Thursday, June 30, 2011

July 14, 1865 --- Death on the Matterhorn

Triumph and tragedy in a single day for a British climbing team headed by Edward Whymper. Bidding to be the first to conquer the Matterhorn, Whymper's team had failed to reach the summit from the Italian side, however, success is won in their first approach via the Zermatt ridge. Camped at 11,000 feet the night before the final push to the top, Whymper recalled: "Long after dusk, the cliffs above echoed with our laughter and
the songs of our guides, for we were happy that night in camp, and did not dream of calamity."

Having reached the Alpine summit of 14,700 feet and planted the colors, the team begins its equally perilous descent. The disaster is, in Whymper's words, "the work of a moment." The 7-man team is connected one to another by a rope. It is vital that the rope remain taut, the sudden pull on any slack could be fatal. The youngest climber, Hadow - but in his teens - is the fourth man on the rope. He stumbles, staggering one way, then toppling back. The rope snaps, Hadow and three others vanish. Whymper's account continues: "For two or three seconds we saw our companions sliding downwards on their backs, spreading out their hands endeavoring to save themselves; then they disappeared one by one."

Whymper and a rescue team searched for the bodies. No sign was ever found of Lord Francis Douglas; what was left of the other three is described only as "shapeless remnants of humanity." All that could be done was a reading of the 90th Psalm, "Lord, thou halt been our dwelling place ... Before the mountains were brought forth." At an inquest, Whymper was exonerated of any blame for the accident, which was blamed on a faulty rope and inexperience.

The Times condemned the increasingly popular sport: "This is magnificent. But is it life? Is it duty? Is it common sense? Is it allowable? Is it not wrong?" Whymper gave up Alpine climbing and turned his adventure-seeking nature to a bid to become the first to cross Greenland, which he failed to do in 1872. In his later years, he was plagued by dreams of the accident on the Matterhorn. Even his friends say Whymper was "unpardonably rude" to anyone who brought up the subject, simply declaring, "It was my own business and I don't choose to discuss it."

Edward Whymper at

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