White-faced and shaking, young Friedrich Taugwalder burst into the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt, pocket telescope in hand and shouted, "An avalanche! On the Matterhorn!" His elders scolded him for spouting such hysterical nonsense. An avalanche in mid-July? From that bare rock face? Impossible. They were right, of course. Friedrich's "avalanche" was not an avalanche at all. Merely four human bodies hurtling down from near the mountain's summit to a ghastly death on the glacier 4,000 feet below. It was July 14, 1865, and 15-year-old Friedrich had witnessed one of the most extraordinary accidents in the annals of mountaineering. It cost four men's lives and wrecked the reputations of the two surviving guides—young Friedrich's own father and brother. But from it, a third survivor, Edward Whymper, the man whose pigheaded impetuosity may have caused the disaster, achieved fame, fortune, and a still standing reputation as one of the great mountaineers of all time.
In the 1860s most men were convinced that the Matterhorn was impregnable. Local legend held that evil spirits dwelt on the gaunt, towering presence looming over the Swiss village of Zermatt and the hamlet of Breuil across the Italian border. A four-sided rock pyramid standing some 14,800 feet in noble isolation with a banner of cloud usually streaming from its peak, the mountain had about it a sinister, haunting quality that affected all who dwelt below. Its faces were swept by violent winds and sudden, terrible rockfalls; and because of its sheerness, the slightest mistake meant certain death to anyone attempting its ascent. No wonder that even in the golden age of mountaineering, the Matterhorn was one of the last great peaks still unconquered.
Two men, however, had an impassioned faith that this defiant mountain could be climbed, and each came to believe it was his God-given destiny to be the first to reach its peak. One was Jean-Antoine Carrel, a former bersagliere, or Italian sharpshooter. The other was the gifted, lonely young English artist, Edward Whymper, who arrived in Zermatt in 1860 to make drawings and engravings of the Alps for a travel book.
On his first visit, this 20-year-old who had scarcely ever seen a mountain before was content merely to gaze with his queer, burning eyes. The following year he went on a tentative climb, and the challenge of that black, uncompromising peak cast a spell on him which was to transform his life. Young Whymper became convinced that (his was his mountain—and he determined to fit himself to conquer it. By the time he was 25 the inexperienced lad had become one of the most skillful mountaineers of his day.
For three years Carrel and Whymper pitted their wits against the mountain which so obsessed them; time and again, they risked their lives. Sometimes they climbed separately; sometimes together.
Theirs became an admiring, jealous love-hate relationship; each man reluctantly recognizing that he needed the other's skill to make a successful ascent, yet each feeling the mountain to be peculiarly his own. In 1861 Carrel climbed farther up the Matterhorn than any man had been before and carved his initials on the rock face. The following year Whymper surpassed this height, reaching 13,400 feet and chiseled his own arrogant mark: E.W.A.L., which stood for Edward Whymper Alone.
During the descent from this solitary climb, Whymper fell 200 feet and was nearly killed by a terrifying avalanche of rocks. Recovering from that fall, depressed, injured and friendless, he swore that he would never fail to look after any other Englishman who might find himself ill in the region. It was a vow that would have its bearing on the fateful events of July 1865.
Seven times in five years Whymper tried the climb from the Italian side of the mountain and was beaten back. Then at last his keen artist's perceptiveness of color and plane made him realize that snow lay all summer on the apparently vertical east face on the Swiss side. Could the snow linger there, he asked himself, if the cliff were really so sheer? He studied the shape of the Italian side of the mountain and saw that the rock strata leaned outward; logically he concluded that the east face probably shelved inward, making a giant natural staircase on which the snow would lie. He therefore determined on an attempt on the east face, and once again engaged Carrel as his guide. Carrel disliked the idea of climbing from Switzerland but agreed to accompany Whymper. It was July 9, 1865; the weather was fair; all looked set for a successful attempt.
