Mountain Literature Classics: Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper

© Gustave Doré

The engravings may be better than the writing, but with its blend of triumph and tragedy, the story of Whymper's five-year campaign for the first ascent of the Matterhorn is one of mountain climbing's defining narratives, says Ronald Turnbull.

The very first Alpine mountains were climbed by locals from France, Italy and Switzerland. Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure offered the prize money for the first ascent of Mont Blanc, and it was achieved by chamois hunter and crystal gatherer Jacques Balmat and medical doctor Michel-Gabriel Paccard, both from Chamonix, in 1786. England's high-point Scafell Pike, though no more than a bouldery walk, wouldn't get its first recorded ascent for another 32 years.

Edward Whymper and his own engraving of The Matterhorn  © Edward Whymper
Edward Whymper and his own engraving of The Matterhorn

But after Mont Blanc things Alpine stopped for a while. And when they started up again, it would be from the further edge of Europe. The 'Golden Age' of Alpinism, with first ascents of all the other main summits, was dominated by the English: from Alfred Wills on the Wetterhorn in 1844 to Edward Whymper on the Matterhorn in 1865.

How come? The convincing explanation comes, perhaps unexpectedly, from a Marxist historian in Belgium going under the name Koen Vi.

And it has a lot to do with the rise of the English Upper-Middle Class. Because Alpinism was, specifically, their form of fun.

This book shows us the new sport of Alpinism inventing itself as it goes along

Because of the Industrial Revolution, and the railways, and the way we didn't have a proletarian revolution in 1848, the English Upper-Middle existed earlier than in the rest of Europe. They didn't want to play football like the Middle-Middles and below. But the aristocratic sport of deer-stalking was closed off to them by social barriers. They needed to take up something even more masculine, rugged and dangerous. Something that reflected their imperialist mindset, something to define their class identity.

Lecture tours, English language guidebooks and Leslie Stephen's exciting book about it, the Playground of Europe, amplify the Englishness of this form of fun, just as Instagram amplifies the taste for walking up Cat Bells. And so, in 1886, Whymper's Matterhorn book sells to the chief inspector of schools for Wolverhampton, my own upper-middle class great-grandfather.

But within this festival of class consciousness, Edward Whymper, eventual ascender of the Matterhorn, was an outlier. A member not of the Upper-Middle but the Lower-to-Middle Middle: a jobbing journalist. His job being the 19th-century equivalent of a photojournalist: to provide wood-engraving illustrations for the London magazines and book publishers.

How not to cross the Theodul Glacier
© Edward Whymper

In 1860 he was sent to Mont Pelvoux, in the Écrins, to cover its ascent by three Englishmen. When the three Englishmen failed to get up Mont Pelvoux, Whymper saw his nice commission going down the drain – would he even get his travel expenses back? But a nearby Frenchman goes: I've got a rope. Let's you and me come back next year and climb this thing. So they did.

To make more money from his engravings, he needed the words to go with them. Scrambles Amongst the Alps: in the years 1860—69 (reissued in 1880 as 'The Ascent of the Matterhorn') doesn't have the lively writing of Leslie Stephen, and falls far short of Albert Mummery a few years later. But Whymper's engravings are first-rate. Indeed his mountain landscapes were immediately copied by the great engraver Gustave Doré for illustrating Dante's Inferno. At the same time Whymper's instructional diagrams have the self-deprecating wit that we find in Leslie Stephen's prose. I particularly like the one of how not to walk across the Theodul Glacier.

Meanwhile, the story of his five-year campaign for the first ascent of the Matterhorn is one of mountain climbing's defining narratives.

Not with a bang, but a Whymper

With a little more luck they would have descended as readily as they'd come up. With hindsight we see the lack of organisation and leadership, the social tensions within the party, as leading to the inevitable accident

On Mont Pelvoux in 1860 Whymper discovered, to his surprise, that the mountain air did not induce vomiting; the sky didn't look black rather than blue; and he felt no urge at all to throw himself over any of the precipices. Encouraged, he proceeded to the first recorded ascents of the Aiguille d'Argentière and Mont Dolent, both in 1864, and the Aiguille Verte, the Grand Cornier and Pointe Whymper on the Grandes Jorasses in 1865.

His book shows us the new sport of Alpinism inventing itself as it goes along. In the 1860s there was no existing ethos of what was normal Alpinism, little evidence even of what was and was not survivable. Whymper, without really thinking about it, took on an extremely high level of personal risk. Soloing on the unclimbed Italian ridge of the Matterhorn he pauses for an explanation of how what he's doing is 'difficult but not dangerous' as the stonefall was mostly lower down the mountain.

