Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper


Lost on the Col d'Hérens. My Seventh Attempt to Ascend the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn from the Riffelberg
The Matterhorn from the Riffelberg.

We should have started for Zermatt about 7.00 a.m. on the 18th, had not Biener asked to be allowed to go to mass at Evolène, a village about two and a half hours from Abricolla. He received permission, on the condition that he returned not later than mid-day, but he did not come back until 2.30 p.m. and we thereby got into a pretty little mess.

The pass which we were about to traverse to Zermatt - the Col d’Hérens - is one of the few glacier-passes in this district which have been known almost from time immemorial. It is frequently crossed in the summer season, and is a very easy route, notwithstanding that the summit of the pass is 11,417 feet above the level of the sea.

From Abricolla to the summit the way lies chiefly over the flat Glacier de Ferpècle. The walk is of the most straightforward kind. The glacier rises in gentle undulations, its crevasses are small and easily avoided, and all you have to do, after once getting upon the ice, is to proceed due south in the most direct manner possible. If you do so, in two hours you should be upon the summit of the pass.

We tied ourselves in line, of course, when we entered upon the glacier, and placed Biener to lead, as he had frequently crossed the pass, supposing that his local knowledge might save us some time upon the other side. We had proceeded, I suppose, about halfway up, when a little thin cloud dropped down upon us from above, but it was so light, so gauzy, that we did not for a moment suppose that it would become embarrassing, and hence I neglected to note at the proper moment the course which we should steer - that is to say, to observe our precise situation in regard to the summit of the pass.

For some little time Biener progressed steadily, making a tolerably straight track, but at length he wavered, and deviated sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left. Croz rushed forward directly he saw this, and, taking the poor young man by his shoulders, gave him a good shaking, told him that he was an imbecile, to untie himself at once, and go to the rear. Biener looked half frightened, and obeyed without a murmur. Croz led off briskly, and made a good straight track for a few minutes, but then, it seemed to me, began to move steadily round to the left. I looked back, but the mist was now too thick to see our traces, and so we continued to follow our leader. At last the others (who were behind, and in a better position to judge) thought the same as I did, and we pulled up Croz to deliver our opinion. He took our criticism in good part, but when Biener opened his mouth, that was too much for him to stand, and he told the young man again, “You are imbecile: I bet you twenty francs to one that my track is better than yours; twenty francs, now then, imbecile!”

Almer went to the front. He commenced by returning in the track for a hundred yards or so, and then started off at a tangent from Croz’s curve. We kept this course for half an hour, and then were certain that we were not on the right route, because the snow became decidedly steep. We bore away more and more to the right to avoid this steep bank, but at last I rebelled, as we had for some time been going almost south-west, which was altogether the wrong direction. After a long discussion we returned some distance in our track, and then steered a little east of south, but we continually met steep snow-slopes, and to avoid them went right or left as the case might require.

We were greatly puzzled, and could not in the least tell whether we were too near the Dent Blanche or too close to the Tête Blanche. The mists had thickened, and were now as dense as a moderate London fog. There were no rocks or echoes to direct us, and the guidance of the compass brought us invariably against these steep snow-banks. The men were fairly beaten: they had all had a try, or more than one, and at last gave it up as a bad job, and asked what was to be done. It was 7.30 p.m. and only an hour of daylight was left. We were beginning to feel used up, for we had wandered about at tiptop speed for the last three hours and a half; so I said, “This is my advice: let us turn in our track, and go back as hard as ever we can, not quitting the track for an instant.” They were well content, but just as we were starting off the clouds lifted a little, and we thought we saw the col. It was then to our right, and we went at it with a dash, but before we had gone a hundred paces down came the mist again. We kept on nevertheless for twenty minutes, and then, as darkness was perceptibly coming on, and the snow was yet rising in front, we turned back, and by running down the entire distance managed to get clear of the Ferpècle glacier just as it became pitch-dark. We arrived at our cheerless châlet in due course, and went to bed supper-less, for our food was gone- all very sulky, not to say savage, agreeing in nothing except in bullying Biener.