Then Whymper heard that a visiting Englishman was lying sick in the valley. Remembering his vow and his own misery when he lay sick and alone, he delayed his climb for a couple of days while he hiked 20 miles to get medicine for the ill man. In doing so, Whymper lost all chance of climbing with Carrel, for the Italian had meanwhile been engaged as a guide by what he described as "a family of distinction." Whymper imagined this was a party of lady tourists and jokingly protested, "That isn't fit work for you." Carrel smiled enigmatically. It was only after the guide had left the hotel that Whymper discovered the truth. Carrel had set off, not with a group of strolling ladies, but with two of the finest mountaineers of the newly formed Italian Alpine Club—and their plan was to climb the Matterhorn from the Italian side. Carrel's heart had been so overjoyed at an offer to climb with Italians, for the glory of his country, that he had let Whymper down. Not only that, but the Italian party, realizing the threat from Whymper, had taken with them all the most expert guides.
Enraged at this conspiracy, and actually weeping with fury and vexation, Whymper ransacked the town of Breuil looking for guides and he found Lord Francis Douglas, an 18-year-old English aristocrat, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry. With only two years climbing experience behind him, Lord Francis was going to make an attempt at the mountain with a guide named Peter Taugwalder, an indifferent mountaineer. Taugwalder had made mistakes on past climbs, and the Matterhorn was certainly no place for mistakes. But Whymper was desperate and determined, and he arranged that Douglas and Taugwalder should climb with him. When they arrived at Zermatt they found a superbly skilled guide, Michel Croz, sitting on the low stone wall outside the Monte Rosa Hotel, which was the traditional rendezvous of mountaineers. The question was, could he be persuaded to join them?
Croz had already been engaged by an expert mountaineer, the Rev. Charles Hudson, who was said to be the best amateur climber of the day. During dinner at the Monte Rosa that evening it became apparent that Hudson and Croz also planned to tackle the east face of the Matterhorn, leaving the very next morning. Whymper grew anguished and saw his hopes dashed afresh; he knew what a great team these two men would be. He had already persuaded Lord Francis to accompany him, in order to get the services of Taugwalder. Now he did his best to talk Hudson into joining his party, instead of competing with it. Whymper was not a likable man, but he was a most persuasive one, and he soon convinced Hudson it would be dangerous to have two rival parties on the same face of the mountain at once. Hudson agreed to join forces with Whymper, Douglas and Taugwalder. There was just one thing—Hudson had a young man with him, Douglas Hadow, a fresh-faced boy of 19 just out of school. Whymper looked anxious: had the lad climbed before? Hudson assured Whymper that Hadow could manage the climb, and such was Whymper's anxiety and haste that he took Hudson's word for it. In fact, young Hadow was almost totally inexperienced.
So the party was casually thrown together—Whymper, Lord Francis Douglas, Taugwalder, Hudson, Hadow and Croz: plus Taugwalder's son, "Young Peter," as porter. Seven was an unwieldy number; furthermore, there were only two professional climbers for four amateurs. The safe ratio should have been one guide to each amateur, but the self-confident Hudson and Whymper considered they were just as good as guides.
July 13 dawned sparklingly clear, and the party was in high spirits as they left the Monte Rosa at daybreak. To begin with all went well, and the group made excellent time, reaching 11,000 feet by midday at which time they decided to pitch camp.
The second day presented no real difficulties until, after a time, the northeast ridge became too steep. The party roped themselves together and made their way across on to the north face. This was covered with a film of treacherous ice where the snow had melted and refrozen. It was tough going, and the novice Hadow was soon in difficulties; he needed constant help and several times started to slip. It was a supremely dangerous spot, lying above a sheer drop of three-quarters of a mile down to the Matterhorn Glacier. But after an hour and a half of struggle they came up to pure snow, an easy run of 200 yards to the peak. Victory, so long and desperately sought, was at last in sight. Bursting with excitement, Whymper and Croz were so carried away that they did not wait to untie themselves. Rashly, Whymper took his knife and sliced through the stout rope which joined the two men, so that they were free to race up to the top.
At this great moment, Whymper—it is good to report—felt pangs of sadness, thinking of the bitter disappointment Carrel would feel. He wrote later, "He was the man, of all those who attempted the ascent of the Matterhorn, who most deserved to be the first upon its summit. For a time he had the game in his hands; he played it as he thought best; but he made a false move, and he lost it."
