It was 1865 when Switzerland’s most beautiful mountain peak was first conquered but with this victory comes a devastating tragedy that shocked all of Europe. For more than 150 years since the peak was discovered, it was called unconquerable. It was a mountaineer’s dream peak. Climbing it was a feat worthy of respect, admiration, and fame.
Matterhorn the mountain was called. It was derived from two words: matte and horn. Matte, a word from the dialect which meant meadow, referring to the grassy valley stretched out beneath the Gorner Gorge. Today, this valley is found in the village of Zermatt (Zur Matt “on the meadow”).
That year an English mountaineer with the name Edward Whymper took the first ascent of the Matterhorn. On their descent, four members of his climbing party were killed. Whymper and the guides were later accused of cutting the rope to ensure they weren’t dragged down but there was no evidence so they weren’t acquitted. The Matterhorn was the last great Alpine peak that was conquered. Its ascent marked the end of the golden age of alpinism.
Edward Whymper and His Legacy
Born in London on April 27, 1840, Whymper was the son of wood engraver Josiah Wood Whymper and Elizabeth Whitworth Claridge. He was the second eldest of the Whymper children. His older brother was the artist and explorer Frederick Whymper.
After receiving his early training on wood engraving, Whymper entered his father’s wood engraving business and became the head of it. His family then moved to Haslemere in Surrey in 1859. Edward Whymper first arrived in the Alps in the summer of 1860. He was from England and was commissioned to make sketches of the mountains to be printed in the newspaper. It was his first time seeing a mountain up close. He spent that summer observing, sketching, and familiarizing himself with the mountains.
Edward was a young and talented engraver. At the ripe age of 20, he was also very athletic. He hiked and crossed glaciers just to get the best sketch of the Alps. He was mesmerized by the mountain’s beauty. Not surprisingly, this experience made him interested in exploring and mountain climbing. He became very fascinated with the unconquered Matterhorn. After all, it was the last great Alpine mountain that remained unclimbed.
Whymper spent another four summers climbing and his ability as a climber developed. This was the time when he made several attempts to climb the Matterhorn. The Matterhorn proved to be the most elusive of all the peaks and that sparked his passion more.
Each year Edward would return to the mountain to find a way to reach its peak and prove the impossible. He continued to run his family’s engraving business while still indulging in his climbing passions. He would travel to Greenland and South America to find peaks to climb.
Between 1861 to 1865, Edward made several attempts to reach the peak with an Italian climber named Jean-Antoine Carrell. This partnership faded into a competition and both became rivals in conquering the Matterhorn.
The rivalry started when Whymper wanted to try and make the ascent from Zermatt, while Carell believed it should be on his native valley. Carrel agreed to take the ascent from the village of Zermatt but secretly arranged an Italian party instead. He left Whymper on the wrong side of the mountain, without a guide and team.
Knowing that Italians would take over a week to complete the expedition, Whymper started a team knowing he could still beat Carrel. Whymper headed to Zermatt while Carrel stayed on the Italian facing slope. Whymper assembled a team of climbers in Zermatt which brought his group to seven.
Whymper’s party spent an hour on the summit before beginning the descent. However, the triumph would soon turn to tragedy as an accident would change their life. The youngest of the climbers slipped taking three others with him into the depths. Whymper survived to tell the story. Up to this day, the Matterhorn has taken more lives than any other Alpine mountain.
After the tragedy and the ascent, the village of Zermatt became famous overnight. Since that incident, fatalities in the Alps have been rare. Edward continued to visit the Alps but has never climbed the mountain ever since. He married at the age of 66 to a woman called Edith who was just 21. The marriage only lasted four years and they had a daughter named Ethel.
For the rest of his life, Whymper would talk about the disaster in lecture halls and magazines. His stories were all the same and he firmly believes he was not to blame. Edward Whymper died on September 16, 1911, while visiting Chamonix. Whymper will always be remembered for his mountaineering skills and for being the first man to climb the Matterhorn.