He doesn't rethink this, or edit it out, when, two pages later, he slips from the slopes of the Tête du Lion. He falls around 60m down the later ascent route of Mummery and Burgener, but happens to jam against the couloir wall just above its final 250m drop-off to the glacier.

After a boring week waiting for his wounds to heal, he's back up on the mountain. "I have a vivid recollection of a gully of more than usual perplexity at the side of the Great Tower, with minute ledges and steep walls; of the ledges dwindling down, and at last ceasing; of finding myself, with arms and legs divergent, fixed as if crucified, pressing against the rock, and feeling each rise and fall of my chest as I breathed; of screwing my head round to look for a hold, and not seeing any, and of jumping sideways on to the other side."

During the 1860s Whymper made six attempts on the Matterhorn's Italian ridge, sometimes solo, more often with the Italian guide Jean-Antoine Carrel. Then, in the early season of 1865, he took a look at it from the Riffelberg above Zermatt. And realised that the east face held its snow, so could not be so steep as it appears in the much photographed Zermatt view. Also, that the rocks dip southwest, meaning that while the further, Italian side has nasty outward sloping ledges, the ridge he was looking at would have small but incut holds.

Italian ridge on left, H&oumlrnli ridge on right, snow lies on the east face, can just make out rock dipping to the left, photo: Ronald Turnbull  © Ronald Turnbull
Italian ridge on left, Hörnli ridge on right, snow lies on the east face, can just make out rock dipping to the left, photo: Ronald Turnbull

Matterhorn 1865

And so, on 14 July 1865, he sets off on his seventh attempt on the mountain. But this time, after five years of climbing solo or with reliable guides, he's ended up with a whole gang of people he's never climbed with in his life.

Whymper's guides do tend to make their excuses and find themselves engaged elsewhere: occasionally, even, when half way up a climb. However, in July 1856 a rival Matterhorn climber called Felice Gordano has taken pains to engage not just Whymper's former companion Jean-Antoine Carrel, but every single competent guide on the Italian side. Poor Whymper can't even find porters to carry his luggage over the Theodul Pass to Zermatt. And this is how he picks up Lord Francis Douglas. The noble lord is just on his way across the pass, and has porters. But we have to wonder if Edward is also swayed by the idea of leading an actual aristocrat, brother of the Marquess of Queensberry.

The Revd. Charles Hudson and his teenage friend Douglas Hadow: well, Whymper meets them in the inn, the night before the climb. Hadow has climbed Mont Blanc without a guide just a few days before, and the two are planning their own ascent by Whymper's route on the very same day. Combining the parties would, Whymper persuaded them, be safer – but also, perhaps, avoid the possibility of Hudson and Hadow getting to the top ahead of him.

While Whymper is nominally the leader, he is socially inferior to the other three, especially Lord Francis. And their local guides are also ones Whymper doesn't know. Michel Croz is the experienced and skilful Chamonix guide employed by Hudson and Hadow; Peter Taugwalder's a Zermatt guide employed by Lord Francis. His son, young Peter, is along as a porter, and is to be sent back from the half-way camp. In the event, young Peter will carry on up the mountain, apparently to save the hassle of unpacking the rucksacks to re-divide the food.

The lower part of the Hörnli ridge turns out easier than expected: 'What had looked entirely impractical [was] so easy we could run about' [Whymper's italics]. They camp at midday, at 3300m, possibly on the very site of the future Hörnli Hut.

The following morning they climb onwards, still without difficulty, to the final steepening above the Shoulder. Here they traverse rightwards onto the top of the north face, on snow and iced rocks, Croz the most experienced guide leading. Whymper estimates the angle at 40°, 'a place over which any fair mountaineer might pass in safety'. Further up they traverse back left to rejoin the ridge just below the summit, which they reach at 1.40pm.

Three days before, Carrel and his rival party had set off on yet another attempt at the Italian ridge. They are now spotted, still 350m down from the summit. Whymper hurls down large blocks of rock to attract their attention, until they 'turned and fled'. Three days later Carrel would complete the first ascent of the Italian ridge.

Matterhorn summit, by Whymper's contemporary Gustave Dor&eacute  © Gustave Doré
Matterhorn summit, by Whymper's contemporary Gustave Doré

Accident on the Matterhorn by Gustave Dor&eacute, whose engraving was produced in consultation with Edward Whymper and closely follows Whymper's account  © Gustave Doré
Accident on the Matterhorn by Gustave Doré, whose engraving was produced in consultation with Edward Whymper and closely follows Whymper's account

The descent

With just a little more luck, the party would have descended as readily as they'd come up. It's with hindsight that we see the lack of organisation and leadership, the social tensions within the party, as leading to the inevitable accident. And obviously the 'stout sash line,' with its breaking strain already measured at under 300lb, should never have been allowed onto the mountain.