Croz made a flag from his blue smock to celebrate his own triumph and put it on a tent pole optimistically brought along for the purpose, but where were their rivals now? Looking down on the Italian side, they spied the tiny ant figures far below them. "We must make them hear us; they shall hear us!" Whymper exclaimed, and the party shouted themselves hoarse and tossed stones down until they were sure their triumph had been acknowledged.
They spent an hour on the summit after that, reveling in their victory and building a cairn of stones to mark their success before starting on the dangerous descent.
The haphazard order in which the descending party roped themselves together now seems inexplicable. It was a grave error of judgment caused by excitement and the spirits, negligence and lack of leadership. Croz, as the most experienced, should certainly have been last man, to support the others if they fell. Instead, he went first. The inexperienced Hadow came next, then Hudson, then Douglas—so that three amateur climbers were roped together without a guide in between them. Next came old Peter Taugwalder, then Whymper and last of all, in the key position, young Taugwalder, who had been brought along only as a porter.
Everything went smoothly until they approached the tricky ice-covered rock shoulder which lay above the three-quarter mile precipice. And then disaster struck. Croz was trying to place young Hadow's feet in the right positions. Hadow apparently slipped knocked Croz off balance, and the two men fell into space dragging Hudson and Douglas with them. The strong and wiry Peter Taugwalder clutched a big rock and braced himself, making a stupendous effort to hold all four men. For a moment it looked as though they would be saved. And then—the rope snapped.
Of all the Matterhorn mysteries this surely was the strangest. For the rope which had been used to make this crucial link between the three amateurs and the guide Taugwalder was not the stout Alpine Club-approved manila but the frail window cord which had been brought along as spare stuff for making handrails. Whymper claimed the guide had chosen this deliberately, in order to save his own neck if the others fell. Whymper's accusation cruelly clouded the rest of the old man's life.
Whoever bore the guilt, the four victims certainly met a horrifying death. Lord Francis' body was never found and still lies somewhere beneath the great glacier. The others were stripped of their clothes and boots by the violence of the fall; mere fragments of fabric were recovered; some of their mangled limbs had been torn right off; Hudson was identified only by his whiskers and part of a cheek.
The descent of the three survivors was a waking nightmare. Whymper's overwrought imagination even conjured up the notion that the two Taugwalders might try to murder him, and he sat all night with his back to a rock, his ice ax in his hand. Next morning the three men entered the Monte Rosa Hotel and were met by Seiler, the proprietor. Whymper said, "The Taugwalders and I have returned." Realizing at once the dreadful import of these words, Seiler burst into tears.
Two days later, Carrel achieved the first ascent of the Matterhorn from the Italian side. So ended the duel between the two men, but not the controversy, which has raged ever since. Back in England, a leading article in The Times thundered criticisms of such wanton waste of life. Queen Victoria wanted all mountain climbing banned. Ironically, however, the tragedy brought Whymper enormous success as a writer and assured him a lifelong income; his Scrambles Among The Alps has become a classic of mountaineering literature. In it he wrote, "There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say, 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."
They joke today that Matterhorn climbers are in most danger from slippery orange peel left behind by trippers. Now that the ascent can be made in a day by mere slips of girls, with 60 climbers a day going up in summer, it is hard to believe what a cruel giant it once seemed. But in the little cemetery in Zermatt, dominated by the huge black outline of the mountain, pilgrims come to visit the victims' graves, to relive the shock and sorrow of the disaster and to puzzle once more over the unsolved mysteries of the first ascent. Why did the climbers descend in that ludicrously unsafe order? Why was the weak rope really used? Could Taugwalder have saved the four victims if the stout rope had been used—or would all seven men have been pulled to their deaths? And who was really responsible—was the fault Carrel's for letting Whymper down; or Hudson's for bringing young Hadow; or Taugwalder's for using the weak rope; or Whymper's for recklessly assembling an unsafe party?
Zermatt is a tranquil village, full of peaceful little inns. But late at night, when the wine flows freely and tempers are raised, the air still rings with accusations and counteraccusations about the accident. The enquiring stranger, particularly if he is an Englishman, is met with a sudden silence. And above the valley the mighty Matterhorn grimly preserves its secrets.