above the glacier on which it rests”.

People who lived below it feared it, due to the schoolmaster saying if you miss behaved that mountain would ‘devour you’, and Edward Whymper would say of the mountain,

Stronger minds felt the influence of the wonderful form, and men who ordinarily spoke or wrote like rational beings, when they came under its power seemed to quit their senses, and ranted and rhapsodised, losing for a time all common forms of speech

Many people know the Matterhorn story does not end well, with the first ascent coming at great cost and like Jona’s obsession with the whale, fanaticism would lead to disaster. Whilst we will get to the final hair raising moment, the main focus is on the complete history, to see how it turned into a bitter race for the summit and to hell with the consequences.

Whymper suggested that a team from Val Tournanche were the first to attempt the mountain in 1858, which included Jean-Antione Carrel, a man who was the first to come under its spell. The team made at least one other attempt in the following year. Their high point was a chimney fairly low on the Lion Ridge. Then a British and notably guideless team of Alfred Charles and Sandbach Parker attempted the East Face near the Hornli Ridge in 1860.

The same year John Tyndall then joined the fray as part of Mr Vaughan Hawkins expedition and the account is from Hawkins pen. Not much is known about Hawkins but Tyndall had a long and distinguished career as a scientist. His work on glaciers, like many of the early explorer of the alps, introduced him to mountaineering. He also worked and studied alongside some of the great minds of the time including Robert Bunsen and Micheal Faraday who at the time was superintendent of the Royal Institute, a post Tyndall succeeded to on Faraday’s retirement. He also backed Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, by suggesting that science and religion be separated, damned near heresy at the time.

Reflecting on the first ascent of the Matterhorn

More important was that John Tyndall was to become one of the few people obsessed with ascending the Matterhorn. After his initial phase of exploring the Alps with barometers, thermometers and theodolites, he realised that he enjoyed mountaineering for its own sake and took to the hills in earnest. As soon as he decided to head up the Matterhorn, he literally sent his theodolite down to the Hotel.

In 1859 Hawkins had made a reconnaissance of the Matterhorn with his guide John Joseph Bennen who proclaim it was almost certainly possible to reach the top, describing the Matterhorn as follows,

The Mountain too has a sort of prestige of invincibility which is not without its influence on the mind, and almost leads one to expect to encounter some new and unheard of source of peril upon it

A year later Hawkins returned and almost turned back as the snow lay heavily across the mountain. Instead he set off content to only get part way up and kill a few myth about the mountain, like “the wandering jew and the spirits of the damned”.

Bennen the guide was as mythical as the mountain, a man that stood above the most famous guides of the time. He was a quiet and reserved man who appeared to make well-calculated judgements in the most challenging of circumstance. Hawkins said ‘I am sure no precipice will engulf me so long as Bennen is within reach, unless he goes into it also – an event which seems impossible.” Unmarried, he spent most of his year working as a carpenter and like all guides seemed particularly found of chamois hunting.

Edward Whymper, who was to be crown the king of the Golden Age of Mountaineering when he climbed the Matterhorn.

One more person came along Jean-Jaques Carrel, described as a ‘rough, good-humoured, shaggy-breasted man, between forty and fifty, an ordinary specimen of the peasant class’. He fulfilled his role as porter well and was on that first team of locals to attempt the mountain and related to Jean-Antione Carrel, the leading guide in the Matterhorn saga.

Arriving at the base of the mountain, Hawkins noted that, “actual contact immensely increases one’s impression of this, the hardest and strongest of all the mountain masses in the alps.” The difficulty of the mountain is too much for Hawkins to recount, his lasting memory is focused on the perfect chimney, with a gapping abyss at its base. The high point of the first attempt, but Bennen “rolls up it somehow, like a cat” and they follow with great difficulty.

Reaching a tricky section Hawkins waits below with and Carrel whilst Bennen and Tyndall continue. They are soon repulsed and return after Bennen believes the time is too short. They have though not only touched the mountain for the first time but made considerable headway in far from optimal conditions.

