Triumph and Tragedy

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.

IMG_3986_pptThe 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.603_DSC04441_ppt1In 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.

Sunrise from the Dom

Sunrise from the Dom

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.

Old Sunrise_final

Dawn from the Matterhorn Hut – 1966

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.

ANH_Summit MatterhornI 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.

To read more there are well-written articles on Wikipedia about Edward Whymper and the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Enjoy the full gallery below, some of which have appeared previously but I felt this article deserved to have them repeated.

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About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'. I'm not averse to manipulating images to produce derivatives that may sometimes be far removed from the original.
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28 Responses to Triumph and Tragedy

  1. Chillbrook says:

    Such a moving piece and a day to remember for sure Andy. Congratulations on being one of those who have climbed this incredible mountain. I have only ever viewed it from below. I’m not a climber. I have a terrible head for heights and can only stand in awe of those that do. A fabulous and impressive gallery to honour the day!

    • LensScaper says:

      Thank you so much Adrian. It is a very exposed climb in places especially the part just below the summit which traverses off the Hornli ridge onto the north face. Not so bad going up but descending back down that section where you just look down and into space (the north face being so steep) can be scary especially if it is iced up.

      • Chillbrook says:

        Very scary indeed I’d imagine. I love being in high places. I love flying. I’d love to stand on the top of the mountain right where you are in the picture Andy. I just wouldn’t be very good at getting myself there. To try and tackle this vertigo I did a stint labouring for a roof tiler friend of my brothers during a uni summer vacation. Going up the ladder with the tiles on my shoulder and stepping off the ladder onto the roof was fine. It was stepping off the roof back onto the ladder.. I just couldn’t get over it.. well I did in that I did the job but it scared the hell out of me and I never lost the dry mouth and shakey legs thing.

        • LensScaper says:

          Going down is always worse than going up. The summit of the Matterhorn is a thin ridge with a Swiss end and an Italian end – you can just see the cross on the Italian summit on the Rt in the pic of me on the Swiss summit. I don’t think I would be quite as comfortable now as I was then aged just 19. Youthfulness seemed to render me somewhat unaware of the dangers coupled with a confidence that was possibly over-confident. Suffice it to say that I never had a serious fall on any climb.

  2. ShimonZ says:

    A fascinating story, Andy. And I truly appreciate your prowess. Never even tried such an ascent, though I did a bit of mountain climbing in those same years. By the way, seems like you have an error in the time line of the first ascent.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks Shimon – and thank you for spotting that error. I always read through but it continues to surprise me how mistakes get missed.

      • ShimonZ says:

        That has surprised me too, many times. I think that once we’ve written something, even when we go back and check, we recognize our intention more than we recognize the actual words written down. Fortunately, I’ve found a reader who usually corrects me right after I finish. But still, I surprise myself often.

  3. Sue says:

    Excellent post Andy – I knew about Whymper reaching the summit of the Matterhorn, but I wasn’t aware of the cost,… And kudos to you for reaching the top, you must have some fantastic experiences and memories. Oh, and last but certainly not least – great images! 🙂

  4. oneowner says:

    Extraordinary images, Andy, and great narrative.

  5. shoreacres says:

    I knew nothing of this history, although of course I knew of the Matterhorn’s place in climbing history. It’s a beautiful mountain, and your images do it justice. I especially appreciate the gesture of allowing the mountain to stand on its own today, to be respected and admired, but not climbed.

    I can’t help but note that at this very moment I’m watching and listening to the NASA live broadcast of the Pluto flyby. The New Horizons spacecraft is about an hour away (and 31,000 miles away) from its closest approach, which will be 8K miles. The spirit of exploration lives on, and no one will be able to suppress it, no matter how it’s expressed.

    You’ve had some marvelous experiences. Thanks for sharing this one.

    • LensScaper says:

      Keeping the mountain pristine and un-travelled today was such an appropriate idea considering how much triumph and tragedy has been associated with it – on an annual basis. When I climbed The Dom a few years ago, I met my guide up at the hut for the summit climb. He was fast asleep when I arrived. When he awoke he recounted his recent climbs which included being involved in a helicopter rescue close to the summit of the Matterhorn. I told that story in this post: https://lensscaper.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/climbing-the-dom-the-hut-climb/
      Man’s insatiable appetite for adventure and exploration continues unabated. As far as the Matterhorn is concerned there are some staggering statistics associated with new routes, fast climbs, feats of endurance.
      I’ve been very fortunate to have had some rare experiences in the mountains – they have enriched my life and left some wonderful memories

  6. This was a very interesting post, Andy. Thanks for the history lesson, and for the great images.

  7. seekraz says:

    Gorgeous photos, Andy, and a compelling narrative, as well. Thank you for sharing them with us…and congratulations on your successful summit…and return. 🙂

    • LensScaper says:

      That day could not pass without an acknowledgement of its significance to so many climbers past and present. Ed Viesturs wrote: ‘Getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory’. Glad you enjoyed the article Scott, and thanks for commenting.

  8. ehpem says:

    Andy this is a very interesting post – and what an amazing gallery of images. I admire climbers – I tried it in my teens but the heights got to me too much, so I never carried on with it.

  9. Len says:

    Every time you post photos from there, I have an urge to pack up and go there Andy. So many places, so little time (and money).

  10. As others have already commented, that’s quite a history lesson you’ve provided here. From your account, it seems that after the accident Whymper was reduced to a whimper.

    It was good to see you as a mountaineer half a century ago. The only thing I climbed in July of 1966 was the stairs of an old castle in Lisbon.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks for that comment Steve. The event caused huge argument and debate – there were even accusations that the rope had been cut to save three out of the seven climbers. The rope is on display in the Zermatt museum along with a lot of other artifacts.

  11. Jimi Jones says:

    Touching story and history, Andy. Thanks for sharing this, its a great read. The photos are fantastic, views of which I will never experience in person. There is one smile that cannot be suppressed with the sadness of the story, that of the young climber reaching the summit. 🙂

    So glad you’ve enjoyed a great (and safe) mountaineering career, man!

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