At 7.00 a.m. on the 19th we set out, for the third time, for the Col d’Hérens. It was a fine day, and we gradually recovered our tempers as we saw the follies which had been committed on the previous evening. Biener’s wavering track was not so bad, but Croz had swerved from the right route from the first, and had traced a complete semicircle, so that when we stopped him we were facing Abricolla, whence we had started. Almer had commenced with great discretion, but he kept on too long, and crossed the proper route. When I stopped them (because we were going south-west) we were a long way up the Tête Blanche! Our last attempt was in the right direction: we were actually upon the summit of the pass, and in another ten yards we should have commenced to go down hill! It is needless to point out that if the compass had been looked to at the proper moment - that is, immediately the mist came down - we should have avoided all our troubles. It was of little use afterward, except to tell us when we were going wrong.

We arrived at Zermatt in six and a half hours’ walking from Abricolla, and Seiler’s hospitable reception set us all right again. On the 20th we crossed the Théodule pass, and diverged from its summit up the Theodulhorn (11,391) to examine a route which I suggested for the ascent of the Matterhorn; but before continuing an account of our proceedings, I must stop for a minute to explain why this new route was proposed, in place of that up the south-western ridge.

The Matterhorn may be divided into three sections - the first facing the Zmuttgletscher, which looks, and is, completely unassailable; the second facing the east, which seems inaccessibility itself; the third facing Breuil, which does not look entirely hopeless. It was from this last direction that all my previous attempts were made. It was by the southwestern ridge, it will be remembered, that not only I, but Mr. Hawkins, Professor Tyndall and the chasseurs of Val Tournanche, essayed to climb the mountain. Why, then, abandon a route which had been shown to be feasible up to a certain point?

I gave it up for four reasons:

  1. On account of my growing disinclination for arêtes, and preference for snow and rock faces.
  2. Because I was persuaded that meteorological disturbances (by which we had been baffled several times) might be expected to occur again and again.
  3. Because I found that the east face was a gross imposition: it looked not far from perpendicular, while its angle was, in fact, scarcely more than 40°.
  4. Because I observed for myself that the strata of the mountain dipped to the west-south-west.

It is not necessary to say anything more than has been already said upon the first two of these four points, but upon the latter two a few words are indispensable. Let us consider, first, why most persons receive such an exaggerated impression of the steepness of the eastern face.

When one looks at the Matterhorn from Zermatt, the mountain is regarded (nearly) from the north-east. The face that fronts the east is consequently neither seen in profile nor in full front, but almost halfway between the two: it looks, therefore, more steep than it really is. The majority of those who visit Zermatt go up to the Riffelberg or to the Görnergrat, and from these places the mountain naturally looks still more precipitous, because its eastern face (which is almost all that is seen of it) is viewed more directly in front. From the Riffel hotel the slope seems to be set at an angle of seventy degrees. If the tourist continues to go southward, and crosses the Théodule pass, he gets, at one point, immediately in front of the eastern face, which then seems to be absolutely perpendicular. Comparatively few persons correct the erroneous impressions they receive in these quarters by studying the face in profile, and most go away with a very incorrect and exaggerated idea of the precipitousness of this side of the mountain, because they have considered the question from one point of view alone. Several years passed away before I shook myself clear of my early and false impressions regarding the steepness of this side of the Matterhorn. First of all, I noticed that there were places on this eastern face where snow remained permanently all the year round. I do not speak of snow in gullies, but of the considerable slopes which are seen in the accompanying engraving about halfway up the face. Such beds as these could not continue to remain throughout the summer unless the snow had been able to accumulate in the winter in large masses; and snow cannot accumulate and remain in large masses, in a situation such as this, at angles much exceeding 45°.48 Hence I was bound to conclude that the eastern face was many degrees removed from perpendicularity; and to be sure on this point, I went to the slopes between the Zmuttgletscher and the Matterhorngletscher, above the châlets of Staffel, whence the face could be seen in profile. Its appearance from this direction would be amazing to one who had seen it only from the east. It looks so totally different from the apparently sheer and perfectly unclimbable cliff one sees from the Riffelberg that it is hard to believe the two slopes are one and the same thing. Its angle scarcely exceeds 40°.

