Tribute: centenary, death of climber Edward Whymper

by Thomas Clark

2011 marks the centenary of the death of British explorer Edward Whymper

Matterhorn (photo, E Wallace)

The famed mountaineer climbed many of the world’s most treacherous summits. He was the first to ascend several of the highest peaks in the Alps, the Canadian Rockies and the Andes.

But it was his Matterhorn triumph and the subsequent tragedy that befell his party for which he is best known.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Edward Whymper was born the son of an artist in London, April 1840. He trained to become a wood engraver to follow in the steps of his older brother the noted illustrator and explorer, Frederic Whymper.

Edward received a commission at age 20 to make a series of sketches of Alpine scenery, and he undertook an extensive journey in the Central and Western Alps.

“I had only a literary acquaintance with mountaineering, and had not even seen, much less set foot upon, a mountain,” he wrote.

Edward Whymper

The objective of his commission was to illustrate the mountaineering efforts for a Professor Bonney who was attempting to scale Mont Pelvoux. The mountain at that time was believed to be the highest peak in the Daughin Alps. Unfortunately the trip ended in failure for the Bonney contingent.

Inspired by failure

But the failure inspired Edward to make his own attempt at Pelvoux, despite his lack of climbing experience.

“As if by mere chance I fell in with a very agreeable Frenchman who accompanied this party, and was pressed by him to return the assault. In 1861 we did so with my friend Macdonald and we conquered.”

The conquest of Pelvoux now convinced him to become an explorer first and an illustrator second. Flushed with his recent achievement he developed plans to add more Alpine peaks to his mountaineering resume.

Between 1860 and 1864 he lead dozens of expeditions within the Alps, which vastly contributed to the understanding of the local topography. He completed the first assents of Barre des Ecrins, Aiguille d’Argentiere and Mont Dolent in 1864, and in 1865 Aiguille Verte, Grand Cornier and Pointe Whymper, the latter named in his honour.

Matterhorn looms large

He became obsessed with the Matterhorn during this period, at that time a peak considered to be unclimbable.

Statue of Whymper at L'Argentière-la-Bessée in France

During the 1860’s Edward made seven unsuccessful attempts to discover a route to the top with his friend Jean-Antoine Carrel. Each failure brought him new insights about the mountain and fired his desire to add the Matterhorn to his growing list of accomplishments.

In July of 1865, he assembled a group of alpinists to make yet another attempt on the peak. Edward’s team of seven consisted of three English climbers, Lord Francis Douglas, Douglas Hadow and Charles Hudson; French climber Michel Croz; and two Swiss guides, a father and son, both named Peter Taugwalder.

British climber Douglas Hadow was the least experienced among them and this would factor into the event that would haunt Whymper to his dying day.

East face to north in famous assault

The group left before dawn 13 July 1865, and several hours later they arrived at the base of the peak, heading for the east face. By noon they reached a height of 3,380 meters and Whymper called for a halt to the day’s ascent. They bivouacked here for the night.

The following morning, 14 July, they set off at sunrise and later decided to alter their course after encountering a near vertical wall. They moved to the more accommodating north face, where they carefully negotiated their way up to the summit. Finally 200 feet from the top, the slope eased and Whymper and Croz untied themselves from the rope and scrambled to the top.

“At 1:40 p.m. the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered.”

The group celebrated atop the mountain before starting their triumphant return. Michel Croz led the way, followed by the three Englishmen, Hadow, Hudson and Douglas, in that order.

“Impossible!”

The father and son team was next in fifth and six positions, with Whymper in the rear.

The seven were roped together and as they worked their way down, the less experienced Hadow suddenly slipped. His forward motion sent him into Michel Croz and their combined momentum dragged down Hudson and Douglas.

Seeing the calamity unfolding before them, the Taugwalders and Whymper grabbed some nearby outcrops in a desperate attempt to arrest the fall of the four men.

The rope tightened, tugged violently and then suddenly snapped.

Croz was heard to scream Impossible!” as he sped forward.

Whymper grave near Chamonix, in the French Alps

Whymper later described the event: “For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downward on their backs and spreading out their hands endeavoring to save themselves; then they disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice into the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet [nearly 1,300 metres] in height.”

At only 24 years of age, the tragedy would affect Whymper for the rest of his life.

“Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances—Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them…”

Post-tragedy, on to exploits in Greenland, the Andes, and more

Despite the tragedy Edward went on to other great achievements around the world that earned him recognition from the British Royal Geographical Society. He discovered rare fossils in Greenland, scaled Chimboazo in the Andes and several peaks in Canada. He also published many books about his wanderings, including Travels Among the Great Andes of the Equator, Chamounix and Mont Blanc and Zermatt and the Matterhorn.

His most famous book has remained Scrambles Amongst the Alps. It includes more than 80 illustrations, many of which are Edward’s, and a detailed account of his experiences in the Alps from 1860-1869.

Words that echo down through time

His advice is one for the ages and has application far beyond exploration: “Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Edward Whymper died at the age of 71, shortly after his last climb in the Alps.

He is buried in Chamonix, France.

Thomas Clark is a writer and lawyer who writes about local history throughout the world.