The Matterhorn – Part I – A very brief History

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps

The Matterhorn; everyone knows of it, from climbers to non-climbers to childhood memories of snapping off that unmistakable triangle of chocolate that we know as Toblerone. Except there was no bear to be found on the mountain as depicted in the Toblerone logo. (Look closely).


A unique mountain is the Matterhorn. Infamous, iconic, idyllic, she is old with history and stories of tragedy which only seem to add to her menacing character. She is an isolated peak and when viewed from Zermatt she is the epitome of a mountain. She was one of the last great remaining alpine peaks to be summited. She struck fear into most accomplished alpinists in the 1800’s and most thought she was unbeatable and deadly. That was until Edward Whymper came into her history. It is said that after first witnessing her majestic authority over every peak in the valley. He became obsessed with trying to climb her.

I read Whymper’s book Scrambles amongst the Alps and found him to be a very talented artist and a logical man with a remarkable internal drive that seemed to endure the years of failed attempts on the Matterhorn. He, like many other British explorers of that time and time before, were of a different breed. For them success even at the cost of their lives were of up-most importance. Whymper had tried 7 times before to scale the Matterhorn. All of those attempts were from what is known as the Lion Ridge. It was not until later on he had an idea that the rocks on what is known as the Hornli Ridge are in a direction which are somewhat more acceptable to climb as opposed to the rocks on the other ridge. In 1865, when Whymper learned that another party was attempting the summit from the Lion Ridge, he quickly assembled a party of guides that he could use to take him up via the Hornli Ridge.


On the morning of the 14th, they assembled together outside the tent and started directly at dawn. Young Peter Taugwalder came on with them as a guide, and his brother returned to Zermatt. They followed the route which had been explored on the previous day, and in a few minutes came in view of the east face:

“The whole of this great slope was now revealed, rising for 3,000 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 left. For the greater part of the way there was, indeed, no occasion for the rope, and sometimes Hudson led, sometimes myself.”

They went up unroped and, at 6.20, reached a height of 12,800 feet. After a half-hour break they proceeded until 9.55, when they stopped for fifty minutes at a height of 14,000 feet. They had arrived at the foot of the much steeper upper peak that lies above the shoulder. Because it was too steep and difficult they had to leave the ridge for the north face. At this point of the ascent Whymper wrote that the less experienced Hadow “required continual assistance”. Having overcome these difficulties the group finally arrived near the summit. When they saw that only two hundred feet of easy snow remained, Croz and Whymper detached themselves and reached the top first.

“The slope eased off, 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.”
Whymper and party stayed an hour on the summit. Then they began their descent. Croz descended first, then Hadow, Hudson and Douglas, Taugwalder father, Whymper with Taugwalder son coming last. They climbed down with great care, only one man moving at a time. When they were barely an hour from the summit and were all on the rope, Hadow slipped and fell on Croz, who was in front of him. Croz, who was unprepared, was unable to withstand the shock; they both fell and pulled down Hudson and Douglas. On hearing Croz’s shout Whymper and Taugwalder clasped the rocks; they stood firm but the rope broke. Whymper saw them slide down the slope, trying with convulsive hands to stop themselves, and then falling from rock to rock and finally disappearing over the edge of the precipice.In a letter to the Times Whymper wrote:
“As far as I know, at the moment of the accident no one was actually moving. I cannot speak with certainty, neither can the Taugwalders, because the two leading men were partially hidden from our sight by an intervening mass of rock. Poor Croz had laid aside his axe, and, in order to give Mr. Hadow greater security, was absolutely taking hold of his legs and putting his feet, one by one, into their proper positions. From the movements of their shoulders it is my belief that Croz, having done as I have said, was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself ; at this moment Mr. Hadow slipped, fell on him, and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downwards ; in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps and Lord F. Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment ; but immediately we heard Croz’s exclamation, Taugwalder and myself planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit ; the rope was tight between us, and the shock came on us as on one man. We held ; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord F. Douglas. For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavouring to save themselves; they then disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them.”
After they could fix some rope on firm rocks and secure themselves they were able to proceed and continue the descent. They finally reached a safer place on the ridge towards 6.00 p.m. They looked for traces of their companions and cried to them but in vain. After having seen a curious weather phenomenon in the form of an arch and two crosses (later determined as a fog bow by Whymper), they continued the descent and found a resting place at 9.30 p.m. They could resume the descent at daybreak and reach Zermatt on the morning of Saturday, July 15.
Apparently between 1865 – 1879 no tragedies were reported on the Matterhorn. I would assume that very few people climbed that Matterhorn in those earlier days which attributed to the surprisingly low body count. However, some years later yet another infamous tragedy unfolds.
On September 7, 1879 The New York Times reported:“Mr Moseley, unroped, was standing on a narrow ledge of rock, when, owing, in all probability, to a thin coating of ice which covered it, he slipped, and Mr Craven had the horror of seeing his companion whirling through the air for some thousands of feet, and then disappear, he believes at the base of the Matterhorn, and which also skirt its glacier.”Dr. William Moseley from Boston, USA, only twenty-nine years old arrived in Zermatt in early August 1879. He was together with his friend W. E. Cravern and two Oberland guides; Peter Rubi and Christian Inäbnit. They had together climbed more than twenty peaks and intended to add the Matterhorn to the list. Fourteen years had passed since the 1865 tragedy and no more victims had been claimed.The party climbed strongly and Moseley felt so confident that he insisted on climbing parts of the route unroped but the guides persuaded him not to. At nine in the morning they reached the summit where they stayed for twenty minutes. Again on the descent Moseley wanted to climb without the rope and despite protests from the others he took the rope off. At the steep part above where the Solvay hut later was erected the accident happened. Moseley slipped and fell to his death.Charles Gos writes in his Alpine Tragedy: ”Then he leaps. Unhappily his taking-off point gives way beneath him. He falls. Now Moseley can see tragedy loom before him in all its horror. Though out of vanity he had wanted to abandon the rope, he has no wish to die. Now he slides on his stomach, his hands trying to grapple with the rocks that fly very swiftly by. He succeeds only in tearing off the ends of his fingers. Nearly two thousand feet below, on the Fruggen Glacier, the last parabola ends.”Moseley’s name is forever associated with the Matterhorn since the steep parts both below and above the Solvay Hut are named after him as the Lower and the Upper Moseley slabs. (The Solvay Hut is an emergency shelter built in 1915 at an altitude of 4000m. The hut has some beds and a radio telephone. The hut stands as a turnaround point if a climber is way too slow. I was told 2 hours to make it to the Solvay hut from the Hornli Hut or else!).  Source:
The Matterhorn must be understood and respected before climbing. Peak baggers should not use this as a mountain to brag about. Its wonderfully magnificent from afar, and she looks like a solid piece of mountain, sturdy and grounded. In reality she is a minefield of loose rock and hazards. She is a vertical maze of danger and I often felt that I was climbing on a rocky treadmill and never really getting any closer to the top until the end. Thankfully, I read alot about the Matterhorn, and I loosely knew what to expect before I laid my eyes, hands and feet on her. In Part 2, I shall describe the climbing of this mountain.


One Response to “The Matterhorn – Part I – A very brief History”
  1. theeddadiaries says:

    To see it is to love it.

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