The Ascent of the Matterhorn
We started from Zermatt on the 13th of July at half-past five, on a brilliant and perfectly cloudless morning. We were eight in number - Croz, old Peter and his two sons,67 Lord Francis Douglas, Hadow, Hudson 68 and I. To ensure steady motion, one tourist and one native walked together. The youngest Taugwalder fell to my share, and the lad marched well, proud to be on the expedition and happy to show his powers. The wine-bags also fell to my lot to carry, and throughout the day, after each drink, I replenished them secretly with water, so that at the next halt they were found fuller than before! This was considered a good omen, and little short of miraculous.
On the first day we did not intend to ascend to any great height, and we mounted, accordingly, very leisurely, picked up the things which were left in the chapel at the Schwarzsee at 8.20, and proceeded thence along the ridge connecting the Hörnli with the Matterhorn. At half-past eleven we arrived at the base of the actual peak, then quitted the ridge and clambered round some ledges on to the eastern face. We were now fairly upon the mountain, and were astonished to find that places which from the Riffel, or even from the Furggengletscher, looked entirely impracticable, were so easy that we could run about.
Before twelve o’clock we had found a good position for the tent, at a height of eleven thousand feet.69 Croz and young Peter went on to see what was above, in order to save time on the following morning. They cut across the heads of the snow-slopes which descended toward the Furggengletscher, and disappeared round a corner, but shortly afterward we saw them high up on the face, moving quickly. We others made a solid platform for the tent in a well-protected spot, and then watched eagerly for the return of the men. The stones which they upset told that they were very high, and we supposed that the way must be easy. At length, just before 3.00 p.m., we saw them coming down, evidently much excited. “What are they saying, Peter?” “Gentlemen, they say it is no good.” But when they came near we heard a different story: “Nothing but what was good - not a difficulty, not a single difficulty! We could have gone to the summit and returned to-day easily!”
We passed the remaining hours of daylight - some basking in the sunshine, some sketching or collecting - and when the sun went down, giving, as it departed, a glorious promise for the morrow, we returned to the tent to arrange for the night. Hudson made tea, I coffee, and we then retired each one to his blanket-bag, the Taugwalders, Lord Francis Douglas and myself occupying the tent, the others remaining, by preference, outside. Long after dusk the cliffs above echoed with our laughter and with the songs of the guides, for we were happy that night in camp, and feared no evil.
We assembled together outside the tent before dawn on the morning of the 14th, and started directly it was light enough to move. Young Peter came on with us as a guide, and his brother returned to Zermatt. We followed the route which had been taken on the previous day, and in a few minutes turned the rib which had intercepted the view of the eastern face from our tent platform. The whole of this great slope was now revealed, rising for three thousand feet like a huge natural staircase. Some parts were more and others were less easy, but we were not once brought to a halt by any serious impediment, for when an obstruction was met in front it could always be turned to the right or to the left. For the greater part of the way there was indeed no occasion for the rope, and sometimes Hudson led, sometimes myself. At 6.20 we had attained a height of twelve thousand eight hundred feet, and halted for half an hour: we then continued the ascent without a break until 9.55, when we stopped for fifty minutes at a height of fourteen thousand feet. Twice we struck the north-eastern ridge, and followed it for some little distance - to no advantage, for it was usually more rotten and steep, and always more difficult, than the face. Still, we kept near to it, lest stones perchance might fall.
