Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper

CHAPTER 22

Descent of the Matterhorn

Hudson and I again consulted as to the best and safest arrangement of the party. We agreed that it would be best for Croz to go first,76 and Hadow second; Hudson, who was almost equal to a guide in sureness of foot, wished to be third; Lord F. Douglas was placed next, and old Peter, the strongest of the remainder, after him. I suggested to Hudson that we should attach a rope to the rocks on our arrival at the difficult bit, and hold it as we descended, as an additional protection. He approved the idea, but it was not definitely settled that it should be done. The party was being arranged in the above order whilst I was sketching the summit, and they had finished, and were waiting for me to be tied in line, when some one remembered that our names had not been left in a bottle. They requested me to write them down, and moved off while it was being done.

A few minutes afterward I tied myself to young Peter, ran down after the others, and caught them just as they were commencing the descent of the difficult part. Great care was being taken. Only one man was moving at a time: when he was firmly planted, the next advanced, and so on. They had not, however, attached the additional rope to rocks, and nothing was said about it. The suggestion was not made for my own sake, and I am not sure that it even occurred to me again. For some little distance we two followed the others, detached from them, and should have continued so had not Lord F. Douglas asked me, about 3.00 p.m. to tie on to old Peter, as he feared, he said, that Taugwalder would not be able to hold his ground if a slip occurred.

A few minutes later a sharp-eyed lad ran into the Monte Rosa hotel to Seiler, saying that he had seen an avalanche fall from the summit of the Matterhorn on to the Matterhorngletscher. The boy was reproved for telling idle stories: he was right, nevertheless, and this was what he saw.

Michel Croz had laid aside his axe, and in order to give Mr. Hadow greater security was absolutely taking hold of his legs and putting his feet, one by one, into their proper positions.77 As far as I know, no one was actually descending. I cannot speak with certainty, because the two leading men were partially hidden from my sight by an intervening mass of rock, but it is my belief, from the movements of their shoulders, that Croz, having done as I have said, was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself: at this moment Mr. Hadow slipped, fell against him and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downward: in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps, and Lord F. Douglas immediately after him.78 All this was the work of a moment. Immediately we heard Croz’s exclamation, old Peter and I planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit:79 the rope was taut between us, and the jerk came on us both as on one man. We held, but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downward on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavouring to save themselves. They passed from our sight uninjured, disappeared one by one, and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorngletscher below, a distance of nearly four thousand feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them.

So perished our comrades! For the space of half an hour we remained on the spot without moving a single step. The two men, paralysed by terror, cried like infants, and trembled in such a manner as to threaten us with the fate of the others. Old Peter rent the air with exclamations of “Chamonix! - oh, what will Chamonix say?” He meant, Who would believe that Croz could fall?

The young man did nothing but scream or sob, “We are lost! we are lost!” Fixed between the two, I could move neither up nor down. I begged young Peter to descend, but he dared not. Unless he did, we could not advance. Old Peter became alive to the danger, and swelled the cry, “We are lost! we are lost!” The father’s fear was natural - he trembled for his son; the young man’s fear was cowardly - he thought of self alone. At last old Peter summoned up courage, and changed his position to a rock to which he could fix the rope: the young man then descended, and we all stood together. Immediately we did so, I asked for the rope which had given way, and found, to my surprise - indeed, to my horror - that it was the weakest of the three ropes. It was not brought, and should not have been employed, for the purpose for which it was used. It was old rope, and, compared with the others, was feeble. It was intended as a reserve, in case we had to leave much rope behind attached to rocks. I saw at once that a serious question was involved, and made them give me the end. It had broken in mid-air, and it did not appear to have sustained previous injury.

For more than two hours afterward I thought almost every moment that the next would be my last, for the Taugwalders, utterly unnerved, were not only incapable of giving assistance, but were in such a state that a slip might have been expected from them at any moment. After a time we were able to do that which should have been done at first, and fixed rope to firm rocks, in addition to being tied together. These ropes were cut from time to time, and were left behind.80 Even with their assurance the men were afraid to proceed, and several times old Peter turned with ashy face and faltering limbs, and said with terrible emphasis, “I cannot!”

