Englishman Edward Whymper and six others made the first successful ascent of the iconic Matterhorn. Only three of them, however, would survive the first descent.

The pure air that Edward Whymper inhaled atop the summit of the Matterhorn on July 14, 1865, was so rarified that it had never filled the lungs of another person—or so the English mountaineer hoped.

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Edward Whymper (Credit: Zermatt Tourismus)

The 25-year-old illustrator from London had never even seen a mountain when he first visited Switzerland in 1860 on an assignment to sketch the dazzling Alps. Taken by the mountains’ challenge as well as their beauty, Whymper began to scale the range’s highest peaks, including the invincible Matterhorn, the highest Alp remaining to be conquered.

Seven times Whymper tried to scale the Matterhorn from its Italian side. Seven times the stubborn mountain refused to yield. On most of Whymper’s expeditions, local Italian guide Jean-Antoine Carrel accompanied him. Carrel, who viewed the Englishman as a rival as well as a colleague, always believed a local climber, not a foreigner, should be the first to summit the mountain in his backyard. So when Whymper decided in July 1865 to scale the Matterhorn along a ridge on the Swiss side that climbers had thought too menacing, Carrel said he would join him while secretly agreeing to climb with another expedition from the Italian side.

As the more experienced Carrel gained a two-day head start, Whymper was forced to cobble together a seven-man climbing party, which left the Swiss village of Zermatt on July 13. Unexpectedly, the new path the expedition blazed up the Matterhorn turned out to be an easier approach. The northeast ridge resembled a staircase to the sky, and Whymper was even able to detach himself from his safety rope and run the last 200 snowy feet to the summit.

Anxiety mixed with jubilation as Whymper wondered if Carrel had beaten him to the top. To his relief, he saw no footprints in the snow. As he looked over the Matterhorn’s south face toward Italy, he spotted seven dots hundreds of feet below. It was Carrel’s party. Seeking to grab their attention, Whymper yelled until he was hoarse and then dislodged a torrent of stones that poured down the cliff. The Italians gazed up, saw the bad news for themselves and turned back toward home.

Illustration of the first Matterhorn ascent.
Illustration of the first Matterhorn ascent.

After Whymper sketched the scene, he took a piece of paper and scribbled the names of his fellow adventurers—the experienced French mountain guide Michel Croz; Reverend Charles Hudson, an Anglican parson from the English countryside; 18-year-old Lord Francis Douglas, the younger brother of the Marquess of Queensberry; a father-and-son team of guides from Zermatt both named Peter Taugwalder and 19-year-old Douglas Hadow, an inexperienced English climber who, according to Whymper, was the only member of the expedition who “required continual assistance” on the ascent.

Whymper stuffed the paper with their names into a bottle left at the summit and then began the descent. Roped together about 20 feet apart and proceeding gingerly one man at a time, Croz led the way followed by Hadow, Hudson and Douglas. Whymper and the two Taugwalders trailed. About an hour into the descent, the novice Hadow suddenly slipped and knocked Croz off his feet. The pull on the rope tugged Hudson and Douglas from their holds. Hearing their cries, Whymper and the Taugwalders threw their arms around nearby rocks in desperate hugs. Then the taut rope snapped between Douglas and the elder Taugwalder. “For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavoring to save themselves,” Whymper later wrote. “They then disappeared one by one, and fell from precipice to precipice on the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height.”

Distraught and paralyzed with fear, Whymper and the Taugwalders stood motionless and stared into the deep void for a half-hour. As the climbers carefully retreated down the mountain, their repeated calls to their comrades were met with only silence. Adding to his horror, Whymper examined the snapped rope and realized it was the weakest of the three he brought up the mountain, a feeble sash line to be used only in an emergency.

Composite photo of the expedition team. (Credit: Zermatt Tourismus)

Upon their return to Zermatt the next morning, Whymper’s solitary words conveyed the entire story: “The Taugwalders and I have returned.” Townsfolk recovered the broken bodies of three of the men from a glacier in the Matterhorn’s shadow, but a boot, belt and gloves were the only remnants of Douglas they could find. His body remains somewhere on the mountain 150 years later. Instead of the glory they had dreamt about on the summit of the Matterhorn, Whymper and the Taugwalders instead faced scalding accusations that they had intentionally cut the rope to save their own lives. An inquiry, however, found no evidence and cleared the men.

The tragedy forever haunted Whymper. “Every night,” he wrote, “I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances.” The English adventurer would go on to scale the Andes and the Rockies, but he never again climbed the Alps. Whymper’s 1871 book “Scrambles Amongst the Alps,” which detailed his Matterhorn climb and was illustrated with his engravings, closed with famous words of warning for fellow mountaineers: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught 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.”

In spite of Whymper’s words of caution, approximately 500 mountaineers since 1865 have perished while scaling the Matterhorn, a death toll nearly double that of Mount Everest. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first ascent, 50 lamps placed on the Matterhorn will illuminate the trail first blazed by Whymper and his fellow climbers. The mountain itself, however, will be closed to climbers in honor of those who died attempting to conquer the rugged peak.