Super AlpineSuper Alpine

Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper


Ascent of the Ruinette - The Matterhorn

All of the excursions that were set down in my programme had been carried out, with the exception of the ascent of the Matterhorn, and we now turned our faces in its direction, but instead of returning via the Val Tournanche, we took a route across country, and bagged upon our way the summit of the Ruinette.

We passed the night of July 4 at Aosta, under the roof of the genial Tairraz, and on the 5th went by the Val d’Ollomont and the Col de la Fenêtre (9140 feet) to Chermontane. We slept that night at the châlets of Chanrion (a foul spot, which should be avoided), left them at 3.50 the next morning, and after a short scramble over the slope above, and a half-mile tramp on the Glacier de Breney, we crossed directly to the Ruinette, and went almost straight up it. There is not, I suppose, another mountain in the Alps of the same height that can be ascended so easily. You have only to go ahead: upon its southern side one can walk about almost anywhere.

Though I speak thus slightingly of a very respectable peak, I will not do anything of the kind in regard to the view which it gives. It is happily placed in respect to the rest of the Pennine Alps, and as a stand-point it has not many superiors. You see mountains, and nothing but mountains. It is a solemn - some would say a dreary - view, but it is very grand. The great Combin (14,164 feet), with its noble background of the whole range of Mont Blanc, never looks so big as it does from here. In the contrary direction the Matterhorn overpowers all besides. The Dent d’Hérens, although closer, looks a mere outlier of its great neighbour, and the snows of Monte Rosa behind seem intended for no other purpose than to give relief to the crags in front. To the south there is an endless array of Becs and Beccas, backed by the great Italian peaks, whilst to the north Mont Pleureur (12,159 feet) holds its own against the more distant Wildstrubel.

We gained the summit at 9.15, and stayed there an hour and a half. My faithful guides then admonished me that Prerayen, whither we were bound, was still far away, and that we had yet to cross two lofty ridges. So we resumed our harness and departed; not, however, before a huge cairn had been built out of the blocks of gneiss with which the summit is bestrewn. Then we trotted down the slopes of the Ruinette, over the Glacier de Breney, and across a pass which (if it deserves a name) may be called the Col des Portons, after the neighbouring peaks. From thence we proceeded across the great Otemma glacier toward the Col d’Olen.

The part of the glacier that we traversed was overspread with snow, which completely concealed its numerous pitfalls. We marched across it in single file, and of course roped together. All at once Almer dropped into a crevasse up to his shoulders. I pulled in the rope immediately, but the snow gave way as it was being done, and I had to spread out my arms to stop my descent. Biener held fast, but said afterward that his feet went through as well, so, for a moment, all three were in the jaws of the crevasse. We now altered our course, so as to take the fissures transversely, and after the centre of the glacier was passed, changed it again and made directly for the summit of the Col d’Olen.

It is scarcely necessary to observe, after what has been before said, that it is my invariable practice to employ a rope when traversing a snow-covered glacier. Many guides, even the best ones, object to be roped, more especially early in the morning, when the snow is hard. They object sometimes because they think it is unnecessary. Crevasses that are bridged by snow are almost always more or less perceptible by undulations on the surface: the snow droops down, and hollows mark the course of the chasms beneath. An experienced guide usually notices these almost imperceptible wrinkles, steps one side or the other, as the case may require, and rarely breaks through unawares. Guides think there is no occasion to employ a rope, because they think that they will not be taken by surprise. Michel Croz used to be of this opinion. He used to say that only imbeciles and children required to be tied up in the morning. I told him that in this particular matter I was a child to him. “You see these things, my good Croz, and avoid them. I do not, except you point them out to me, and so that which is not a danger to you is a danger to me.” The sharper one’s eyes get by use, the less is a rope required as a protective against these hidden pitfalls, but according to my experience the sight never becomes so keen that they can be avoided with unvarying certainty, and I mentioned what occurred upon the Otemma glacier to show that this is so.