About 6.00 p.m. we arrived at the snow upon the ridge descending toward Zermatt, and all peril was over. We frequently looked, but in vain, for traces of our unfortunate companions: we bent over the ridge and cried to them, but no sound returned. Convinced at last that they were within neither sight nor hearing, we ceased from our useless efforts, and, too cast down for speech, silently gathered up our things and the little effects of those who were lost, preparatory to continuing the descent. When lo! a mighty arch appeared, rising above the Lyskamm high into the sky. Pale, colorless and noiseless, but perfectly sharp and defined, except where it was lost in the clouds, this unearthly apparition seemed like a vision from another world, and almost appalled we watched with amazement the gradual development of two vast crosses, one on either side. If the Taugwalders had not been the first to perceive it, I should have doubted my senses. They thought it had some connection with the accident, and I, after a while, that it might bear some relation to ourselves. But our movements had no effect upon it. The spectral forms remained motionless. It was a fearful and wonderful sight, unique in my experience, and impressive beyond description, coming at such a moment.81

I was ready to leave, and waiting for the others. They had recovered their appetites and the use of their tongues. They spoke in patois, which I did not understand. At length the son said in French, “Monsieur.” “Yes.” “We are poor men; we have lost our Herr; we shall not get paid; we can ill afford this.”82 “Stop!” I said, interrupting him - “that is nonsense: I shall pay you, of course, just as if your Herr were here.” They talked together in their patois for a short time, and then the son spoke again: “We don’t wish you to pay us. We wish you to write in the hotel-book at Zermatt and to your journals that we have not been paid.” “What nonsense are you talking? I don’t understand you. What do you mean?” He proceeded: “Why, next year there will be many travelers at Zermatt, and we shall get more voyageurs.

Who would answer such a proposition? I made them no reply in words,83 but they knew very well the indignation that I felt. They filled the cup of bitterness to overflowing, and I tore down the cliff madly and recklessly, in a way that caused them, more than once, to inquire if I wished to kill them. Night fell, and for an hour the descent was continued in the darkness. At half-past nine a resting-place was found, and upon a wretched slab, barely large enough to hold the three, we passed six miserable hours. At daybreak the descent was resumed, and from the Hörnli ridge we ran down to the châlets of Buhl and on to Zermatt. Seiler met me at his door, and followed in silence to my room: “What is the matter?” “The Taugwalders and I have returned.” He did not need more, and burst into tears, but lost no time in useless lamentations, and set to work to arouse the village. Ere long a score of men had started to ascend the Hohlicht heights, above Kalbermatt and Z’Mutt, which commanded the plateau of the Matterhorngletscher. They returned after six hours, and reported that they had seen the bodies lying motionless on the snow. This was on Saturday, and they proposed that we should leave on Sunday evening, so as to arrive upon the plateau at daybreak on Monday. Unwilling to lose the slightest chance, the Rev. J. M’Cormick and I resolved to start on Sunday morning. The Zermatt men, threatened with excommunication by their priests if they failed to attend the early mass, were unable to accompany us. To several of them, at least, this was a severe trial, and Peter Perm declared with tears that nothing else would have prevented him from joining in the search for his old comrades. Englishmen came to our aid. The Rev. J. Robertson and Mr. J. Phillpotts offered themselves and their guide, Franz Andermatten: another Englishman lent us Joseph Marie and Alexandre Lochmatter. Frédéric Payot and Jean Tairraz of Chamonix also volunteered.

We started at 2.00 a.m. on Sunday, the 16th, and followed the route that we had taken on the previous Thursday as far as the Hörnli. From thence we went down to the right of the ridge, and mounted through the séracs of the Matterhorngletscher. By 8.30 we had got to the plateau at the top of the glacier, and within sight of the corner in which we knew my companions must be. As we saw one weather-beaten man after another raise the telescope, turn deadly pale and pass it on without a word to the next, we knew that all hope was gone. We approached. They had fallen below as they had fallen above - Croz a little in advance, Hadow near him, and Hudson some distance behind, but of Lord F. Douglas we could see nothing.84 We left them where they fell, buried in snow at the base of the grandest cliff of the most majestic mountain of the Alps.

