Matterhorn conqueror cleared over fatal falls

Edward Whymper's first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 ended in tragedy when four climbers died. The 132-year controversy over who was to blame may about to be laid to rest, reports Stephen Goodwin

James Cusick
Saturday 30 August 1997 23:02

As mountaineering accidents go, it was horribly ordinary. A slip at the wrong moment, and four men fell to their deaths, tumbling from rock to rock. But who was to blame?

Edward Whymper, the artist-engraver who became the most controversial figure of Victorian alpinism has been accused of causing the death of his four climbing companions as they attempted to master the Matterhorn in 1865, in one of the worst disasters ever seen on the peak.

Now a new 674-page guide to the accident and its aftermath says that Whymper has been judged wrongly.

Over the years the climbing fraternity has been split between those who say that Whymper displayed callous indifference to the deaths, and those who believe he avoided casting blame to spare the feelings of relatives. Whymper's enemies even suggested her accused the guides of wanting to murder him after the accident so they could enjoy the publicity of being the sole survivors. The new volume by Alan Lyall confirms Whymper's own account and concludes that much of the "unjustified" criticism levelled at him stemmed from his reluctance to cast blame.

The 4,477m Matterhorn rears like a challenge above the Swiss resort of Zermatt, beautiful but deadly. The Swiss slopes still claim lives: at least five climbers have been killed on the Matterhorn in the last month.

Its first ascent on 14 July 1865 marked the climax of the "Golden Age" of alpine mountaineering. Whymper, aged 25, and his companions beat an Italian team, climbing from their country's side, to the summit and in a display of triumphalism hurled rocks down on them.

"We remained on the summit for one hour - 'One crowded hour of glorious life'," wrote Whymper. But an hour or so later euphoria turned to despair as the ill-matched party descended snow and ice-covered rocks. It started with a slip by Douglas Haddow, a "gentle, simple-minded pious youth" who had done little climbing and even had difficulty descending Pen-y-ghent, a hill in Yorkshire. Haddow knocked over his aide and foot placer, the Chamonix guide Michel Croz; the next man up the rope, the Rev Charles Hudson was dragged from his feet and so, in turn, was Lord Francis Douglas, younger brother of the Marquess of Queensberry.

Above were the Zermatt guides Old Peter and Young Peter Taugwalder, father and son, and Whymper. The Englishman and Old Peter had planted themselves firmly to try and take the strain but the thinner rope Old Peter had tied between himself and Douglas broke midway between the two.

"For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavouring to save themselves. They passed from our sight uninjured, disappeared one by one, and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorngletscher (glacier) below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them," wrote Whymper.

Had the inferior "sashline" between Douglas and Old Peter not broken all seven would most likely have perished. Today it would be unusual for such a large party to rope together.

The rumour that the rope was cut was never regarded as credible by climbers - though guides in the rival French resort of Chamonix seized on it as propaganda. But the rope, and the questions that were never asked about it at the official inquiry, form an intriguing part of Alan Lyall's study, entitled, with a touch of gallows humour, The First Descent of the Matterhorn.

Attempts to "play down" the circumstances of the accident lest blame attach to local guides and damage the reputation of Zermatt have left the smell of a cover-up. "Coroner" Joseph Clemenz owned the town's largest hotel and asked no searching questions. Whymper's own written questions were mistranslated and the evidence was not revealed to either him or the Swiss press. Whymper thought this "suppression of the truth" served neither the "travellers" - the English climbers - nor the guides. "If the men were untrustworthy, the public should have been warned of the fact; but if they were blameless, why allow them to remain under unmerited suspicion?"

Lyall's painstaking translation of inquiry documents and reassessment of the welter of letters and written accounts has highlighted not only the shortcomings of the inquiry, but the calumnies heaped on Whymper by a succession of writers.

Arnold Lunn, a great ski-mountaineer and father of the ski industry, railed at his "bogus pretence of scrupulous partiality". Lunn accused him of ruining Old Peter's reputation as a guide and, embellishing misinformation, invented the notion that Whymper accused the Taugwalders of plotting to murder him.

Though Lyall regards Whymper as a sensitive man and an honest chronicler, Whymper's disgust with the Taugwalders' behaviour after the accident is plain. In one of many letters, he expressed his "extreme dissatisfaction" with the pair. "They showed a most unmanly fear for their own lives, but directly we got to the easy part of the descent showed a heartlessness that was perfectly revolting."

In his 1870s bestseller Scrambles amongst the Alps, Whymper recorded that after the accident, the Taugwalders were paralysed with terror and "cried like infants". But later on the descent they began to worry over whether they would get paid - their patron, Douglas, was dead - and even suggested a ruse to add to their notoriety. The "murder charge" flowed from a memorandum in which he observed that "men who could view the loss of their fellow creatures with such commercial feelings as these, might not, possibly, be ill pleased if I also slipped". Whymper, in fact, paid Old Peter a record Sfr120 and his son Sfr80.

Lyall's encyclopaedic work is likely to reheat a mountaineering controversy that has never really grown cold since the day the rope broke 132 years ago.

The First Descent of the Matterhorn, by Alan Lyall, Gomer Press, Llandyssul, Ceredigion SA44 4BQ, pounds 45.

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