I well remember my first passage of the Col Théodule, the easiest of the higher Alpine glacier passes. We had a rope, but my guide said it was not necessary - he knew all the crevasses. However, we did not go a quarter of a mile before he dropped through the snow into a crevasse up to his neck. He was a heavy man, and would scarcely have extricated himself alone; anyhow, he was very glad of my assistance. When he got on to his legs again, he said, “Well, I had no idea that there was a crevasse there.” He no longer objected to use the rope, and we proceeded - upon my part with greater peace of mind than before. I have crossed the pass thirteen times since then, and have invariably insisted upon being tied.

Guides object to the use of the rope upon snow-covered glacier, because they are afraid of being laughed at by their comrades; and this, perhaps, is the more common reason. To illustrate this, here is another Théodule experience. We arrived at the edge of the ice, and I required to be tied. My guide (a Zermatt man of repute) said that no one used a rope going across that pass. I declined to argue the matter, and we put on the rope, though very much against the wish of my man, who protested that he should have to submit to perpetual ridicule if we met any of his acquaintances. We had not gone very far before we saw a train coming in the contrary direction. “Ah!” cried my man, “there is R -- ” (mentioning a guide who used to be kept at the Riffel hotel for the ascent of Monte Rosa): “it will be as I said - I shall never hear the end of this.” The guide we met was followed by a string of tomfools, none of whom were tied together, and had his face covered by a mask to prevent it becoming blistered. After we had passed, I said, “Now, should R --make any observations to you, ask him why he takes such extraordinary care to preserve the skin of his face, which will grow again in a week, when he neglects such an obvious precaution in regard to his life, which he can only lose once.” This was quite a new idea to my guide, and he said nothing more against the use of the rope so long as we were together. I believe that the unwillingness to use a rope upon snow-covered glacier which born mountaineers not unfrequently exhibit, arises - first, on the part of expert men from the consciousness that they themselves incur little risk; secondly, on the part of inferior men from fear of ridicule, and from aping the ways of their superiors; and thirdly, from pure ignorance or laziness. Whatever may be the reason, I raise my voice against the neglect of a precaution so simple and so effectual. In my opinion, the very first thing a glacier-traveler requires is plenty of good rope.

A committee of the English Alpine Club was appointed in 1864 to test, and to report upon, the most suitable ropes for mountaineering purposes, and those which were approved are probably as good as can be found. One is made of Manila and another of Italian hemp. The former is the heavier, and weighs a little more than an ounce per foot (103 ounces to 100 feet). The latter weighs 79 ounces per 100 feet, but I prefer the Manila rope, because it is more easy to handle. Both of these ropes will sustain 168 pounds falling 10 feet, or 196 pounds falling 8 feet, and they break with a dead weight of two tons. In 1865 we carried two 100-feet lengths of the Manila rope, and the inconvenience arising from its weight was more than made up for by the security which it afforded. Upon several occasions it was worth more than an extra guide.

Now, touching the use of the rope. There is a right way and there are wrong ways of using it. I often meet, upon glacier-passes, elegantly got-up persons, who are clearly out of their element, with a guide stalking along in front, who pays no attention to the innocents in his charge. They are tied together as a matter of form, but they evidently have no idea why they are tied up, for they walk side by side or close together, with the rope trailing on the snow. If one tumbles into a crevasse, the rest stare and say, “La! what is the matter with Smith?” unless, as is more likely, they all tumble in together. This is the wrong way to use a rope. It is abuse of the rope.

It is of the first importance to keep the rope taut from man to man. There is no real security if this is not done, and your risks may be considerably magnified. There is little or no difficulty in extricating one man who breaks through a bridged crevasse if the rope is taut, but the case may be very awkward if two break through at the same moment, close together, and there are only two others to aid, or perhaps only one other. Further, the rope ought not upon any account to graze over snow, ice or rocks, otherwise the strands suffer and the lives of the whole party may be endangered. Apart from this, it is extremely annoying to have a rope knocking about one’s heels. If circumstances render it impossible for the rope to be kept taut by itself, the men behind should gather it up round their hands,62 and not allow it to incommode those in advance. A man must either be incompetent, careless or selfish if he permits the rope to dangle about the heels of the person in front of him.