The following year Tyndall returned to the start of his obsession. Fresh from the first ascent of another ‘last great problem’ the Weisshorn. He sent Bennen on another sortie to find a place to bivi out on the mountain, knowing that it would be too much to climb to the summit and back in a day. His reconnaissance did not go well, finding no place they could pass the night and in desperation Tyndall suggested they could reach the sub peak, to which Bennen replied “The peak has neither name nor fame” and Bennen refused to continue. Tyndall’s disappointment was crushing, “the Italian valleys had no tonic strong enough to set me right; the mountains alone could restore what I had lost.”

As he left a new player in the great game turned up and said that having viewed the mountain from “nearly every direction, and ascent of it seemed, even to a novice like myself, far too much for 24 hours”. Whymper was a plucky but observant amateur with enough drive to give himself the merest of chances to succeed.

He was a wood engraver from London who had been commissioned to etch some alpine scenery. One of his early commissions was to make a series of illustration for Professor Bonney’s unsuccessful attempt on Mont Pelvoux in the Dauphine Alps. Bitten by the mountaineering bug he soon turned his attention to the Matterhorn, but given Bennen’s refusal to go on the mountain due to the conditions, it did not bode well.

His chances were further diminished when all the local guides refused to accompany him. Whether news had got round about how he treated guides or there was something in how he treated people. Whymper was certainly a different kind of climber to Tyndall whom respected his guides decision, whereas Whymper often loathed them. Whilst he did suffer a lot bad luck with his guides, how much was of his own making is also debatable. He says early on in his book,

“My experience with guides had not been fortunate, and I was inclined, improperly, to rate them at a low value. They represented to me pointers out of paths, and large consumers of meat and drink, but little more.”

Only the nameless guide he bought with him went up the mountain, another by the name of Peter Taugwalder said he would go but at the exuberant cost of 200 francs.

Not even the innkeeper would loan him blankets for their mountain camp.  Along with the fact that two of those local he tried to employ decided to make their own attempt on the mountain that day, makes you think that he rubbed the locals up the wrong way. In that two man team was Jean-Jaques Carrel who had climbed with Tyndall and Jean-Antoine Carrel.

Whimper Etching from Scrambles in the high alp

Whymper’s guide failed to make it up the Chimney. Adding to his idea that guides were incompetent and instead he had to surmount this first obstacle himself. When the guide suggested they go down, they had what can only be described as mountain tantrum.

I told him he was a coward, and he mentioned his opinion of me. I requested him to go to Breuil, and say that he had left his ‘monsieur’ on the mountain. And he turned to go; where upon I had to eat humble pie and ask him to come back; for, although it was not very difficult to go up, and not at all dangerous with a man standing below, it was quite another thing to come down, as the lower edge overhung in a provoking manner

He saw no sign of the two Carrel’s, but Whymper would later see their initials at a point some 300ft higher than Tyndall’s high point. Slowly but surely each team was wearing down the mountain through a yearly attrition.

In 1862, Mr Kennedy from Leeds came up with something of a hair-brained scheme that climbing the mountain in winter may in fact be easier. Managing to convince the sturdy Peter Taugwalder into guiding them, they found that the snow was no easier than in summer and the wind was anything but more friendly. Like one of the earliest attempts the team had chosen the Hornli ridge and to their credit got almost as far up in winter.

Whymper returned in July, this time with a friend Reginald MacDonald and two guides from Zermatt, Johann Zum Taugwald and Johann Kronig. When they arrived in Breuil, he asked for a porter and he was sent down to the main village in search of Luc Meynet. When located Whymper described him unaffectionately as the hunchback of Breuil. Despite the apparent snub, Meynet ability on the mountain gave Whymper the last laugh as he was competent on the mountain and certainly more subservient than most guides.

Camped out on the Col du Lion, a small storm hit and his guides suddenly decided they wanted nothing more to do with the mountain and Meynet needed to make cheese the following day. Forcing Whymper to retreat back to the Breuil once more.

