The Tragic Story of the First Ascent of the Matterhorn

Edward Whymper had tried seven times to reach the top of the Matterhorn. He made it on the eighth try–at great cost

"The first ascent of the Matterhorn," by Gustave Dore, who was not actually there. Gustave Dore/Wikimedia Commons

Edward Whymper, born on this day in 1840, headed an era-setting mountaineering trip. 

The British engraver came to Switzerland to do art for a book on the Alps, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, and found his calling. In the first half of the 1860s, he summited several mountains. But one continue to elude him: the Matterhorn.

“The Matterhorn attracted me simply by its grandeur,” Whymper later wrote in his memoir, Scrambles Among the Alps. "It was considered to be the most thoroughly inaccessible of all mountains, even by those who ought to have known better.”

Whymper was climbing during the “golden age of alpinism.”  During that era, mountaineers—mostly British—raced to be the first to reach the peaks of mountains in the Alps and elsewhere. Surprisingly few of them died in the process of seeking to reach the top for glory, England and scientific advancement. 

Whymper made no fewer than seven failed attempts to scale the mountain, the first in August 1861, writes Adam Ruck for The Telegraph. On most of them, he was accompanied by a local guide named Jean-Antoine Carrel, who also wanted to reach the summit.  “Stimulated to make fresh exertions by one repulse after another, I returned, year after year, as I had opportunity, more and more determined to find a way up it, or to prove it to be really inaccessible,” Whymper wrote.

Like it is today, mountaineering in the 1860s was a technical field, and questions of “approach”–on what side of the mountain to begin a climb, and how to continue it–are key. First Whymper and Carrel tried one approach, then another. Eventually, writes Ruck, they differed on how to approach the mountain and the two went separate ways. Convinced that an approach beginning at the Zermatt glacier was the right approach, Whymper pressed on with a team of six others.

Shockingly, given how many attempts had been made before, Whymper’s team found the ascent of the mountain fairly simple, Ruck writes. “Having forgotten in their haste to bring a flag, they flew [an expedition member's] shirt from the summit.”  

The group spent an hour at the top, wondering at the view. Whymper wrote:

There were forests black and gloomy, and meadows bright and lively; bounding waterfalls and tranquil lakes; fertile lands and savage wastes; sunny plains and frigid plateaux. There were the most rugged forms and the most graceful outlines—bold, perpendicular cliffs and gentle, undulating slopes; rocky mountains and snowy mountains, sombre and solemn or glittering and white, with walls, turrets, pinnacles, pyramids, domes, cones and spires! There was every combination that the world can give, and every contrast that the heart could desire.  

But after that single “crowded hour of glorious life” came the descent, and it was nowhere near as easy as the ascent had been. During “the difficult part,” as Whymper put it, the mountaineers tied themselves together, but one of them slipped. Whymper and one of their guides were able to secure themselves, but the rope broke.

“For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downward on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavoring to save themselves,” Whymper wrote. The four  slid out of sight, falling a distance of nearly four thousand feet.

“From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them,” he concluded. 

Three bodies were later recovered, while the fourth—that of Lord Francis Douglas—was never found.

 Only Whymper and a father-and-son pair who had been guiding the group survived.

“The drama surrounding the first ascent made Zermatt famous overnight,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.   

Until that year, fatalities in the Alps had been relatively rare, something for the exploring community to remark upon; after that date they became commonplace,” writes Fergus Fleming for The Guardian. For this reason, the ascent of the Matterhorn is considered the end of the golden age of alpinism. Public backlash included everyone from Queen Victoria downwards, and though Whymper went on to have other adventures, the Matterhorn clearly dogged him. 

For the rest of his life, Fleming writes, Whymper talked about the disaster “in lecture halls, magazine articles and private correspondence, but he seemed interested only in proving that he was not to blame.”

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