The distance from man to man must be neither too great nor too small. About twelve feet is sufficient. If there are only two or three persons, it is prudent to allow a little more - say fifteen feet. More than this is unnecessary, and less than nine or ten feet is not much good.

It is essential to examine your rope from time to time to see that it is in good condition. If you are wise you will do this yourself every day. Latterly, I have examined every inch of my rope overnight, and upon more than one occasion have found the strands of the Manila rope nearly half severed through accidental grazes.

Thus far the rope has been supposed to be employed upon level, snow-covered glacier, to prevent any risk from concealed crevasses. On rocks and on slopes it is used for a different purpose (namely, to guard against slips), and in these cases it is equally important to keep it taut and to preserve a reasonable distance one from the other. It is much more troublesome to keep the rope taut upon slopes than upon the level, and upon difficult rocks it is all but impossible, except by adopting the plan of moving only one at a time.

From the Col d’Olen we proceeded down the combe of the same name to the châlets of Prerayen, and passed the night of the 6th under the roof of our old acquaintance, the wealthy herdsman. On the 7th we crossed the Va Cornere Pass, en route for Breuil. My thoughts were fixed on the Matterhorn, and my guides knew that I wished them to accompany me. They had an aversion to the mountain, and repeatedly expressed their belief that it was useless to try to ascend it. “Anything but Matterhorn, dear sir!” said Almer - “anything but Matterhorn.” He did not speak of difficulty or of danger, nor was he shirking work. He offered to go anywhere, but he entreated that the Matterhorn should be abandoned. Both men spoke fairly enough. They did not think that an ascent could be made, and for their own credit, as well as for my sake, they did not wish to undertake a business which in their opinion would only lead to loss of time and money.

I sent them by the short cut to Breuil, and walked down to Val Tournanche to look for Jean-Antoine Carrel. He was not there. The villagers said that he and three others had started on the 6th to try the Matterhorn by the old way, on their own account. They will have no luck, I thought, for the clouds were low down on the mountains; and I walked up to Breuil, fully expecting to meet them. Nor was I disappointed. About halfway up I saw a group of men clustered around a châlet upon the other side of the torrent, and crossing over found that the party had returned. Jean-Antoine and Cæsar were there, C. E. Gorret and J. J. Maquignaz. They had had no success. The weather, they said, had been horrible, and they had scarcely reached the Glacier du Lion.

I explained the situation to Carrel, and proposed that we, with Cæsar and another man, should cross the Théodule by moonlight on the 9th, and that upon the 10th we should pitch the tent as high as possible upon the east face. He was unwilling to abandon the old route, and urged me to try it again. I promised to do so provided the new route failed. This satisfied him, and he agreed to my proposal. I then went up to Breuil, and discharged Almer and Biener - with much regret, for no two men ever served me more faithfully or more willingly.63 On the next day they crossed to Zermatt.

The 8th was occupied with preparations. The weather was stormy, and black, rainy vapors obscured the mountains. Toward evening a young man came from Val Tournanche, and reported that an Englishman was lying there extremely ill. Now was the time for the performance of my vow, and on the morning of Sunday, the 9th, I went down the valley to look after the sick man. On my way I passed a foreign gentleman, with a mule and several porters laden with baggage. Amongst these men were Jean-Antoine and Cæsar, carrying some barometers. “Hullo!” I said, “what are you doing?” They explained that the foreigner had arrived just as they were setting out, and that they were assisting his porters. “Very well: go on to Breuil, and await me there - we start at midnight, as agreed.” Jean-Antoine then said that he should not be able to serve me after Tuesday, the 11th, as he was engaged to travel “with a family of distinction” in the valley of Aosta. “And Cæsar?” “And Cæsar also.” “Why did you not say this before?” “Because,” said he, “it was not settled. The engagement is of long standing, but the day was not fixed. When I got back to Val Tournanche on Friday night, after leaving you, I found a letter naming the day.” I could not object to the answer, but the prospect of being left guideless was provoking. They went up, and I down, the valley.

