Edward Whymper, a name well known among mountaineers.
Well known for his ‘obsession’ to be the first to summit the Matterhorn, he even admitted in an interview that he was driven by the want to make a mark, and that his ego played a part in this.
He succeeded in being the first to stand on the summit in 1865, but not without controversy…
Born in London, he followed in family footsteps and became a wood engraver. This gained him a commission from Wiliam Longman, a member of The Alpine Club, and as such he was able to visit the Alps and create some sketches for Longman.
Prior to this, he had attended a talk on mountaineering, but never taken part in any form of it himself. In fact, he had exploratory childhood dreams and goals, but they were to head for the Arctic.
In the Alps he was fortunate to meet some of the famous climbers of the time and see some of the most famous peaks, notably calling the Weisshorn ‘the noblest in Switzerland’.
He returned to the Alps in 1861 with a plan to only conquer those that had not yet been climbed… ambitious, you might say! He made what he thought to be the ‘first ascent’ of Mont Pelvoux, before discovering that he was wrong and looking for something more worthy of glory. At this point, only the Matterhorn was remaining as the highest un-summitted peak, despite a number of attempts.
In 1862, armed with equipment including a tent he designed himself, he made 5 attempts on the Matterhorn over 3 weeks, all unsuccessful, including one attempt where he fell around 60m before heading out again a week later.
Over the next 3 years, he continued with more first ascents of the Alps, including the Aiguille d’Argentiere before heading back out to Zermatt in 1865.
That year, he had made 5 first ascents, among them the Aiguille Verte and Grandes Jorasses, as well as an early season attempt on the Matterhorn, again unsuccessful.
Later that year, the Italian Alpine Club was sponsoring a team to summit the Matterhorn, among them Carrel and Whymper, through desperation found anyone he could to climb with. He spoke with Lord Francis Douglas, also a keen alpinist, and began planning with him and his guide, Joseph Taugwalder. Taugwalder’s father believed that the Matterhorn could be climbed via the Hornli ridge from Switzerland, and so they headed for Zermatt, where they met with Michael Croz, Charles Hudson and and Douglas Hadow. The two teams joined forces, despite Whymper having misgivings on the experience of Hadow.
“The whole of this great slope was now revealed, rising for 3,000 feet like a huge natural staircase. Some parts were more, and others were less, easy; but we were not once brought to a halt by any serious impediment, for when an obstruction was met in front it could always be turned to the right or left. For the greater part of the way there was, indeed, no occasion for the rope, and sometimes Hudson led, sometimes myself”
Croz and Whymper untied and both ran for the summit, reaching it at exactly the same time. 1340. They threw stones down the italian side, in order to make Carrel (400m below) aware that they had beaten him (see the ego thing?!). Having forgotten to bring a flag, they flew a shirt from the summit.
“The slope eased off, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race, which ended in a dead heat. At 1.40 p.m. the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.”
After an hour on the top – “one crowded hour of glorious life” – Whymper and Croz made a decision for the order of descent, they put Croz at the front, then Hadow, Hudson, Douglas, Taugwalder Sr, Whymper and Taugwalder Jr.
Here is where everything began to unravel. Many mountaineering experts have agreed that Croz should have been above Hadow, as he was more experienced. on top of this, the rope used to join Douglas and Taugwalder was weak.
Just below the summit, Hadow slipped, taking out Croz, and pulling everyone off their footing. The rope connecting Taugwalder broke and Croz, Hadow, Hudson and Douglas fell.
Whymper wrote after the event;“As far as I know, at the moment of the accident no one was actually moving. I cannot speak with certainty, neither can the Taugwalders, because the two leading men were partially hidden from our sight by an intervening mass of rock. Poor Croz had laid aside his axe, and, in order to give Mr. Hadow greater security, was absolutely taking hold of his legs and putting his feet, one by one, into their proper positions. From the movements of their shoulders it is my belief that Croz, having done as I have said, was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself ; at this moment Mr. Hadow slipped, fell on him, and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downwards ; in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps and Lord F. Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment ; but immediately we heard Croz’s exclamation, Taugwalder and myself planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit ; the rope was tight between us, and the shock came on us as on one man. We held ; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord F. Douglas. For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavouring to save themselves; they then disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them”
Whymper and the Taugwalders returned to Zermatt. Their climbing party were buried (when found) in the churchyard in Zermatt. There have been so many questions over the years, not least why the inexperienced Hadow was part of the group, and why such flimsy rope was used when there was plenty of the stronger. Questions that will never be answered.
Queen Victoria considered banning mountaineering to all British citizens after the event, but decided after consultation, not to.
Whymper went on to write Scrambles Amongst The Alps in 1871, and a large part of this book was made up with the account of the Matterhorn first ascent.