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1865 : The ascent of the Matterhorn by Edward Whymper

Here are a few pages from the original “Scrambles among the Alps”, the book written by Edward Whymper. On the following chapter, he relates his successful ascent of the Matterhorn. A few minutes before the tragic descent.

<< We started from Zermatt on the 13th of July, at half-past 5, on a brilliant and perfectly cloudless morning. We were eight in number – Croz, old Peter and his two sons, Lord F. Douglas, Hadow, Hudson and I. To ensure steady motion, one tourist and one native walked together. The youngest Tangwalder fell to my share, and the lad marched well, proud to be on the expedition and happy to show his powers. The wine-bags also fell to my lot to carry, and throughout the day, after each drink, I replenished them secretly with water, so that at the next halt they were found fuller than before! This was considered a god omen, and little short of miraculous.

On the first day we did not intend to ascend to any great height, and we mounted, accordingly, very leisurely; picked up the things which were left in the chapel at the Schwarzsee at 8.20, and proceeded thence along the ridge connecting the Hörnli with the Matterhorn. At half-past 11 we arrived at the base of the actual peak; then quitted the ridge, and clambered round some ledges, on to the eastern face. We were now fairly upon the mountain, and were astonished to find that places which from the Riffel, or even from the Furggengletscher, looked entirely impracticable, were so easy that we could run about.

Before twelve o’clock we had found a good position for the tent, at a height of 11,000 feet. Croz and young Peter went on to see what was above, in order to save time on the following morning. They cut across the heads of the snow-slopes which descended towards the Furggengletscher, and disappeared round a corner; but shortly afterwards we saw them high up on the face, moving quickly. We others made a solid platform for the tent in a well-protected spot, and then watched eagerly for the return of the men. The stones which they upset told that they were very high, and we supposed that the way must be easy. At length, just before 3 P.M., we saw the coming down, evidently much excited. “What are they saying, Peter?” “Gentlemen, they say it is no good.” But when they came near we heard a different story. “Nothing but what was good; not a difficulty, not a single difficulty! We could have gone to the summit and returned today easily!”.

We passed the remaining hours of daylight — some basking in the sunshine, some sketching or collecting — and when the sun went down, giving, as it departed, a glorious promise for the morrow, we returned to the tent to arrange for the night. Hudson made tea, I coffee, and we then retired each one to his blanket-bag, the Taugwalders, Lord Francis Douglas and myself occupying the tent, the others remaining, by preference, outside. Long after dusk the cliffs above echoed with our laughter and with the songs of the guides, for we were happy that night in camp, and feared no evil.

We assembled together outside the tent before dawn on the morning of the 14th, and started directly it was light enough to move. Young Peter came on with us as a guide, and his brother returned to Zermatt. We followed the route which had been taken on the previous day, and in a few minutes turned the rib which had intercepted the view of the eastern face from our tent platform. The whole of this great slope was now revealed, rising for three thousand feet like a huge natural staircase. Some parts were more and others were less easy, but we were not once brought to a halt by any serious impediment, for when an obstruction was met in front it could always be turned to the right or to the left. For the greater part of the way there was indeed no occasion for the rope, and sometimes Hudson led, sometimes myself. At 6.20 we had attained a height of twelve thousand eight hundred feet, and halted for half an hour: we then continued the ascent without a break until 9.55, when we stopped for fifty minutes at a height of fourteen thousand feet. Twice we struck the north-eastern ridge, and followed it for some little distance—to no advantage, for it was usually more rotten and steep, and always more difficult, than the face. Still, we kept near to it, lest stones perchance might fall.

We had now arrived at the foot of that part which, from the Riffelberg or from Zermatt, seems perpendicular or overhanging, and could no longer continue upon the eastern side. For a little distance we ascended by snow upon the arête — that is, the ridge — descending toward Zermatt, and then by common consent turned over to the right, or to the northern side. Before doing so we made a change in the order of ascent. Croz went first, I followed, Hudson came third: Hadow and old Peter were last. “Now,” said Croz as he led off — “now for something altogether different.” The work became difficult, and required caution. In some places there was little to hold, and it was desirable that those should be in front who were least likely to slip. The general slope of the mountain at this part was less than forty degrees, and snow had accumulated in, and had filled up, the interstices of the rock-face, leaving only occasional fragments projecting here and there. These were at times covered with a thin film of ice, produced from the melting and refreezing of the snow. It was the counterpart, on a small scale, of the upper seven hundred feet of the Pointe des Écrins; only there was this material difference — the face of the Écrins was about, or exceeded, an angle of fifty degrees, and the Matterhorn face was less than forty degrees. It was a place over which any fair mountaineer might pass in safety, and Mr. Hudson ascended this part, and, as far as I know, the entire mountain, without having the slightest assistance rendered to him upon any occasion. Sometimes, after I had taken a hand from Croz or received a pull, I turned to offer the same to Hudson, but he invariably declined, saying it was not necessary. Mr. Hadow, however, was not accustomed to this kind of work, and required continual assistance. It is only fair to say that the difficulty which he found at this part arose simply and entirely from want of experience.

This solitary difficult part was of no great extent. We bore away over it at first nearly horizontally, for a distance of about four hundred feet, then ascended directly toward the summit for about sixty feet, and then doubled back to the ridge which descends toward Zermatt. A long stride round a rather awkward corner brought us to snow once more. The last doubt vanished! The Matterhorn was ours! Nothing but two hundred feet of easy snow remained to be surmounted!

