Today, 14 July 2015, is the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn – the iconic unmistakable mountain that dominates Zermatt and has made that resort famous across the world and brought it extraordinary wealth.
The mid-nineteenth century was the golden age of mountaineering in the European Alps – one by one the mountains were conquered but the Matterhorn remained unclimbed – many believed it was unclimbable. Edward Whymper a twenty-five year old English engraver was at the forefront of this group of intrepid mountaineers. Whymper had made a number of attempts on the Matterhorn from Italy as well as Zermatt but had failed repeatedly.In July 1865 Whymper was lodging at the Monte Rosa Hotel in Zermatt with Lord Francis Douglas (brother of the Marquess of Queensberry) and preparing to mount a further assault on the Matterhorn. They met two fellow climbers: Rev Charles Hudson, a clergyman and established mountaineer and his protégé Douglas Hadow aged 19 (a young man with little climbing experience) who also were contemplating an attempt on the mountain. They agreed to join forces and engaged three guides to assist them: Michel Croz a native of Chamonix and well-known to Whymper, and the guides Peter Taugwalder and his son, also called Peter, from Zermatt.
They triumphantly reached the summit but shortly afterwards, while descending the steep rocky roof of the mountain, tragedy struck. Douglas Hadow was in difficulties. Very probably he was scared, having never before been in such an exposed position, and Michel Croz was having to assist his foot placements as the party edged downwards. Hadow slipped, dislodged Croz and then Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas were dragged after them. Whymper and the Taugwalders were better attached to the rock and the rope snapped leaving the three of them as the sole survivors.
The bodies of Croz, Hudson and Hadow were retrieved a few days later at the foot of the north face but the Body of Lord Francis Douglas has never been found. The three are buried in the climber’s cemetery in Zermatt.
This calamitous loss of life was greeted with uproar when news reached London. Perhaps for the first time (but not the last) mountaineering was regarded as an irresponsible sport with articles in ‘The Times’, and debate in Parliament. Charles Dickens condemned the sport as: ‘a greater folly than gambling’. Others called for mountaineering to be banned.
Whymper himself never fully recovered, seldom climbed again and died in Chamonix in 1911 as a semi-recluse.
Today we celebrate this mountain but also remember more than 500 Alpinists who lave lost their lives while attempting to climb this mountain. Each one of us who has had the privilege to stand on the summit will never forget that experience.
Forty-nine years ago – July 1966 – I too was privileged to stand on that summit.
I had been invited to Zermatt to join my ex-housemaster from boarding school for a climbing holiday. He was a member of the Alpine Club and a keen mountaineer. The walls of his study at school were covered in B&W images of the Alpine peaks that he had climbed and each autumn there would be additions to this tally of ascents. I owe him a huge debt – my first rock climbs were with him on the sea cliffs of Devon and my first trip to Switzerland aged fifteen was with him, my parents, and a group of mutual friends. We remained in touch until his death two years ago.
Sadly we are not in Zermatt to join in the celebrations but we are there in spirit. As a mark of respect the mayor of Zermatt has barred everyone from climbing the mountain today.
Enjoy the full gallery below, some of which have appeared previously but I felt this article deserved to have them repeated.