His luck turned momentarily as Jean-Antoine Carrel agreed to accompany him, and even Whymper consider himself fortunate. Carrel’s attitude towards the mountain was that it should be preserved for locals. Either way they took his money and went back up the mountain and constructed a higher sleeping platform just below the chimney before climbing up to Hawkins’ high point and returning down.

They awoke the next day and made it to the Chimney where Carrel’s friend fell ill and declared himself unable to go on. Carrel refused to continue without him and yet again Whymper was defeated by guides rather than the mountain.

Whymper returned alone, under the guise that he had left his tent unattended. Finding it intact he set up camp again on the col. Waking he carried on up the mountain to see if he could find another higher ledge to pitch the tent. To help he took with him a grappeling hook and a crude system for recovering a rope from an abseil. The hook could be placed on an edge by way of the alpenstock allowing easier progress up short technical steps.

Reaching the high point of Hawkins from two years previous he carried on. It is here his account becomes somewhat fantastical. Passages like “nothing fairly within arm’s reach could be laid hold of; it was necessary to spring up, and then to haul oneself over the sharp edge by sheer strength”. Then moments later in a gully he talks of “jumping sideways onto the other side”. Although his description is quite vivid, one is just left in utter bewilderment of what he was claiming to have done, unroped and alone on the most exposure alpine ridge ever attempted.

Whymper was turned back once more by another towering cliff. Making little mention of the difficulties faced in descent, which to most experienced mountaineers are far more technical than when ascending. At 5pm he left the col to descend to Breuil, leaving his ice axe in the tent. The steps from the col that had been cut a few days previous had shrunk in the sun and he slipped,

The knapsack bought my head down first, and I pitched into some rocks about a dozen feet below; they caught something and tumbled me off the edge, head over heels, into the gully; the baton was dashed from my hands, and I whirled downwards in a series of bounds, each longer than the last; now over ice, now into rocks; striking my head four or five times, each time with increased force. The last bound sent me spinning through the air, in a leap of fifty or sixty feet, from one side of the gully to the other, and I struck rocks, luckily, with the whole of my left side. They caught my clothes for a moment, and I fell back on to the snow with motion arrested.”

After 200ft he stopped 10ft short of an 800ft drop, bruised, battered, cut but not broken. Using snow to staunch his bleeding head, he eventually made it down the mountain where the Innkeeper discovered him and cleaned the wounds.  Shockingly he returned to the Matterhorn within days this time accompanied by Jean-Antoine Carrel, Ceasar Carrel and Meynet, gaining a few more feet. Although again he makes one doubt that high point when he refers back saying the “traces of the week before were well apparent”, and you are left asking doth he protest too much. The weather turned and he was once again forced to retreat to the tent.

Jean-Antoine Carrel, Whimpers main competition for the Matterhorn

In the morning his two guides had gone Chamois hunting. Something of a snub that Whymper doesn’t appear very happy with and condemns their action, suggesting that the Bureau of Guides in places like Chamonix would have prevented. Undeterred he took the hunchback Meynet with him, this time reaching a higher point again. Returning to Breuil he hoped the Carrel’s would grace him with their company one more time, but they added further insult, as they had sign up with Tyndall. Whymper attributes the Carrel’s actions, having first left him in the night for a Marmot hunt and now aiding his arch rival as due to his attempting the mountain both alone and now with Meynet the hutchback.

Whilst neither man mentions it in his book, Tyndall in a letter to Huxley says he did offer Whymper a place on his team as long as he was ‘reasonable’. However he was alleged to reply. “If I go up the Matterhorn, I must lead the way”.

Tyndall desired to finish what he had started and resolved to make one final attempt. His new plan to engage two expert guides and two expert porters, having three of the team roped to the cliff and secure whilst two could ‘take liberties, and commit themselves to ventures which would otherwise be inexcusable or impossible’, had come together. He had two of the strongest guides who were also good friends Bennen and Walters, and had managed to secure as porters the two Carrel’s. He had ropes manufactured especially for the task, although you wonder if the final outcome on the mountain was different whether he would have mentioned this. On top of that he had a light ladder that could overcome any impossible steps.

