In the end it was all planned very quickly – and triumph and tragedy were to follow in rapid succession.

Wood engraver, tent designer and mad-keen mountaineer Edward Whymper, just 25 at the time, was obsessed with the idea of being the first to climb the Matterhorn, a great slab of rock presiding over the Swiss village of Zermatt and the Italian community of Cervinia. He had tried several times to conquer it and each time had been beaten by the weather and adverse climbing conditions.

Edward Whymper

In July of 1865 he was again in the region, gazing repeatedly at the mountain and working out possible routes for the ascent.

One day, he heard that Italian climber Jean-Antoine Carrel, whom he knew well and who was also determined to be the first to reach the peak, was at any day about to set out at the head of an expedition from the Italian side. Whymper hurried back to Zermatt in order to assemble a group to mount his own attempt.

He was very newly acquainted with Lord Francis Douglas, aged 18, Anglican minister Charles Hudson, 36 and Douglas Hadow, 19, who had all been recently drawn to Zermatt by the lure of the Matterhorn. On the evening of July 12 they all met up, along with French mountain guide Michel Croz, 37, who had climbed before with Whymper, in the Monte Rosa Hotel in the centre of Zermatt to discuss a possible assault on the summit – and plans progressed with astonishing speed. There was no point in delay they decided. They would begin the very next morning.

Having laid their plans they went to bed early. They were up for breakfast when it was still dark – and at 5.30pm on July 13, 1865, with guides/porters Peter Taugwalder and his sons Peter and Joseph, they set out from the Monte Rosa Hotel.

By 8.20am Whymper’s party had reached the chapel at Schwarzsee, where they picked up some climbing equipment being stored there. They continued along the ridge and by 11.30am had reached the base of the mountain proper. At midday, at a height of 10,890-ft, they set up a bivouac and rested for the remainder of the day.

 

The summit in sight

At break of dawn the following morning, July 14, they set out (Joseph Taugwalder returning to Zermatt at this point) and by 6.20am had reached 12,800-ft. Here they rested for half an hour. The next stage, with the climb becoming ever more challenging, took them until just before 10am, when they stopped to rest again for 50 minutes at a height of 14,000-ft.                                    

From this point the climb became so steep the party had to leave the ridge for the north face. Whymper later wrote that the inexperienced Douglas Hadow had to be continually assisted. But despite the problems the group eventually arrived near the summit.

All that remained to be covered was a shallow slope covered with snow – and Croz and Whymper left the group to race each other to the peak. It ended in a dead heat. It was 1.40pm and the world was at their feet. The Matterhorn was conquered. ‘Not a footstep could be seen,’ Whymper later noted. At the peak he checked the further extremity of the summit to make sure no telltale footprints told of an Italian triumph. There were none. Peering downwards over the cliff he saw Carrel and his party a considerable distance below, still ascending. Upon seeing his rival at the summit, Carrel gave up the attempt and led his party down again. Carrel was to reach the peak a few days later.

Whymper and his party stayed for an hour at the summit, letting their achievement slowly sink in and taking in the astounding views, before beginning the descent.

Croz went first, then Hadow, Hudson, Douglas, Taugwalder senior, Whymper and Taugwalder junior coming last. They climbed down with great care, one climber moving at a time. When they were about an hour from the summit and were all roped together, Hadow slipped and fell on Croz, who was in front of him.

They both fell and pulled Hudson and Douglas with them.  Whymper and Taugwalder heard Croz’s shouts and braced themselves against the rock face. It seemed for a moment as if they had taken the weight of the falling men – but then the rope broke between Taugwalder senior and Douglas, and Whymper saw the four climbers slide down the steep slope, each trying desperately to arrest their fall, clutching at the surface as they tumbled from rock to rock. Their efforts were to no avail and they finally disappeared, one by one, over the edge of the precipice. They plunged nearly 4,000 ft to the glacier.

The three survivors eventually reached Zermatt the following morning, Saturday, July 15. The bodies of Croz, Hadow and Hudson were eventually found. Of Douglas, only a pair of gloves, a belt and boot were discovered.

It was later found that the rope in use at the time was the oldest and weakest they had with them and had been intended only as a reserve. There were even unsubstantiated claims that the rope had been cut to save the three braced against the rock face. Taugwalder senior faced trial for negligence, but was acquitted and various inquiries and investigations over the years, including a recent  scientific test on a rope reconstructed exactly in the fashion of the original, have established that it was purely an accident and that the rope did simply break under the strain.

In Britain the incident became big news and was widely discussed. Queen Victoria was so concerned that she asked her government if measures could be introduced to ban British citizens from taking part in mountaineering entirely, as it was plainly excessively dangerous. Such a ban was never introduced.

As he tried to stop Hadow’s fall Croz’s last word, according to the Taugwalders, was ‘Impossible!’ In a letter, Whymper described it as a ‘frightful calamity’.

 

150 years this summer

As Zermatt this summer marks the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, the legacy of that momentous achievement and subsequent disaster remains one of astonishing extremes. Without the Matterhorn there would be no Zermatt as we know it today. Without the dreadful drama of its conquering, Zermatt would not have suddenly excited worldwide interest – it rapidly became a holiday resort cloaked in mystique and romance, adventure and daring. In many ways it still is.

It captured the imagination of travellers at a time when tourism was starting to become fashionable, and helped turn Alpinism into a recognised activity and interest. And this was well before skiing as a recreational activity had entered the scene.

As an Alpine icon, the Matterhorn is without peer – even though at 14,782ft it is lower than its neighbours Monte Rosa and Lyskamm. But of course it dominates the horizon – a rocky pyramid which seems to pierce the sky, theatrical in its grandeur.

Celebrations, festivals and a host of other events this summer mark those bittersweet days of 150 years ago. Zermatt at any time of year is a cheery, lively, fun place. In summer the flowers and the warmth of the Alpine sun make it even more so.

But two places bring you up short. The first is the cemetery, where many of the gravestones tell of mostly young men who have met their end attempting to follow the footsteps of Whymper. In one corner there are the tombstones of Croz, Hadow and Hudson. The remains of Lord Francis Douglas are still somewhere on the mountain.

The second place is the remarkable museum, mostly below ground in the centre of town. Here, in a reconstruction of how the village would once have looked, you can see the relics of that first climb. Hadow’s boot is there, the sole half torn off – perhaps the one that slipped on the rock face with such devastating consequences. Then there is the rope that broke, its ends frayed. It does look far too puny for men’s lives to have depended on it.

It’s a strange phenomenon for a resort to have a back-story of such drama – its name to have been made in many respects by such an event. But that is the way of the mountains. People will always match themselves against nature, and test themselves sometimes to the ultimate.

So perhaps tragedy is not the word for it. The four who did not return had realised their great dream.

It is estimated that over 500 have died on the Matterhorn since that first climb, making it one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps. It is also the most beautiful, the most dramatic.

 

All pictures courtesy of Zermatt Tourist Office