Tombstone White

The treacherous history of the Matterhorn can be read in books and snowy graveyards, but to write it you've got to survive it

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Jean-Antoine Carrel is the climber who was forgotten once Edward Whymper successfully climbed the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865. Carrel, born in 1829 in Breuil, the Italian hamlet below the peak's south face, was one of the Alps' first mountain guides and the first man possessed with the vision and the will to try to climb the Matterhorn. His initial attempt was in 1857; he tried again in 1858 and 1861. He made three more attempts in 1862, two of them with Whymper. Whymper and Carrel were both friends and rivals. Carrel, the tough former soldier and stonemason; versus Whymper, the 25-year-old English artist, the climbing rookie who burned with the desire to reach the top of the stone dagger that had been pronounced unclimbable.

There were 17 attempts made on the Matterhorn, eight of them by Whymper himself, before the Englishman pulled it off. It was a battle of egos and shifting loyalties. Carrel considered the Matterhorn his mountain, jealously coveted the summit, and viewed Whymper as an interloper. Whymper believed Carrel to be the best climber in the Alps and had actually arranged to hire him for what turned out to be his successful ascent. But during the week of Whymper's planned attempt, bad weather intervened, and Carrel secretly agreed to guide a four-man, all-Italian team, leaving Whymper out in the cold. When the Englishman discovered that Carrel was attempting the mountain from the Italian side, he quickly cobbled together a seven-man team in Zermatt to make an attempt from the Swiss side.

On the summit day, Whymper's party ascended the Hornli Ridge, while the four-man Carrel team climbed the Italian Ridge on the opposite side of the mountain. Carrel had gotten a late start, and the Italian Ridge is the more difficult route, but Whymper won the race by only 600 feet. When he stood on the summit he could see Carrel and his companions below, and the Englishman rolled a few stones to get Carrel's attention. Devastated, the native guide turned back, only to return three days later, with a new team, to successfully complete the first ascent of the Italian Ridge and the second ascent of the Matterhorn.

Whymper's victory had exacted a great cost. During the descent, four members of his group fell to their deaths. One man, Douglas Hadow, slipped, pulling off three others. Whymper and his two guides, Peter Taugwalder Sr. and Peter Taugwalder Jr., caught the fall, but the rope snapped and Michel Croz, a Chamonix guide, and the English climbers Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow, and Francis Douglas fell 4,000 feet.

In Zermatt, Taugwalder Sr. and Whymper were accused of cutting the rope. The Swiss authorities conducted an inquest. After three days, Whymper and Taugwalder were exonerated, but the controversy continued. The Times of London denounced the ascent and deplored the utter uselessness of the sport of mountaineering. Queen Victoria considered outlawing the climbing of mountains. European newspapers published denunciatory editorials by writers who had never set foot on any mountain, let alone the Matterhorn. England was in an uproar over the disaster and everyone had an opinion. (Sound familiar?)

In 1871, Whymper gave his account of the story in a best-selling book titled Scrambles Amongst the Alps. Whymper would be famous for the rest of his life, although he hardly climbed in the Alps again. He went to Greenland, then to the Andes with Carrel, then to the Canadian Rockies.

Deaths of a putatively heroic nature seem to have a bizarre magnetism, particularly for those who have never witnessed the horror of dying. In Whymper's wake, suddenly everybody wanted to climb the Matterhorn. (Sound familiar?) In 1871 an English adventuress named Lucy Walker became the first woman to summit the mountain. The Zmutt Ridge was climbed by the famous English alpinist Albert Frederick Mummery in 1879. In 1881, 23-year-old Teddy Roosevelt climbed the mountain. In 1911, the Matterhorn's last remaining unconquered ridge, the Furggen, was summited. The north and south faces fell in 1931.

Thousands have attempted the Matterhorn, and more than 450 have died—more than on Everest or McKinley, Rainier or the Grand Teton. Technically, both the Italian Ridge and the Hornli Ridge are far more difficult than the trade routes up these other peaks. Whymper and Carrel's achievements are a testament to the skill, courage, and determination of mountaineering's early pioneers.

After turning tail on the Matterhorn the first time, I took a walk through the Zermatt cemetery, the graveyard of the Matterhorn. There are tombstones with ice axes and ropes sculpted into the rock, tombstones with real axes and crampons bolted onto the stone, even a tombstone in which a crucified Christ is adorned as a climber, ax and rope hanging from his body. These are the graves of too many who attempted the Matterhorn and paid for it with their lives. (Jean-Antoine Carrel, who perished in a blizzard on the mountain in 1890, is notably absent; his final resting place is Valtournanche, in the shadow of the mountain's Italian side.)

Whymper ends Scrambles Amongst the Alps with this admonition: "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."

Walking past those tombstones at dusk, with their hats of fresh powder, I understood why they don't guide when it snows on the Matterhorn.


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