It was fair to say Tyndall’s growing obsession with the mountain was illustrated not only in his extremely well thought out preparation but was best summed up by a single sentence he wrote. ‘The matterhorn, in fact, was our temple, and we approached it with feelings not unworthy of so great a shrine’.

On the mountain the team soon reached Whymper high point and Tyndall’s choice of guides paid off and after some dramatic climbing and combined tactics his two guides reach a flattening in the Lion Ridge. In doing so they gave this anonymous little sub summit a name, Pic Tyndall, giving him some fame in the process. The summit was insight and looked no harder than what they had previous climb. Only as they descended into the col did they realise to their horror that the gap was seemingly impossible.

Bennen wanted to go on, but Walter seemed to refused, when asked their opinion the two Carrel’s simply said “We are porters, ask your guides” Again showing something of the politics of this attempt made by Swiss guides up the Italian ridge with a British client. With it Tyndall and his companions all but declared the mountain impossible.

The following year in 1863, Whymper had not got the memo and struck out with two ladders to finally accomplish the task in hand. Vowing to give the ‘Cock of Val Tournache’ one last chance. He secured Jean-Antoine Carrel along with Ceasar Carrel, Meynet and two other locals. The conditions that August were bad, verglas low down and ‘treacherous snow’ meant that progress was slow. They all roped up and made the painstaking advance on the mountain.

The attempt was to be thwarted by the weather, a common occurrence on the Matterhorn that seems to have its own system. It is well described by Whymper who says just as they arrive at the Great Tower.

“A sudden rush of cold air warned us to look out. It was difficult to tell where it came from. It did not blow as wind, but descended rather as water in a shower-bath! All was tranquil again; the atmosphere showed no signs of disturbance; there was dead calm, and not a speck of cloud to be seen anywhere. But we did not remain very long in this state. The cold air came again, and this time it was difficult to say where it did not come from.”

The cloud started to billow against the ridge, dancing with the gusts of wind. Wisps of cloud turned rapidly in blankets and in the space of a few seconds snow started to fall onto the windswept ridge. Carrel’s answer was to stop and erect the tent as the cloud blackened around them. The task complete just as the thunderstorm struck and forked lightning started to arc against the ridge around them.

With the conditions so bad and the added motivation of having weathered a particularly violent storm they retreated. On return to the village the innkeeper in Breuil was surprised to here their story, as “we have had no snow; it has been fine all the time you have been absent, and there has only been that small cloud on the mountain.” It was the only attempt made that year.

In 1864 Whymper returned to the Alps making the first ascent of Pointe Des Ecrin, it was on this trip that he employed a guide with a growing reputation for boldness and ability, Micheal Croz. Whilst successful in his ascents, whimper suggests they bonded over a force bivi on the descent from that mountain. Whymper recounts enjoying “the jolly way in which Croz came out” and the stories they told of their exploits on the mountains of the Alps.

Whymper had teamed up with cartographer Adams Reilly helping map parts of the mountains around Chamonix. Working their way towards the Matterhorn again, but on arrival at Zermatt, he went to the Monta Rosa hotel to seek out any mail. “They yielded disastrous intelligence, and my holiday was brought to an abrupt termination.”

Whymper had seen the season as a success, “but the greatest ascent upon which I had set my heart was not attempted, and, until it was accomplished, I was unsatisfied”.

In 1865 he set about seeing what he could achieve with a guide with him and but with himself thoughtfully planning and leading the whole route. This is a part of his book where we see it starting to more overtly address the fateful events that were to happen later that year, by highlighting his mountaineering prowess. As Whymper writes,

For success does not, as a rule, come by chance, and when one fails there is a reason for it. But when a notable, or so-called brilliant thing is done, we are too apt to look upon the success alone, without considering how it was attained. Whilst, when men fail, we inquire why they have not succeeded. So failures are frequently more instructive than successes.”