We had now arrived at the foot of that part which, from the Riffelberg or from Zermatt, seems perpendicular or overhanging, and could no longer continue upon the eastern side. For a little distance we ascended by snow upon the arête - that is, the ridge - descending toward Zermatt, and then by common consent turned over to the right, or to the northern side. Before doing so we made a change in the order of ascent. Croz went first, I followed, Hudson came third: Hadow and old Peter were last. “Now,” said Croz as he led off - “now for something altogether different.” The work became difficult, and required caution. In some places there was little to hold, and it was desirable that those should be in front who were least likely to slip. The general slope of the mountain at this part was less than forty degrees, and snow had accumulated in, and had filled up, the interstices of the rock-face, leaving only occasional fragments projecting here and there. These were at times covered with a thin film of ice, produced from the melting and refreezing of the snow. It was the counterpart, on a small scale, of the upper seven hundred feet of the Pointe des Écrins; only there was this material difference - the face of the Écrins was about, or exceeded, an angle of fifty degrees, and the Matterhorn face was less than forty degrees. It was a place over which any fair mountaineer might pass in safety, and Mr. Hudson ascended this part, and, as far as I know, the entire mountain, without having the slightest assistance rendered to him upon any occasion. Sometimes, after I had taken a hand from Croz or received a pull, I turned to offer the same to Hudson, but he invariably declined, saying it was not necessary. Mr. Hadow, however, was not accustomed to this kind of work, and required continual assistance. It is only fair to say that the difficulty which he found at this part arose simply and entirely from want of experience.
This solitary difficult part was of no great extent. We bore away over it at first nearly horizontally, for a distance of about four hundred feet, then ascended directly toward the summit for about sixty feet, and then doubled back to the ridge which descends toward Zermatt. A long stride round a rather awkward corner brought us to snow once more. The last doubt vanished! The Matterhorn was ours! Nothing but two hundred feet of easy snow remained to be surmounted!
You must now carry your thoughts back to the seven Italians who started from Breuil on the 11th of July. Four days had passed since their departure, and we were tormented with anxiety lest they should arrive on the top before us. All the way up we had talked of them, and many false alarms of “men on the summit” had been raised. The higher we rose the more intense became the excitement. What if we should be beaten at the last moment? The slope eased off, at length we could be detached, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race which ended in a dead heat. At 1.40 p.m. the world was at our feet and the Matterhorn was conquered! Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.
It was not yet certain that we had not been beaten. The summit of the Matterhorn was formed of a rudely level ridge, about 350 feet long,70 and the Italians might have been at its farther extremity. I hastened to the southern end, scanning the snow right and left eagerly. Hurrah again! it was untrodden. “Where were the men?” I peered over the cliff, half doubting, half expectant. I saw them immediately, mere dots on the ridge, at an immense distance below. Up went my arms and my hat. “Croz! Croz! come here!” “Where are they, monsieur?” “There - don’t you see them down there?” “Ah! the coquins! they are low down.” “Croz, we must make those fellows hear us.” We yelled until we were hoarse. The Italians seemed to regard us - we could not be certain. “Croz, we must make them hear us - they shall hear us!” I seized a block of rock and hurled it down, and called upon my companion, in the name of friendship, to do the same. We drove our sticks in and prized away the crags, and soon a torrent of stones poured down the cliffs. There was no mistake about it this time. The Italians turned and fled.71
Still, I would that the leader of that party could have stood with us at that moment, for our victorious shouts conveyed to him the disappointment of the ambition of a lifetime. He was the man, of all those who attempted the ascent of the Matterhorn, who most deserved to be the first upon its summit. He was the first to doubt its inaccessibility, and he was the only man who persisted in believing that its ascent would be accomplished. It was the aim of his life to make the ascent from the side of Italy for the honor of his native valley. For a time he had the game in his hands: he played it as he thought best, but he made a false move, and lost it. Times have changed with Carrel. His supremacy is questioned in the Val Tournanche; new men have arisen, and he is no longer recognized as the chasseur above all others; but so long as he remains the man that he is to-day it will not be easy to find his superior.