The sick man declared that he was better, though the exertion of saying as much tumbled him over on to the floor in a fainting-fit. He was badly in want of medicine, and I tramped down to Chatillon to get it. It was late before I returned to Val Tournanche, for the weather was tempestuous and rain fell in torrents. A figure passed me under the church-porch. “Qui vive?” “Jean-Antoine.” “I thought you were at Breuil.” “No, sir: when the storm came on I knew we should not start to-night, and so came down to sleep here.” “Ha, Carrel,” I said, “this is a great bore. If to-morrow is not fine, we shall not be able to do anything together. I have sent away my guides, relying on you, and now you are going to leave me to travel with a party of ladies. That work is not fit for you” (he smiled, I supposed at the implied compliment): “can’t you send some one else instead?” “No, monsieur. I am sorry, but my word is pledged. I should like to accompany you, but I can’t break my engagement.” By this time we had arrived at the inn door. “Well, it is no fault of yours. Come presently with Cæsar, and have some wine.” They came, and we sat up till midnight, recounting our old adventures, in the inn of Val Tournanche.

The weather continued bad upon the 10th, and I returned to Breuil. The two Carrels were again hovering about the above-mentioned châlet, and I bade them adieu. In the evening the sick man crawled up, a good deal better, but his was the only arrival. The Monday crowd did not cross the Théodule, on account of the continued storms. The inn was lonely. I went to bed early, and was awoke the next morning by the invalid inquiring if I had heard the news. “No - what news?” “Why,” said he, “a large party of guides went off this morning to try the Matterhorn, taking with them a mule laden with provisions.”

I went to the door, and with a telescope saw the party upon the lower slopes of the mountain. Favre, the landlord, stood by. “What is all this about?” I inquired: “who is the leader of this party?” “Carrel.” “What! Jean-Antoine?” “Yes, Jean-Antoine.” “Is Cæsar there too?” “Yes, he is there.” Then I saw in a moment that I had been bamboozled and humbugged, and learned, bit by bit, that the affair had been arranged long beforehand. The start on the 6th had been for a preliminary reconnaissance; the mule that I passed was conveying stores for the attack; the “family of distinction” was Signor F. Giordano, who had just despatched the party to facilitate the way to the summit, and who, when the facilitation was completed, was to be taken to the top along with Signor Sella!64

I was greatly mortified. My plans were upset: the Italians had clearly stolen a march upon me, and I saw that the astute Favre chuckled over my discomfiture, because the route by the eastern face, if successful, would not benefit his inn. What was to be done? I retired to my room, and, soothed by tobacco, re-studied my plans, to see if it was not possible to outmanoeuvre the Italians. “They have taken a mule-load of provisions.” That is one point in my favour, for they will take two or three days to get through the food, and until that is done no work will be accomplished. “How is the weather?” I went to the window. The mountain was smothered up in mist - another point in my favour. “They are to facilitate the way. Well, if they do that to any purpose, it will be a long job.” Altogether, I reckoned that they could not possibly ascend the mountain and come back to Breuil in less than seven days. I got cooler, for it was evident that the wily ones might be outwitted after all. There was time enough to go to Zermatt, to try the eastern face, and, should it prove impracticable, to come back to Breuil before the men returned; and then it seemed to me, as the mountain was not padlocked, one might start at the same time as the messieurs, and yet get to the top before them.

The first thing to do was to go to Zermatt. Easier said than done. The seven guides upon the mountain included the ablest men in the valley, and none of the ordinary muleteer-guides were at Breuil. Two men, at least, were wanted for my baggage, but not a soul could be found. I ran about and sent about in all directions, but not a single porter could be obtained. One was with Carrel, another was ill, another was at Chatillon, and so forth. Even Meynet the hunchback could not be induced to come: he was in the thick of some important cheese-making operations. I was in the position of a general without an army: it was all very well to make plans, but there was no one to execute them. This did not much trouble me, for it was evident that so long as the weather stopped traffic over the Théodule, it would hinder the men equally upon the Matterhorn; and I knew that directly it improved company would certainly arrive.