All those who had fallen had been tied with the Manila, or with the second and equally strong rope, and consequently there had been only one link- that between old Peter and Lord F. Douglas - where the weaker rope had been used. This had a very ugly look for Taugwalder, for it was not possible to suppose that the others would have sanctioned the employment of a rope so greatly inferior in strength when there were more than two hundred and fifty feet of the better qualities still out of use.85 For the sake of the old guide (who bore a good reputation), and upon all other accounts, it was desirable that this matter should be cleared up; and after my examination before the court of inquiry which was instituted by the government was over, I handed in a number of questions which were framed so as to afford old Peter an opportunity of exculpating himself from the grave suspicions which at once fell upon him. The questions, I was told, were put and answered, but the answers, although promised, have never reached me.86

Meanwhile, the administration sent strict injunctions to recover the bodies, and upon the 19th of July twenty-one men of Zermatt accomplished that sad and dangerous task. Of the body of Lord Francis Douglas they too saw nothing: it is probably still arrested on the rocks above.87 The remains of Hudson and Hadow were interred upon the north side of the Zermatt church, in the presence of a reverent crowd of sympathising friends. The body of Michel Croz lies upon the other side, under a simpler tomb, whose inscription bears honourable testimony to his rectitude, to his courage and to his devotion.88

So the traditional inaccessibility of the Matterhorn was vanquished, and was replaced by legends of a more real character. Others will essay to scale its proud cliffs, but to none will it be the mountain that it was to its early explorers. Others may tread its summit-snows, but none will ever know the feelings of those who first gazed upon its marvellous panorama, and none, I trust, will ever be compelled to tell of joy turned into grief, and of laughter into mourning. It proved to be a stubborn foe; it resisted long and gave many a hard blow; it was defeated at last with an ease that none could have anticipated, but, like a relentless enemy conquered but not crushed, it took terrible vengeance. The time may come when the Matterhorn shall have passed away, and nothing save a heap of shapeless fragments will mark the spot where the great mountain stood, for, atom by atom, inch by inch, and yard by yard, it yields to forces which nothing can withstand. That time is far distant, and ages hence generations unborn will gaze upon its awful precipices and wonder at its unique form. However exalted may be their ideas and however exaggerated their expectations, none will come to return disappointed!

The play is over, and the curtain is about to fall. Before we part, a word upon the graver teachings of the mountains. See yonder height! ’Tis far away - unbidden comes the word “Impossible!” “Not so,” says the mountaineer. “The way is long, I know: it’s difficult - it may be dangerous. It’s possible, I’m sure: I’ll seek the way, take counsel of my brother mountaineers, and find how they have gained similar heights and learned to avoid the dangers.” He starts (all slumbering down below): the path is slippery - maybe laborious too. Caution and perseverance gain the day - the height is reached! and those beneath cry, “Incredible! ’tis superhuman!”

We who go mountain-scrambling have constantly set before us the superiority of fixed purpose or perseverance to brute force. We know that each height, each step, must be gained by patient, laborious toil, and that wishing cannot take the place of working: we know the benefits of mutual aid - that many a difficulty must be encountered, and many an obstacle must be grappled with or turned; but we know that where there’s a will there’s a way; and we come back to our daily occupations better fitted to fight the battle of life and to overcome the impediments which obstruct our paths, strengthened and cheered by the recollection of past labours and by the memories of victories gained in other fields.

I have not made myself an advocate or an apologist for mountaineering, nor do I now intend to usurp the functions of a moralist, but my task would have been ill performed if it had been concluded without one reference to the more serious lessons of the mountaineer. We glory in the physical regeneration which is the product of our exertions; we exult over the grandeur of the scenes that are brought before our eyes, the splendours of sunrise and sunset, and the beauties of hill, dale, lake, wood and waterfall; but we value more highly the development of manliness, and the evolution, under combat with difficulties, of those noble qualities of human nature - courage, patience, endurance and fortitude.

Some hold these virtues in less estimation, and assign base and contemptible motives to those who indulge in our innocent sport.

Be thou chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.