A great step was made when this was learned. This knowledge alone would not, however, have caused me to try an ascent by the eastern face instead of by the south-west ridge. Forty degrees may not seem a formidable inclination to the reader, nor is it for only a small cliff. But it is very unusual to find so steep a gradient maintained continuously as the general angle of a great mountain-slope, and very few instances can be quoted from the High Alps of such an angle being preserved over a rise of three thousand feet.

1 do not think that the steepness or the height of this cliff would have deterred climbers from attempting to ascend it, if it had not, in addition, looked so repulsively smooth. Men despaired of finding anything to grasp. Now, some of the difficulties of the south-west ridge came from the smoothness of the rocks, although that ridge, even from a distance, seemed to be well broken up. How much greater, then, might not have been the difficulty of climbing a face which looked smooth and unbroken close at hand?

A more serious hindrance to mounting the south-west ridge is found in the dip of its rocks to the west-south-west. The great mass of the Matterhorn, it is now well ascertained, is composed of regularly stratified rocks, which rise toward the east. It has been mentioned in the text, more than once, that the rocks on some portions of the ridge leading from the Col du Lion to the summit dip outward, and that fractured edges overhang. This is shown very clearly in the annexed diagram, Fig. 1. It will be readily understood that such an arrangement is not favourable for climbers, and that the degree of facility with which rocks can be ascended that are so disposed must depend very much upon the frequency or paucity of fissures and joints. The rocks of the south-west ridge are sufficiently provided with cracks, but if it were otherwise, their texture and arrangement would render them unassailable.49

It is not possible to go a single time upon the rocks of the south-west ridge, from the Col du Lion to the foot of the Great Tower, without observing the prevalence of their outward dip, and that their fractured edges have a tendency to overhang; nor can one fail to notice that it is upon this account the débris which is rent off by frost does not remain in situ, but pours down in showers over the surrounding cliffs. Each day’s work, so to speak, is cleared away - the ridge is swept clean: there is scarcely anything seen but firm rock.50

The fact that the mountain is composed of a series of stratified beds was pointed out long ago. De Saussure remarked it, and recorded explicitly in his Travels (§ 2243) that they “rose to the north-east at an angle of about forty-five degrees.” Forbes noticed it also, but gave it as his opinion that the beds were “less inclined, or nearly horizontal.” He added, “De Saussure is no doubt correct.” The truth, I think, lies between the two.

I was acquainted with both of the above-quoted passages, but did not turn the knowledge to any practical account until I re-observed the same fact for myself. It was not until after my repulse in 1863 that I referred the peculiar difficulties of the south-west ridge to the dip of the strata, but when once persuaded that structure and not texture was the real impediment, it was reasonable to infer that the opposite side - that is to say, the eastern face - might be comparatively easy; in brief, that an arrangement should be found like Fig. 2, instead of like Fig. 1. This trivial deduction was the key to the ascent of the Matterhorn.

The point was, Did the strata continue with a similar dip throughout the mountain? If they did, then this great eastern face, instead of being hopelessly impracticable, should be quite the reverse. In fact, it should be a great natural staircase, with steps inclining inward; and if it were so, its smooth aspect might be of no account, for the smallest steps, inclined in this fashion, would afford good footing.

They did so, so far as one could judge from a distance. When snow fell in the summer-time, it brought out long terraced lines upon the mountain, rudely parallel to each other; and the eastern face on those occasions was often whitened almost completely over; while the other sides, with the exception of the powdered terraces, remained black, for the snow could not rest upon them.