In what might be seen as a fit of craziness, he changed his desired line of attack, no longer favouring the Lion Ridge from Italy but instead the East Face, which had been tried previously. He gave four reasons for this, although you wonder if he was also done with dealing with the Italian politics.

1. He had a growing preference for snow and rock faces rather than arêtes.

2. Someone persuaded him the weather was better on this side.

3. Despite its looks the East Face was only 40˚

4. The strata of the rock on the mountain favoured this new direction.

An attempt on the 21st June was soon halted a gully by which he planned to make most of the ascent, as it was awash with falling boulders. Which unlike other gullies were seen to pinball their way down ricocheting off the walls. He then turned to a plan B the Hornli ridge but was turned round by an impass just below the col. He would have to traverse round the mountain wasting three days. Almer one of his guides asked poignantly, “Why don’t you try to go up a mountain which can be ascended”. So they retreated to Chamonix and made an ascent of the Grand Jorasses, Col Dolent and the Aiguille Verte.

He was soon back on the Matterhorn trail and as they approached Breuil one more time even his guide Almer was crying “Anything but the Matterhorn, dear sir!” Whymper sent his guide down to the Breuil via a short cut whilst he continued to Val Tournache to look for Jean-Antione Carrel.

The weather was bad and Whymper found them in the high chalets about to attempt the Matterhorn. Both he and Carrel tried to persuade the other to come on their route. Whymper managing to persuade them to try his route but was once again let down by the Carrel at the eleventh hour claiming to be employed by an Italian ‘family of distinction’.

Whymper awoke the following day and was asked if he had heard the news that a party of guides had once again set out to attempt the Matterhorn. He had been “Bamboozled and humbugged”, the Carrel’s under the direction of Signor F. Giordano were on the mountain.

Whymper’s saving grace, “they have taken a mules load a provisions. That is one point in my favour, for they will take two or three days to get through the food, and, until that is done, no work will be accomplished”. Combined with the weather and facilitating the way for their employer, Whymper worked out he probably had seven days. The race was on.

Stuck in Breuil he soon found a new companion when Lord Francis Douglas arrived, who was with one of Peter Taugwalder’s sons. He also had news that his father who had been beyond the Hornli believed it possible to ascend that way. With Lord Francis signed up on the expedition, serendipity was starting to be on Whymper side.

Back in Zermatt, he found Micheal Croz, who had left his company to guide another pre-booked client who had arrived unwell in Chamonix and went straight home. He had then been employed by the Reverend Charles Hudson to attempt the Matterhorn via the Hornli Ridge. Overheard dinner conversations and discreet chats led to the two parties forming one super group.

The final party consisted of Whymper, Croz, Peter Taugwalder and his two sons, Lord Douglas, Reverend Hudson and Hadow a friend of the reverends, one guide to each of the tourists. They had a leisurely start on the 13th July and made their way to 11000ft on the mountain where they pitched their tent. As they did this Croz and the Young Peter recced the route above. They returned with good news “not a difficulty, not a single diffculty”.

They awoke before dawn, waiting for the light to start their ascent. The young Peter Taugwalder came with them whilst his brother returned to Zermatt, leaving seven to climb the mountain. At first they met little resistance, rising as Whymper described it along a “huge natural staircase”. Only above 14000ft did they hit any difficulty at a place that from below appeared overhanging, but despite appearances most of the difficulties were turned and the mountain never exceeded 40˚.

All but Hadow found the going OK, who as the least experienced and had only been accepted on the expedition after Whymper had questioned his Alpine experience and been reassured by Reverend Hudson that he “has done Mont Blanc in less time than most”. Despite these assurances he required constant assistance on the way up.

Four days had transpired since the Italians had departed, threatening to steal the summit and glory. They had been a constant thought on the ascent, will they be beaten to the summit?

When the way forward eased, Croz and Whymper picked up the pace and arriving together on the summit at 1.40pm on the 14th July 1965. There were no obvious signs of them having been beaten, so they continued to look down into Italy.