The others had arrived, so we went back to the northern end of the ridge. Croz now took the tent-pole72 and planted it in the highest snow. “Yes,” we said, “there is the flagstaff, but where is the flag?” “Here it is,” he answered, pulling off his blouse and fixing it to the stick. It made a poor flag, and there was no wind to float it out, yet it was seen all around. They saw it at Zermatt, at the Riffel, in the Val Tournanche. At Breuil the watchers cried, “Victory is ours!” They raised “bravos” for Carrel and “vivas” for Italy, and hastened to put themselves en fête. On the morrow they were undeceived. All was changed: the explorers returned sad - cast down - disheartened - confounded - gloomy. “It is true,” said the men. “We saw them ourselves - they hurled stones at us! The old traditions are true - there are spirits on the top of the Matterhorn!”73
We returned to the southern end of the ridge to build a cairn, and then paid homage to the view.74The day was one of those superlatively calm and clear ones which usually precede bad weather. The atmosphere was perfectly still and free from all clouds or vapours. Mountains fifty - nay, a hundred - miles off looked sharp and near. All their details - ridge and crag, snow and glacier - stood out with faultless definition. Pleasant thoughts of happy days in bygone years came up unbidden as we recognised the old, familiar forms. All were revealed - not one of the principal peaks of the Alps was hidden.75 I see them clearly now - the great inner circles of giants, backed by the ranges, chains and massifs. First came the Dent Blanche, hoary and grand; the Gabelhorn and pointed Rothhorn, and then the peerless Weisshorn; the towering Mischabelhörner, flanked by the Allaleinhorn, Strahlhorn and Rimpfischhorn; then Monte Rosa - with its many Spitzes - the Lyskamm and the Breithorn. Behind were the Bernese Oberland, governed by the Finsteraarhorn, the Simplon and St. Gothard groups, the Disgrazia and the Orteler. Toward the south we looked down to Chivasso on the plain of Piedmont, and far beyond. The Viso - one hundred miles away - seemed close upon us; the Maritime Alps - one hundred and thirty miles distant - were free from haze. Then came my first love - the Pelvoux; the Écrins and the Meije; the clusters of the Graians; and lastly, in the west, gorgeous in the full sunlight, rose the monarch of all - Mont Blanc. Ten thousand feet beneath us were the green fields of Zermatt, dotted with châlets, from which blue smoke rose lazily. Eight thousand feet below, on the other side, were the pastures of Breuil. There were forests black and gloomy, and meadows bright and lively; bounding waterfalls and tranquil lakes; fertile lands and savage wastes; sunny plains and frigid plateaux. There were the most rugged forms and the most graceful outlines - bold, perpendicular cliffs and gentle, undulating slopes; rocky mountains and snowy mountains, sombre and solemn or glittering and white, with walls, turrets, pinnacles, pyramids, domes, cones and spires! There was every combination that the world can give, and every contrast that the heart could desire.
We remained on the summit for one hour -
One crowded hour of glorious life.
It passed away too quickly, and we began to prepare for the descent.
68. I remember speaking about pedestrianism to a well-known mountaineer some years ago, and venturing to remark that a man who averaged thirty miles a-day might be considered a good walker. “A fair walker,” he said, “a fair walker.“ “What then would you consider good walking?” “Well,” he replied, “I will tell you. Some time back a friend and I agreed to go to Switzerland, but a short time afterwards he wrote to say he ought to let me know that a young and delicate lad was going with him who would not be equal to great things, in fact, he would not be able to do more than fifty miles a-day!” “What became of the young and delicate lad?” “He lives.” “And who was your extraordinary friend?” “Charles Hudson.” I have every reason to believe that the gentlemen referred to were equal to walking more than fifty miles a-day, but they were exceptional, not good pedestrians. Charles Hudson, Vicar of Skillington in Lincolnshire, was considered by the mountaineering fraternity to be the best amateur of his time. He was the organiser and leader of the party of Englishmen who ascended Mont Blanc by the Aig. du Goûter, and descended by the Grands Mulets route, without guides, in 1855. His long practice made him surefooted, and in that respect he was not greatly inferior to a born mountaineer. I remember him as a well-made man of middle height and age, neither stout nor thin, with face pleasant - though grave, and with quiet unassuming manners. Although an athletic man, he would have been overlooked in a crowd; and although he had done the greatest mountaineering feats which have been done, he was the last man to speak of his own doings. His friend Mr. Hadow was a young man of nineteen, who had the looks and manners of a greater age. He was a rapid walker, but 1865 was his first season in the Alps. Lord Francis Douglas was about the same age as Mr. Hadow. He had had the advantage of several seasons in the Alps. He was nimble as a deer, and was becoming an expert mountaineer. Just before our meeting he had ascended the Ober Gabelhorn (with old Peter and Jos. Viennin), and this gave me a high opinion of his powers; for I had examined that mountain all round, a few weeks before, and had declined its ascent on account of its apparent difficulty. My personal acquaintance with Mr. Hudson was very slight - still I should have been content to have placed myself under his orders if he had chosen to claim the position to which he was entitled. Those who knew him will not be surprised to learn that, so far from doing this, he lost no opportunity of consulting the wishes and opinions of those around him. We deliberated together whenever there was occasion, and our authority was recognised by the others. Whatever responsibility there was devolved upon us. I recollect with satisfaction that there was no difference of opinion between us as to what should be done, and that the most perfect harmony existed between all of us so long as we were together.