About midday on Tuesday, the 11th, a large party hove in sight from Zermatt, preceded by a nimble young Englishman and one of old Peter Taugwalder’s sons.65 I went at once to this gentleman to learn if he could dispense with Taugwalder. He said that he could not, as they were going to recross to Zermatt on the morrow, but that the young man should assist in transporting my baggage, as he had nothing to carry. We naturally got into conversation. I told my story, and learned that the young Englishman was Lord Francis Douglas,66 whose recent exploit - the ascent of the Gabelhorn - had excited my wonder and admiration. He brought good news. Old Peter had lately been beyond the Hörnli, and had reported that he thought an ascent of the Matterhorn was possible upon that side. Almer had left Zermatt, and could not be recovered, so I determined to seek for old Peter. Lord Francis Douglas expressed a warm desire to ascend the mountain, and before long it was determined that he should take part in the expedition.

Favre could no longer hinder our departure, and lent us one of his men. We crossed the Col Théodule on Wednesday morning, the 12th of July, rounded the foot of the Ober Theodulgletscher, crossed the Furggengletscher, and deposited tent, blankets, ropes and other things in the little chapel at the Schwarz-see. All four were heavily laden, for we brought across the whole of my stores from Breuil. Of rope alone there were about six hundred feet. There were three kinds: first, two hundred feet of Manila rope; second, one hundred and fifty feet of a stouter and probably stronger rope than the first; and third, more than two hundred feet of a lighter and weaker rope than the first, of a kind that I used formerly (stout sash-line).

We descended to Zermatt, sought and engaged old Peter, and gave him permission to choose another guide. When we returned to the Monte Rosa hotel, whom should we see sitting upon the wall in front but my old guide-chef, Michel Croz! I supposed that he had come with Mr. B -- , but I learned that that gentleman had arrived in ill health at Chamonix, and had returned to England. Croz, thus left free, had been immediately engaged by the Rev. Charles Hudson, and they had come to Zermatt with the same object as ourselves - namely, to attempt the ascent of the Matterhorn!

Lord Francis Douglas and I dined at the Monte Rosa, and had just finished when Mr. Hudson and a friend entered the salle à manger. They had returned from inspecting the mountain, and some idlers in the room demanded their intentions. We heard a confirmation of Croz’s statement, and learned that Mr. Hudson intended to set out on the morrow at the same hour as ourselves. We left the room to consult, and agreed it was undesirable that two independent parties should be on the mountain at the same time with the same object. Mr. Hudson was therefore invited to join us, and he accepted our proposal. Before admitting his friend, Mr. Hadow, I took the precaution to inquire what he had done in the Alps, and, as well as I remember, Mr. Hudson’s reply was, “Mr. Hadow has done Mont Blanc in less time than most men.” He then mentioned several other excursions, that were unknown to me, and added, in answer to a further question, “I consider he is a sufficiently good man to go with us.” Mr. Hadow was admitted without any further question, and we then went into the matter of guides. Hudson thought that Croz and old Peter would be sufficient. The question was referred to the men themselves, and they made no objection.

So Croz and I became comrades once more, and as I threw myself on my bed and tried to go to sleep, I wondered at the strange series of chances which had first separated us and then brought us together again. I thought of the mistake through which he had accepted the engagement to Mr. B -- ; of his unwillingness to adopt my route; of his recommendation to transfer our energies to the chain of Mont Blanc; of the retirement of Almer and Biener; of the desertion of Carrel; of the arrival of Lord Francis Douglas; and lastly of our accidental meeting at Zermatt; and as I pondered over these things I could not help asking, “What next?” If any one of the links of this fatal chain of circumstances had been omitted, what a different story I should have to tell!


62. For example, when the leader suspects crevasses, and sounds for them, in the manner shown in the engraving, he usually loses half a step or more. The second man should take a turn of the rope around his hand to draw it back in case the leader goes through.

63. During the preceding eighteen clays (I exclude Sundays and other non-working days) we ascended more than 100,000 feet, and descended 98,000 feet.

64. The Italian Minister. Signor Giordano had undertaken the business arrangements for Signor Sella.

65. Peter Taugwalder, the father, is called to distinguish him from his eldest son, young Peter. In 1860 the father’s age was about 45.

66. Brother of the present Marquis of Queensberry.