Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011


They set off in the half-light before dawn - four English alpinists, a French climber and two Swiss guides.
Their goal: the top
Their goal was the mighty Matterhorn, a mountain that had never been successfully climbed. Now, in the summer of 1865, the seven-strong party had high hopes of success.
What none of them realised was that a deadly and catastrophic surprise was awaiting them. 
Mountaineer Edward Whymper had long dreamed of scaling the Matterhorn. He had made several attempts with his friend Jean-Antoine Carrel, but each time the mountain had defeated them.
Whymper: race to the top
Now, in July, 1865, Whymper was determined to succeed. He was unaware that a second party was also planning to ascend the mountain - and that they were intending to race Whymper to the summit.
Whymper was appalled when he learned that his former climbing partner had joined the Italian expedition. But he was relieved to discover that several other alpinists residing in Zermatt were hoping to scale the mountain that July.
They included three Englishmen - Lord Francis Douglas, Douglas Hadow and Charles Hudson - as well as the French climber Michel Croz.
Croz: experienced
Whymper now persuaded all of them to join his attempt on the summit: he also hired the services of two experienced guides, a father and son team both named Peter Taugwallder.
The climb began well. The group reached the Schwarzsee after three hours; by mid-morning they were at the base of the peak and heading for the east face.
Lord Douglas: the only way is up
They crossed a dangerous ridge and, by lunchtime, found a good position to bivouac. They had reached a height of 3,380 metres and decided to rest and attempt the summit on the following morning, ascending the mountain’s precipitous east face.
They set off at sunrise and climbed without ropes, soon reaching a height of 4,000 metres. They paused on the ridge at the foot of the near-vertical upper peak: it was so steep and challenging that they decided instead to make for the north face.
They seven struggled up the rock-face and finally neared the summit. When they saw that only 200 feet of easy snow remained, Croz and Whymper unhooked themselves and scrambled to the top.
The East Face: 'Hurrah!' wrote Whymper
‘The slope eased off…’ wrote Whymper, ‘At 1.40 p.m. the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.’ They had beaten the Italian party.
Whymper’s exhausted but elated team celebrated their triumph before starting their descent; Michel Croz led the way, followed by Hadow, Hudson and Douglas, with the two Taugwalders and Whymper bringing up the rear.
Whymper had already been alarmed by Hadow’s lack of experience on the ascent. Now, that lack of experience - coupled with extreme fatigue - was to cause disaster.
Disaster: 'Impossible!' screamed Michel Croz.
As the men clambered down - all roped together - Hadow suddenly slipped. He crashed into Croz, who was knocked clean off his feet. The weight of the two of them dragged down Hudson and Douglas. Within seconds, all four were sliding down a near-vertical slope.
Whymper and the Taugwalders were some distance away, but they were attached to the same rope. Hearing the scream of the men, they clasped at nearby rocks to avoid being pulled down.
The rope tightened, tugged them violently and then suddenly snapped in two. The three men were thereby saved from following their friends over the rocky cliff.
Whymper was horrified. ‘For two or three seconds,’ he wrote, ‘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 onto the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height.’
Not until the following day did Whymper and his guides reach Zermatt - and they were soon to find themselves embroiled in controversy. They were accused of having betrayed their companions: worse, they were said to have cut the rope in order to save themselves.
Whymper defended himself vigorously against accusations of betrayal.
‘A single slip, or a single false step, has been the sole cause of this frightful calamity…’ he wrote. ‘Croz held Hadow for an instant - and still tried to check the fall even after Hudson and Douglas had been pulled out of their steps, but in vain.’
As the four men tumbled over the precipice - and fell spectacularly to their deaths - Croz was heard to scream: ‘Impossible!’
It was a fitting comment on their deathly descent of the Matterhorn.

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