The very outline of the mountain, too, confirmed the conjecture that its structure would assist an ascent on the eastern face, although it opposed one on all other sides. Look at any photograph of the peak from the north-east, and you will see that upon the right-hand side (that facing the Zmuttgletscher) there is an incessant repetition of overhanging cliffs and of slopes, all trending downward; in short, that the character of the whole of that side is similar; and that upon the left hand (or south-east) ridge the forms, so far as they go, are suggestive of the structure. There is no doubt that the contours of the mountain, seen from this direction, have been largely influenced by the direction of its beds.

It was not therefore from a freak that I invited Mr. Reilly to join in an attack upon the eastern face, but from a gradually-acquired conviction that it would prove to give the easiest path to the summit; and if we had not been obliged to part the mountain would doubtless have been ascended in 1864.

My guides readily admitted that they had been greatly deceived as to the steepness of the eastern face, when they were halted to look at it in profile as we came down the Zmuttgletscher on our way to Zermatt, but they were far from being satisfied that it would turn out to be easy to climb, and Almer and Biener expressed themselves decidedly averse to making an attempt upon it. I gave way temporarily before their evident reluctance, and we made the ascent of the Théodulhorn to examine an alternative route, which I expected would commend itself to them in preference to the other, as a great part of it led over snow.

There is an immense gully in the Matterhorn which leads up from the Glacier du Mont Cervin to a point high up on the south-eastern ridge. I proposed to ascend this to its head, and to cross over the south-east ridge on to the eastern face. This would have brought us on a level with the bottom of the great snow-slope shown upon the centre of the eastern face in the engraving. This snow-slope was to be crossed diagonally, with the view of arriving at the snow upon the north-east ridge, which is shown upon the same engraving about half an inch from the summit. The remainder of the ascent was to be made by the broken rocks, mixed with snow, upon the north side of the mountain. Croz caught the idea immediately, and thought the plan feasible: details were settled, and we descended to Breuil. Luc Meynet the hunchback was summoned, and expressed himself delighted to resume his old vocation of tent-bearer; and Favre’s kitchen was soon in commotion preparing three days’ rations, for I intended to take that amount of time over the affair - to sleep on the first night upon the rocks at the top of the gully, to make a push for the summit, and to return to the tent on the second day; and upon the third to come back to Breuil.

We started at 5.45 a.m. on June 21, and followed the route of the Breuiljoch for three hours. We were then in full view of our gully, and turned off at right angles for it. The closer we approached the more favourable did it look. There was a good deal of snow in it, which was evidently at a small angle, and it seemed as if one-third of the ascent, at least, would be a very simple matter. Some suspicious marks in the snow at its base suggested that it was not free from falling stones, and as a measure of precaution we turned off on one side, worked up under cover of the cliffs, and waited to see if anything should descend. Nothing fell, so we proceeded up its right or northern side, sometimes cutting steps up the snow, and sometimes mounting by the rocks. Shortly before 10.00 a.m. we arrived at a convenient place for a halt, and stopped to rest upon some rocks close to the snow which commanded an excellent view of the gully.

While the men were unpacking the food I went to a little promontory to examine our proposed route more narrowly, and to admire our noble couloir, which led straight up into the heart of the mountain for fully one thousand feet. It then bent toward the north, and ran up to the crest of the south-eastern ridge. My curiosity was piqued to know what was round this corner, and whilst I was gazing up at it, and following with the eye the exquisitely drawn curves which wandered down the snow in the gully, all converging to a large rut in its centre, I saw a few little stones skidding down. I consoled myself with thinking that they would not interfere with us if we adhered to the side. But then a larger one came down, a solitary fellow, rushing at the rate of sixty miles an hour - and another - and another. I was unwilling to raise the fears of the men unnecessarily, and said nothing to them. They did not hear the stones. Almer was seated on a rock, carving large slices from a leg of mutton, the others were chatting, and the first intimation they had of danger was from a crash, a sudden roar, which reverberated awfully amongst the cliffs; and looking up they saw rocks, boulders and stones, big and little, dart round the corner eight hundred feet or so above us, fly with fearful fury against the opposite cliffs, rebound from them against the walls on our side, and descend; some ricochetting from side to side in a frantic manner, some bounding down in leaps of a hundred feet or more over the snow, and more trailing down in a jumbled, confused mass, mixed with snow and ice, deepening the grooves which a moment before had excited my admiration.

