How the pursuit of a European summit gave birth to modern mountaineering

A tragic fall

Whymper’s team stayed at the top for an hour, and Whymper took the opportunity to sketch the panorama of the surrounding peaks.

Then the team roped up, and the guide Michel Croz led the descent. At one point, the less experienced climber, Douglas Hadow, who was in second, slipped and knocked Croz off his feet. Suddenly the two men tumbled into the air. Hudson and then Lord Francis Douglas were instantly torn from the mountain. Four men were falling now. Whymper and the two Taugwalders clung to the mountain with all their might, hoping to catch up with their teammates, but the rope snapped. All four men are dead.

The three survivors were so traumatized that they could not move for more than half an hour. The Taugwalder were crying in despair, the youngest sobbing: “We are lost! We are lost!”

Finally, they started to descend, cautiously and fearfully. Somehow, they managed to move around until nightfall, eventually bivouacking on a thin ledge.

Descending to Zermatt the next day, the men told their tragic story, but the shock was too great for the small mountain community. The rumors started and Taugwalder Sr. and Whymper were accused of cutting the rope. Swiss authorities opened an investigation that lasted three days. Each man was questioned at length. Ultimately, Whymper and Taugwalder were exonerated, but the controversy continued.

The Times of London denounced the ascent and deplored the “total uselessness” of the sport of mountaineering. Queen Victoria considered banning mountain climbing. European newspapers published denouncing editorials from writers who had never set foot on any mountain, let alone the Matterhorn.

To some people, however, spectacular deaths of a supposedly heroic nature seem to have an eerie magnetism – think Everest – especially to those who have never witnessed the horror of such events. In Whymper’s wake, people from all over Europe suddenly wanted to climb the Matterhorn. In 1871, an English adventurer named Lucy Walker became the first woman to climb the mountain. In 1881, 23-year-old Teddy Roosevelt climbed it. In 1911 the last undefeated Matterhorn ridge, the Furggen, was climbed, and 20 years later the north and south faces were climbed.

And mountaineers keep flocking to the Matterhorn, constantly finding new challenges. In May, the Swiss mountaineer Dani Arnold broke the six-year-old speed record on the perilous north face, ascending in one hour and 46 minutes, reducing the previous record by 10 minutes.

In the footsteps of Whymper

Denis Burdet, professional guide for Swiss equipment company Mammut, and I prefer a much more thoughtful pace as we retrace the legendary footsteps of Whymper. During our six hour ascent and descent of the Hörnli Ridge, I couldn’t help but think about how monumental it had been to climb this route 150 years ago.

The Italian ridges and Hörnli present much more difficult rock and ice climbing challenges than the routes used by commercial guides to get clients to Denali, Rainier and Everest (although the much higher elevations and the finer air on these peaks creates other dangers and challenges). And Whymper and Carrel accomplished the feat by using hemp ropes and wearing studded leather boots and tweeds.

During our ascent, Burdet explained that for nine years he had been a micro-engineer designing Swiss watches, making a good living, when he gave up everything to climb mountains.

“I was on the wrong side of the window,” Burdet said. “Mountaineering is my first passion, and I decided that I had to make my passion my job.

He has since guided through hundreds of peaks and describes his job as primarily managing a range of risks, especially with weak or incompetent clients, always calculating, always anticipating the worst. Yet he still believes in good old luck. “You must be lucky. If you are a bad luck climber you have to stop.