Mere dots on ridge, at an immense distance below… We yelled until we were hoarse. The Italians seemed to regard us – we could not be certain…. I seized a block of rock and hurled it down… We drove our sticks in, and prized away the crags and soon torrents of stones poured down the cliffs. There was no mistake about it this time. The Italians turned and fled.”

Still, I would that the leader of that party could have stood with us at that moment, for our victorious shouts conveyed to him the disappointment of the ambition of a lifetime. He was the man, of all those who attempted the ascent of the Matterhorn, who most deserved to be the first upon its summit. He was the first to doubt its inaccessibility, and he was the only man who persisted in believing that its ascent would be accomplished

Most of us can only imagine what victory feels like after a campaign that spanned 7 years, let alone the crushing disappointment of being beaten to the summit. The relief must have been palpable and they stayed on the summit for ‘one crowded hour of glorious life’.

Here Whymper’s book directly sets out exonerate himself from a sequence of events that would end with the loss of a Lord, a Reverend, Hadow and a famous guide. The establishment and newspapers would ask some pretty difficult questions, the book was a way for him to answer them publically.

The order decided was Croz to descend first to aid Hadow, who was second. Followed by Hudson, Lord Douglas and then Old Peter Taugwalder. Whymper was still sketching the summit when the others departed and was asked to write their names in a bottle to place on the summit. He was left with the young Peter Taugwalder and soon caught up with the rest of the party as they started down the short tricky section, only one man moving at a time to maximise safety.

No belays were taken and no one seemed to think about it. At the front of the column Croz had put down his axe to aid Hadow, who had to be moved down the mountain by Croz guiding his legs. Slightly obscured from Whymper’s view what happened will never be known, but having moved Hadow, Croz was turning round and at this exact moment Hadow apparently slipped and knock them both off the mountain.

I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Hadow flying downwards; in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps, and Lord Francis Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment. Immediately we heard Croz’s exclamation, old Peter and I planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit: the rope went taut between us, and the jerk came on us both as on one man. We Held; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading their hands, endeavouring to save themselves. They passed from our sight uninjured, disappeared one by one, and fell from precipice to precipice on the Matterhorn Glacier Below, a distance of nearly 4000ft in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them.”

Only Whymper and the two Peter Taugwalder’s survived. Frozen to the spot they were already wondering what, and particularly those from Chamonix would think, as “who would believe Croz would fall?” It took 30 minutes for the Old Peter to regain control of the situation. Whymper saw the rope that was snapped and saw immediate it was the weakest of the ropes and one that should not have been employed for such a purpose.

They returned without incident to Zermatt and assembled a small team to recover the bodies of their companions. All but Lord Francis Douglas were found and buried in the snow at the base of the grandest cliff in the alps. However in the enquiry that followed their bodies were recovered and moved to the North side of the church in Zermatt, on the other side of the church lies Croz on his tombstone is written “beloved by his comrades and esteemed by travellers

Some accused Old Taugwalder of cutting the rope, or deliberately using the weaker rope to tie in with, nothing was proven. Whilst the controversy remained high in Zermatt, Carrel proved two days after Whymper ascent that the mountain was possible from the Italian side and in the process he put to bed his story of obsession.

Tyndall was to return to the mountain, he was in the area during the aftermath of the accident. Initiating a plan to find Lord Francis Douglas body but had to admit defeat even after buying 3000ft of rope. He kept climbing in the Alps and his own obsession for the Matterhorn remained until 1868, when he made it’s first complete traverse up the Lion Ridge and down the Hornli.

The fascination that absorbed Tyndall, Carrel and Whymper spanned nearly ten years. When the dust settled Whymper was crowned king of the golden age of alpine mountaineering, but like any game of thrones the success came at high price. Indeed the last few pages of Whymper’s book are a poignant exploration of climber’s motivations and asks does all the risk really repay us? It is a perpetual question that every mountaineer should ask themselves regularly, summed up best by Whymper famous paragraph in his book Scrambles Amongst the Alps.

Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think that may be the end.

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