Whymper stays behind at the summit for the essential task of writing the expedition names in a bottle and hiding them in a cairn. Although the supposed leader, he does not supervise the party at it ropes up again, and young Peter, employed only as porter, is now taking the role of responsibility at the top end. Whymper ties back into the seven-person rope only moments before the accident.

Nineteen-year-old Douglas Hadow has already caused some concern. He is still tired from the record-breaking ascent of Mont Blanc a few days before. His shoes of lightweight leather, soled with edge nails, will be preserved in a Zermatt museum to be looked at with horror by any mountaineer of later centuries.

Croz, leading the descent, has laid aside his ice axe and is placing Hadow's feet in the holds and holding them in place. Whymper's impression has Hadow climbing down facing outwards. Just at the point where Croz turns aside to retrieve his axe Hadow slips from his holds, and knocks Croz off as well.

Above them on the rope, Hudson and Lord Francis are tugged from their holds. By which time the next on the rope, Peter Taugwalder the older, has belayed around a convenient projecting rock, as any climber would, thus saving the lives of himself, his son and Edward Whymper. They watch in horror as the other four slide down the icy snow, and disappear over the 1200m drop to the glacier below.

The three survivors continue downwards, shocked and demoralised. "For more than two hours afterwards I thought almost every moment that the next would be my last; for the Taugwalders, utterly unnerved, were not only incapable of giving assistance, but were in such a state that a slip might have been expected from them at any moment."

Young Peter Taugwalder's account, though, is rather different: "Our feelings can be imagined. For a while we could not move for fright. Eventually we tried to proceed. But Whymper was trembling and could scarcely take another safe step. My father climbed in front, forever turning round and placing Whymper's legs on the rock ledges. Time and again we had to stop and rest." (Letter by Peter Taugwalder Jr, transcribed by his great-great-grandson Matthias Taugwalder).

Lower on the ridge, as the sun sets in worsening weather, a mystic apparition: two crosses, projected on the clouds alongside them. Spectacular in Whymper's engraving, he later interpreted this as a Brocken spectre within a fogbow.

As for Edward Whymper himself: after six years of dangerous and impressive new routes, 'with the Ascent of the Matterhorn, my mountaineering in the Alps came to a close'.

However this appears to be not strictly the case. The book's Appendix records Whymper with Carrel re-ascending in August 1874 for the sake of photography', during which he took a picture of the first Hörnli Hut.

At the end of any movie, they scroll across the screen a summary of what happened to everybody afterwards:

At the commission of enquiry, suspicion fell, as it naturally would, on the working-class guide Peter Taugwalder. He was even accused of cutting the rope to save his own life. While defending Taugwalder from this absurd charge (there would not have been time to do so, the remaining rope end was clearly broken, and the 'stout sash line' was weak enough to make cutting it quite redundant), Whymper still managed to suggest that, for self-protection, Taugwalder deliberately used this very weak rope between himself and the unreliable Hadow. Taugwalder's reputation and career were ruined, and he emigrated to America. In return, young Peter accused Whymper of not paying his living and dead guides' fees for the expedition.

Meanwhile yes, apart from that little ascent of the Matterhorn with his camera, Whymper's Alpine career was indeed at an end. Instead, he moved on to Greenland and the greater ranges, achieving the first ascent of Chimborazo. At the age of 65 he married a woman 42 years younger than himself, but she divorced him five years later. At the age of 71 he locked himself in a hotel room in Chamonix and died all alone. His guide and rival Jean-Antoine Carrel had died twenty years earlier, guiding on the Matterhorn.

Italian side, of course.

27 Mar

Great, thanks! Wasn't Wills on the Wetterhorn 1854 not 1844?

27 Mar

First ascent of the Wetterhorn was 1844 but Will's ascent in 1854 kick-started the Golden era of Alpine first ascents.

Dates transposed, should read 1865 not 1856 where you first mention Felice Gordano, Ronald.

27 Mar

I'm not really into reading mountaineering books, but I did read this and it's very good.

Thanks, correct both times I think. The Wetterhorn is confusing, it was presented as if a first ascent but the guides had in fact checked it out well beforehand. A bit of class prejudice there along the lines of 'the guides don't count' - prejudice that we don't find in Leslie Stephen and Alfbert Mummery however.

28 Mar

You're welcome. The article's not been updated, so maybe tell UKC?

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