Here’s a question: What is the link between Edward Whymper, the Matterhorn and the Monte Rosa Hotel?
If you’re knowledgeable about the history of Alpine Mountaineering or have been to the Alps then you probably know Edward Whymper made the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 – a triumph that became a tragedy when four members of the team of seven were killed in a fall on the descent. But you probably won’t know how the Monte Rosa Hotel is linked – but you might just guess.
Here’s the plaque on the front wall of the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt that commemorates the fact that Whymper stayed here, and set out from here on that fateful climb.
In fact he stayed here several times between 1860 and 1865, and his last visit was in 1911 only a few months before he died in Chamonix and was buried there. Here’s his gravestone.
The Monte Rosa Hotel started life as the village’s only Inn owned by a Dr Lauber in the early 19th century. It was acquired by Mr Seiler in 1855, and renamed ‘The Monte Rosa’ and over the last 150 years has been progressively extended, updated and repeatedly renovated. The Seiler family also progressively established and acquired other hotels, and to this day the Monte Rosa Hotel is a ‘Seiler’ hotel. The hotel is placed at the centre of Zermatt and for decades Guides would gather outside the hotel in the evening looking for clients, and clients would come looking to negotiate a fee for a climb.
Whymper was an engraver by trade. In 1860, aged 20, he was sent to the Alps by his employer/publisher to make engravings of the mountain scenery. Whymper saw the high mountains and decided he wanted to conquer them. He was ambitious and determined, with phenomenal stamina, and over the next five years he established himself as one of the foremost mountaineers of his generation making a considerable number of first ascents of some of the highest Alpine summits.
Zermatt would not be Zermatt without the Matterhorn. It dominates the view, striking in shape. It is instantly recognizable by the drawing of three simple lines on a sheet of paper. It stands in total isolation, soaring to an improbably height. From the village centre it is the only major summit visible looking up the valley. Once you are high up on the valley sides, the picture is entirely different – the valley is ringed by 4000M peaks – an extraordinary sight.
It was the Matterhorn that became Whymper’s obsession. He tackled it seven times, several of these attempts from the Italian side, searching for a line of ascent before succeeding at the eighth attempt from the Zermatt valley following a line up the NE ridge – now known as the Hornli ridge and the easiest line of ascent. The triumph was overshadowed by the tragedy on the descent when the fall of Hadow dislodged first Croz and then Douglas and Hudson and the rope broke leaving Whymper and Taugwalder father and son (Zermatt guides) watching them being swept to their deaths. The event made headlines and horrified and scandalized the world. After the Matterhorn, Whymper was a changed man, the fire and ambition had burnt out. Although he continued to visit the Alps, he turned his attention to exploring and climbing in N and S America. His book ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ first published in 1871 is a classic story of his exploits between 1860-1865, still in print today and for anyone wanting to learn more about this man, do buy a copy.
Two years ago I took this image of the Monte Rosa Hotel – it’s a reflection in the glass dome of the Alpine museum opposite.
The original was not impressive – the colour was poor, tinted by the blue glass. Back home I played around with it in Photoshop and found I could extract quite a strong quirky image that you see above.
I hit on the idea of combining this with an image of the Matterhorn – associating the hotel with the mountain. The project consumed me for much of a week as I ended up by combining the two images of the Monte Rosa (seen above) the image of the Matterhorn as a ghostly silhouette and a reference to Whymper himself tucked away on the right. If you click to enlarge the final image you should be able to read the inscription – it’s clearly visible on my screen at full resolution.
As a montage it attempts to draw together, the man the mountain and his base (standing in for Zermatt). I learnt a lot in the process, and derived a lot of personal satisfaction from the result. But does it work?
I think it’s an image that is too opaque for most people: it’s an image that cannot be summed up or explained in a few words. It’s a story with an image, rather than an image with a story. It works perhaps for the cognoscenti, who know the connections. And perhaps for those who (like me) have known, loved and climbed this mountain. Sometimes images are just for personal reflection rather than exhibition.
But nevertheless, it’s here for you to view, think about and comment on if you wish.
Tomorrow my wife and I will be walking through the doors of this famous hotel, as guests for the next seven days. And that’s why this story is told today. And the final word must be Whymper’s – citing the Monte Rosa Hotel:
M. Seiler understood the art of inn-keeping. He knew how to welcome the coming and to speed the parting guest; and admirably seconded by his estimable wife, he soon made a name for the Monte Rosa. There was no need to advertise the house by the ordinary methods, for it was advertised sufficiently by its clientele. If anyone inquired what is the best hotel in Zermatt? Or where shall we go? The answer was “go to the Monte Rosa” or “go to the Seiler’s”.