You must now carry your thoughts back to the seven Italians who started from Breuil on the 11th of July. Four days had passed since their departure, and we were tormented with anxiety lest they should arrive on the top before us. All the way up we had talked of them, and many false alarms of “men on the summit” had been raised. The higher we rose the more intense became the excitement. What if we should be beaten at the last moment? The slope eased off, at length we could be detached, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race which ended in a dead heat. At 1.40 P.M. the world was at our feet and the Matterhorn was conquered! Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.

It was not yet certain that we had not been beaten. The summit of the Matterhorn was formed of a rudely level ridge, about three hundred and fifty feet long, and the Italians might have been at its farther extremity. I hastened to the southern end, scanning the snow right and left eagerly. Hurrah again! it was untrodden. “Where were the men?’” I peered over the cliff, half doubting, half expectant. I saw them immediately, mere dots on the ridge, at an immense distance below. Up went my arms and my hat. “Croz! Croz! come here!” “Where are they, monsieur?” “There — don’t you see them down there?” “Ah! the coquins! they are low down.” “Croz, we must make those fellows hear us.” We yelled until we were hoarse. The Italians seemed to regard us — we could not be certain. “Croz, we must make them hear us—they shall hear us!” I seized a block of rock and hurled it down, and called upon my companion, in the name of friendship, to do the same. We drove our sticks in and prized away the crags, and soon a torrent of stones poured down the cliffs. There was no mistake about it this time. The Italians turned and fled.

Still, I would that the leader of that party could have stood with us at that moment, for our victorious shouts conveyed to him the disappointment of the ambition of a lifetime. He was the man, of all those who attempted the ascent of the Matterhorn, who most deserved to be the first upon its summit. He was the first to doubt its inaccessibility, and he was the only man who persisted in believing that its ascent would be accomplished. It was the aim of his life to make the ascent from the side of Italy for the honor of his native valley. For a time he had the game in his hands: he played it as he thought best, but he made a false move, and lost it. Times have changed with Carrel. His supremacy is questioned in the Val Tournanche; new men have arisen, and he is no longer recognized as the chasseur above all others; but so long as he remains the man that he is to-day it will not be easy to find his superior.

The others had arrived, so we went back to the northern end of the ridge. Croz now took the tent-pole and planted it in the highest snow. “Yes,” we said, “there is the flagstaff, but where is the flag?” “Here it is,” he answered, pulling off his blouse and fixing it to the stick. It made a poor flag, and there was no wind to float it out, yet it was seen all around. They saw it at Zermatt, at the Riffel, in the Val Tournanche. At Breuil the watchers cried, “Victory is ours!” They raised “bravos” for Carrel and “vivas” for Italy, and hastened to put themselves en fête. On the morrow they were undeceived. All was changed: the explorers returned sad — cast down — disheartened—confounded—gloomy. “It is true,” said the men. “We saw them ourselves — they hurled stones at us! The old traditions are true — there are spirits on the top of the Matterhorn!”.

We returned to the southern end of the ridge to build a cairn, and then paid homage to the view.76 The day was one of those superlatively calm and clear ones which usually precede bad weather. The atmosphere was perfectly still and free from all clouds or vapors. Mountains fifty—nay, a hundred—miles off looked sharp and near. All their details — ridge and crag, snow and glacier—stood out with faultless definition. Pleasant thoughts of happy days in bygone years came up unbidden as we recognized the old, familiar forms. All were revealed — not one of the principal peaks of the Alps was hidden. I see them clearly now — the great inner circles of giants, backed by the ranges, chains and massifs. First came the Dent Blanche, hoary and grand; the Gabelhorn and pointed Rothhorn, and then the peerless Weisshorn; the towering Mischabelhörner, flanked by the Allaleinhorn, Strahlhorn and Rimpfischhorn; then Monte Rosa — with its many Spitzes — the Lyskamm and the Breithorn. Behind were the Bernese Oberland, governed by the Finsteraarhorn, the Simplon and St. Gothard groups, the Disgrazia and the Orteler. Toward the south we looked down to Chivasso on the plain of Piedmont, and far beyond. The Viso — one hundred miles away — seemed close upon us; the Maritime Alps — one hundred and thirty miles distant — were free from haze. Then came my first love — the Pelvoux; the Écrins and the Meije; the clusters of the Graians; and lastly, in the west, gorgeous in the full sunlight, rose the monarch of all — Mont Blanc. Ten thousand feet beneath us were the green fields of Zermatt, dotted with chalets, from which blue smoke rose lazily. Eight thousand feet below, on the other side, were the pastures of Breuil. There were forests black and gloomy, and meadows bright and lively; bounding waterfalls and tranquil lakes; fertile lands and savage wastes; sunny plains and frigid plateaux. There were the most rugged forms and the most graceful outlines — bold, perpendicular cliffs and gentle, undulating slopes; rocky mountains and snowy mountains, sombre and solemn or glittering and white, with walls, turrets, pinnacles, pyramids, domes, cones and spires! There was every combination that the world can give, and every contrast that the heart could desire.

We remained on the summit for one hour — One crowded hour of glorious life. It passed away too quickly, and we began to prepare for the descent. >>

More on this topic : Edward Whymper, The Matterhorn, 1865 [podcast, in french]

Illustration © DR

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Eric T.

Eric, spécialiste de l'univers de la montagne, a mis son baudrier et ses crampons de côté pour rédiger des articles pour : Business, Nature et Alpinisme sont les trois rubriques principales dans lesquelles vous pouvez retrouver ses articles. Ce montagnard d'adoption est à l'affût d'histoire et d'anecdotes insolites à partager avec ses lecteurs. Pour le contacter directement : !

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