The men looked wildly around for protection, and, dropping the food, dashed under cover in all directions. The precious mutton was pitched on one side, the wine-bag was let fall, and its contents gushed out from the unclosed neck, while all four cowered under defending rocks, endeavouring to make themselves as small as possible. Let it not be supposed that their fright was unreasonable or that I was free from it. I took good care to make myself safe, and went and cringed in a cleft until the storm had passed. But their scramble to get under shelter was indescribably ludicrous. Such a panic I have never witnessed, before or since, upon a mountain-side.

This ricochet practice was a novelty to me. It arose, of course, from the couloir being bent, and from the falling rocks having acquired great pace before they passed the angle. In straight gullies it will probably never be experienced. The rule is, as I have already remarked, that falling stones keep down the centres of gullies, and you are out of harm’s way if you follow the sides.

There would have been singularly little amusement and very great risk in mounting this gully, and we turned our backs upon it with perfect unanimity. The question then arose, “What is to be done?” I suggested climbing the rocks above us, but this was voted impossible. I thought the men were right, but would not give in without being assured of the fact, and clambered up to settle the question. In a few minutes I was brought to a halt. My forces were scattered: the little hunchback alone was closely following me, with a broad grin upon his face and the tent upon his shoulder; Croz, more behind, was still keeping an eye upon his Monsieur; Almer, a hundred feet below, sat on a rock with his face buried in his hands; Biener was nowhere, out of sight. “Come down, come down,” shouted Croz, “it is useless;” and I turned at length, convinced that it was even as he said. Thus my little plan was knocked on the head, and we were thrown back upon the original scheme.

We at once made a straight track for Mr. Morshead’s Breuiljoch (which was the most direct route to take in order to get to the Hörnli, where we intended to sleep, preparatory to attacking the eastern face), and arrived upon its summit at 12.30 p.m. We were then unexpectedly checked. The pass, as one, had vanished! and we found ourselves cut off from the Furggengletscher by a small but precipitous wall of rock: the glacier had shrunk so much that descent was impracticable. During the last hour clouds had been coming up from the south: they now surrounded us, and il began to blow hard. The men clustered together, and advocated leaving the mountain alone. Almer asked, with more point than politeness, “Why don’t you try to go up a mountain which can be ascended?” “It is impossible,” chimed in Biener. “Sir,” said Croz, “if we cross to the other side we shall lose three days, and very likely shall not succeed. You want to make ascents in the chain of Mont Blanc, and I believe they can be made. But I shall not be able to make them with you if I spend these days here, for I must be at Chamonix on the 27th.” There was force in what he said, and his words made me hesitate. I relied upon his strong arms for some work which it was expected would be unusually difficult. Snow began to fall: that settled the matter, and I gave the word to retreat. We went back to Breuil, and on to Val Tournanche, where we slept; and the next day proceeded to Chatillon, and thence up the valley of Aosto to Cormayeur.

I cannot but regret that the counsels of the guides prevailed. If Croz had not uttered his well-intentioned words he might still have been living. He parted from us at Chamonix at the appointed time, but by a strange chance we met again at Zermatt three weeks later; and two days afterward he perished before my eyes on the very mountain from which we turned away, at his advice on the 21st of June.


48. I prefer to be on the safe side. My impression is that snow cannot accumulate in large masses at 45°.

49. Weathered granite is an admirable rock to climb; its gritty texture giving excellent hold to the nails in one’s boots. But upon such metamorphic schists as compose the mass of the great peak of the Matterhorn, the texture of the rock itself is of no value.

50. I refer here only to that portion of the ridge which is between the Col du Lion and the Great Tower. The remarks would not apply to the rocks higher up; higher still the rocks are firm again; yet higher (upon the “Shoulder”) they are much disintegrated; and then, upon the final peak, they are again firm.