Others, again, who are not detractors, find mountaineering, as a sport, to be wholly unintelligible. It is not greatly to be wondered at - we are not all constituted alike. Mountaineering is a pursuit essentially adapted to the young or vigorous, and not to the old or feeble. To the latter toil may be no pleasure, and it is often said by such persons, “This man is making a toil of pleasure.” Toil he must who goes mountaineering, but out of the toil comes strength (not merely muscular energy - more than that, an awakening of all the faculties), and from the strength arises pleasure. Then, again, it is often asked, in tones which seem to imply that the answer must at least be doubtful, “But does it repay you?” Well, we cannot estimate our enjoyment as you measure your wine or weigh your lead: it is real, nevertheless. If I could blot out every reminiscence or erase every memory, still I should say that my scrambles amongst the Alps have repaid me, for they have given me two of the best things a man can possess - health and friends.

The recollections of past pleasures cannot be effaced. Even now as I write they crowd up before me. First comes an endless series of pictures, magnificent in form, effect and colour. I see the great peaks with clouded tops, seeming to mount up for ever and ever; I hear the music of the distant herds, the peasant’s jodel and the solemn church-bells; and I scent the fragrant breath of the pines; and after these have passed away another train of thoughts succeeds - of those who have been upright, brave and true; of kind hearts and bold deeds; and of courtesies received at stranger hands, trifles in themselves, but expressive of that good-will toward men which is the essence of charity.

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times. There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say, 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.


Footnotes
76. If the members of the party had been more equally efficient, Croz would have been placed last.

77. Not at all an unusual proceeding, even between born mountaineers. I wish to convey the impression that Croz was using all pains, rather than to indicate extreme inability on the part of Mr. Hadow. The insertion of the word ‘absolutely’ makes the passage, perhaps, rather ambiguous. I retain it now, in order to offer the above explanation.

78. At the moment of the accident, Croz, Hadow, and Hudson, were all close together. Between Hudson and Lord F. Douglas the rope was all but taut, and the same between all the others who were above. Croz was standing by the side of a rock which afforded good hold, and if he had been aware, or had suspected, that anything was about to occur, he might and would have gripped it, and would have prevented any mischief. He was taken totally by surprise. Mr. Hadow slipped off his feet on to his back, his feet struck Croz in the small of the back, and knocked him right over, head first. Croz’s axe was out of his reach, and without it he managed to get his head uppermost before he disappeared from our sight. If it had been in his hand I have no doubt that he would have stopped himself and Mr. Hadow. Mr. Hadow, at the moment of the slip, was not occupying a bad position. He could have moved either up or down, and could touch with his hand the rock of which I have spoken. Hudson was not so well placed, but he had liberty of motion. The rope was not taut from him to Hadow, and the two men fell ten or twelve feet before the jerk came upon him. Lord F. Douglas was not favourably placed, and could neither move up nor down. Old Peter was firmly planted, and stood just beneath a large rock which he hugged with both arms. I enter into these details to make it more apparent that the position occupied by the party at the moment of the accident was not by any means excessively trying. We were compelled to pass over the exact spot where the slip occurred, and we found - even with shaken nerves - that it was not a difficult place to pass. I have described the slope generally as difficult, and it is so undoubtedly to most persons; but it must be distinctly understood that Mr. Hadow slipped at an easy part.