69. Thus far the guides did not once go to the front. Hudson or I led, and when any cutting was required we did it ourselves. This was done to spare the guides, and to show them that we were thoroughly in earnest. The spot at which we camped was just four hours’ walking from Zermatt, and is marked upon the map - CAMP (1865). It was just upon a level with the Furggengrat, and its position is indicated upon the engraving facing p. 285 by a little circular white spot, in a line with the word CAMP.
70. The highest points are towards the two ends. In 1865 the northern end was slightly higher than the southern one. In bygone years Carrel and I often suggested to each other that we might one day arrive upon the top, and find ourselves cut off from the very highest point by a notch in the summit-ridge which is seen from the Theodule and from Breil. This notch is very conspicuous from below, but when one is actually upon the summit it is hardly noticed, and it can be passed without the least difficulty.
71. I have learnt since from J.-A. Carrel that they heard our first cries. They were then upon the south-west ridge, close to the ‘Cravate,’ and twelve hundred and fifty feet below us; or, as the crow flies, at a distance of about one-third of a mile.
72. At our departure the men were confident that the ascent would be made, and took one of the poles out of the tent. I protested that it was tempting Providence; they took the pole, nevertheless.
73. Signor Giordano was naturally disappointed at the result, and wished the men to start again. They all refused to do so, with the exception of Jean-Antoine. Upon the 16th of July he set out again with three others, and upon the 17th gained the summit by passing (at first) up the south-west ridge, and (afterwards) by turning over to the Z’Mutt, or north-western side. On the 18th he returned to Breil. Whilst we were upon the southern end of the summit-ridge, we paid some attention to the portion of the mountain which intervened between ourselves and the Italian guides. It seemed as if there would not be the least chance for them if they should attempt to storm the final peak directly from the end of the ‘shoulder.’ In that direction cliffs fell sheer down from the summit, and we were unable to see beyond a certain distance. There remained the route about which Carrel and I had often talked, namely, to ascend directly at first from the end of the ‘shoulder,’ and afterwards to swerve to the left - that is, to the Z’Mutt side - and to complete the ascent from the north-west. When we were upon the summit we laughed at this idea. The part of the mountain that I have described upon p. 388, was not easy, although its inclination was moderate. If that slope were made only ten degrees steeper, its difficulty would be enormously increased. To double its inclination would be to make it impracticable. The slope at the southern end of the summit-ridge, falling towards the north-west, was much steeper than that over which we passed, and we ridiculed the idea that any person should attempt to ascend in that direction, when the northern route was so easy. Nevertheless, the summit was reached by that route by the undaunted Carrel. From knowing the final slope over which he passed, and from the account of Mr. F. C. Grove - who is the only traveller by whom it has been traversed - I do not hesitate to term the ascent of Carrel and Bich in 1865 the most desperate piece of mountain-scrambling upon record. In 1869 I asked Carrel if he had ever done anything more difficult. His reply was, “Man cannot do anything much more difficult than that!” See Appendix.
74. The summit-ridge was much shattered, although not so extensively as the south-west and north-east ridges. The highest rock, in 1805, was a block of mica-schist, and the fragment I broke off it not only possesses, in a remarkable degree, the character of the peak, but mimics, in an astonishing manner, the details of its form.
75. It is most unusual to see the southern half of the panorama unclouded. A hundred ascents may be made before this will be the case again.