79. Or, more correctly, we held on as tightly as possible. There was no time to change our position.

80. These ends, I believe, are still attached to the rocks, and mark our line of ascent and descent.

81. See Frontispiece. I paid very little attention to this remarkable phenomenon, and was glad when it disappeared, as it distracted our attention. Under ordinary circumstances I should have felt vexed afterwards at not having observed with greater precision an occurrence so rare and so wonderful. I can add very little about it to that which is said above. The sun was directly at our backs; that is to say, the fog-bow was opposite to the sun. The time was 6.30 p.m. The forms were at once tender and sharp; neutral in tone; were developed gradually, and disappeared suddenly. The mists were light (that is, not dense), and were dissipated in the course of the evening. It has been suggested that the crosses are incorrectly figured in the Frontispiece, and that they were probably formed by the intersection of other circles or ellipses, as shown in the annexed diagram. I think this suggestion is very likely correct; but I have preferred to follow my original memorandum. In Parry’s Narrative of an Attempt to reach the North Pole, 4to, 1828, there is, at pp. 99-100, an account of the occurrence of a phenomenon analogous to the above-mentioned one. “At half-past five p.m. we witnessed a very beautiful natural phenomenon. A broad white fog-bow first appeared opposite to the sun, as was very commonly the case,” etc. I follow Parry in using the term fog-bow. It may be observed that, upon the descent of the Italian guides (whose expedition is noticed upon in the Appendix), upon July 17th, 1865, the phenomenon commonly termed the Brocken was observed. The following is the account given by the Abbé Amé Gorret in the Feuille d’Aoste, October 31, 1865: - “Nous étions sur l’épaule (the ‘shoulder’) quand nous remarquâmes un phénomène qui nous fit plaisir; le nuage était très-dense du côté de Valtornanche, c’était serein en Suisse; nous nous vîmes au milieu d’un cercle aux couleurs de l’arc-en-ciel; ce mirage nous formait à tous une couronne au milieu de laquelle nous voyions notre ombre.” This occurred at about 6.30 to 7.00 p.m., and the Italians in mention were at about the same height as ourselves - namely, 14,000 feet.

82. They had been travelling with, and had been engaged by, Lord F. Douglas, and so considered him their employer, and responsible to them.

83. Nor did I speak to them afterwards, unless it was absolutely necessary, so long as we were together.

84. A pair of gloves, a belt, and boot that had belonged to him were found. This, somehow, became publicly known, and gave rise to wild notions, which would not have been entertained had it been also known that the whole of the boots of those who had fallen were off, and were lying upon the snow near the bodies.

85. I was one hundred feet or more from the others whilst they were being tied up, and am unable to throw any light on the matter. Croz and old Peter no doubt tied up the others.

86. This is not the only occasion upon which M. Clemenz (who presided over the inquiry) has failed to give up answers that he has promised. It is greatly to be regretted that he does not feel that the suppression of the truth is equally against the interests of travellers and of the guides. If the men are untrustworthy, the public should be warned of the fact; but if they are blameless, why allow them to remain under unmerited suspicion? Old Peter Taugwalder is a man who is labouring under an unjust accusation. Notwithstanding repeated denials, even his comrades and neighbours at Zermatt persist in asserting or insinuating that he cut the rope which led from him to Lord F. Douglas. In regard to this infamous charge, I say that he could not do so at the moment of the slip, and that the end of the rope in my possession shows that he did not do so beforehand. There remains, however, the suspicious fact that the rope which broke was the thinnest and weakest one that we had. It is suspicious, because it is unlikely that any of the four men in front would have selected an old and weak rope when there was abundance of new, and much stronger, rope to spare; and, on the other hand, because if Taugwalder thought that an accident was likely to happen, it was to his interest to have the weaker rope where it was placed. I should rejoice to learn that his answers to the questions which were put to him were satisfactory. Not only was his act at the critical moment wonderful as a feat of strength, but it was admirable in its performance at the right time. I am told that he is now nearly incapable for work - not absolutely mad, but with intellect gone and almost crazy; which is not to be wondered at, whether we regard him as a man who contemplated a scoundrelly meanness, or as an injured man suffering under an unjust accusation. In respect to young Peter, it is not possible to speak in the same manner. The odious idea that he propounded (which I believe emanated from him) he has endeavoured to trade upon, in spite of the fact that his father was paid (for both) in the presence of witnesses. Whatever may be his abilities as a guide, he is not one to whom I would ever trust my life, or afford any countenance.

87. This, or a subsequent party, discovered a sleeve. No other traces have been found.

88. At the instance of Mr. Alfred Wills, a subscription list was opened for the benefit of the sisters of Michel Croz, who had been partly dependent upon his earnings. In a short time more than £280 were raised. This was considered sufficient, and the list was closed. The proceeds were invested in French Rentes (by Mr. William Mathews), at the recommendation of M. Dupui, at that time Maire of Chamonix.