Super AlpineSuper Alpine

Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper


My First Scramble on the Matterhorn

The Matterhorn
The Matterhorn from near the summit of the Theodule pass.
What power must have been required to shatter and to sweep away the missing parts of this pyramid; for we do not see it surrounded by heaps of fragments: one only sees other peaks - themselves rooted to the ground - whose sides, equally rent, indicate an immense mass of débris, of which we do not see any trace in the neighbourhood. Doubtless this is that débris which, in the form of pebbles, boulders and sand, fills our valleys and our plains
- Horace-Benedict de Saussure

Two summits amongst those in the Alps which yet remained virgin had excited my admiration. One of these had been attacked numberless times by the best mountaineers without success: the ether, surrounded by traditional inaccessibility, was almost untouched. These mountains were the Weisshorn and the Matterhorn.

After visiting the great tunnel of the Alps in 1861, I wandered for ten days in the neighbouring valleys, intending presently to attempt the ascent of these two peaks. Rumours were floating about that the former had been conquered, and that the latter was shortly to be attacked, and they were confirmed on my arrival at Chatillon, at the entrance of the Val Tournanche. My interest in the Weisshorn abated, but it was raised to the highest pitch on hearing that Professor Tyndall was at Breuil, and intending to try to crown his first victory by another and a still greater one.

Up to this time my experience with guides had not been fortunate, and I was inclined, improperly, to rate them at a low value. They represented to me pointers-out of paths and great consumers of meat and drink, but little more; and, with the recollection of Mont Pelvoux, I should have greatly preferred the company of a couple of my countrymen to any number of guides. In answer to inquiries at Chatillon, a series of men came forward whose faces expressed malice, pride, envy, hatred and roguery of every description, but who seemed to be destitute of all good qualities. The arrival of two gentlemen with a guide, who they represented was the embodiment of every virtue and exactly the man for the Matterhorn, rendered it unnecessary to engage any of the others. My new guide in physique was a combination of Chang and Anak; and although in acquiring him I did not obtain exactly what was wanted, his late employers did exactly what they wanted, for I obtained the responsibility, without knowledge, of paying his back fare, which must have been a relief at once to their minds and to their purses.

When walking up toward Breuil, we inquired for another man of all the knowing ones, and they, with one voice, proclaimed that Jean-Antoine Carrel, of the village of Val Tournanche, was the cock of his valley. We sought, of course, for Carrel, and found him a well-made, resolute-looking fellow, with a certain defiant air which was rather taking. Yes, he would go. Twenty francs a day, whatever was the result, was his price. I assented. But I must take his comrade. “Why so?” Oh, it was absolutely impossible to get along without another man. As he said this an evil countenance came forth out of the darkness and proclaimed itself the comrade. I demurred, the negotiations broke off, and we went up to Breuil. This place will be frequently mentioned in subsequent chapters, and was in full view of the extraordinary peak the ascent of which we were about to attempt.

It is unnecessary to enter into a minute description of the Matterhorn after all that has been written about that famous mountain. My readers will know that that peak is nearly fifteen thousand feet high, and that it rises abruptly, by a series of cliffs which may properly be termed precipices, a clear five thousand feet above the glaciers which surround its base. They will know, too, that it was the last great Alpine peak which remained unsealed - less on account of the difficulty of doing so than from the terror inspired by its invincible appearance. There seemed to be a cordon drawn around it, up to which one might go, but no farther. Within that invisible line jinns and afrits were supposed to exist - the Wandering Jew and the spirits of the damned. The superstitious natives in the surrounding valleys (many of whom still firmly believe it to be not only the highest mountain in the Alps, but in the world) spoke of a ruined city on its summit wherein the spirits dwelt; and if you laughed they gravely shook their heads, told you to look yourself to see the castles and the walls, and warned one against a rash approach, lest the infuriate demons from their impregnable heights might hurl down vengeance for one’s derision. Such were the traditions of the natives. Stronger minds felt the influence of the wonderful form, and men who ordinarily spoke or wrote like rational beings, when they came under its power seemed to quit their senses and ranted and rhapsodised, losing for a time all common forms of speech. Even the sober De Saussure was moved to enthusiasm when he saw the mountain, and, inspired by the spectacle, he anticipated the speculations of modern geologists in the striking sentences which are placed at the head of this chapter.

The Matterhorn looks equally imposing from whatever side it is seen: it never seems commonplace, and in this respect, and in regard to the impression it makes upon spectators, it stands almost alone amongst mountains. It has no rivals in the Alps, and but few in the world.

The seven or eight thousand feet which compose the actual peak have several well-marked ridges and numerous others. The most continuous is that which leads toward the north-east: the summit is at its higher, and the little peak called the Hörnli is at its lower, end. Another one that is well pronounced descends from the summit to the ridge called the Furgen Grat. The slope of the mountain that is between these two ridges will be referred to as the eastern face. A third, somewhat less continuous than the others, descends in a south-westerly direction, and the portion of the mountain that is seen from Breuil is confined to that which is comprised between this and the second ridge. This section is not composed, like that between the first and second ridge, of one grand face, but it is broken up into a series of huge precipices, spotted with snow-slopes and streaked with snow-gullies. The other half of the mountain, facing the Z’Mutt glacier, is not capable of equally simple definition. There are precipices apparent but not actual; there are precipices absolutely perpendicular; there are precipices overhanging; there are glaciers and there are hanging glaciers; there are glaciers which tumble great séracs over greater cliffs, whose débris, subsequently consolidated, becomes glacier again; there are ridges split by the frost, and washed by the rain and melted snow into towers and spires; while everywhere there are ceaseless sounds of action, telling that the causes are still in operation which have been at work since the world began, reducing the mighty mass to atoms and effecting its degradation.

Most tourists obtain their first view of the mountain either from the valley of Zermatt or from that of Tournanche. From the former direction the base of the mountain is seen at its narrowest, and its ridges and faces seem to be of prodigious steepness. The tourist toils up the valley, looking frequently for the great sight which is to reward his pains, without seeing it (for the mountain is first perceived in that direction about a mile to the north of Zermatt), when all at once, as he turns a rocky corner of the path, it comes into view, not, however, where it is expected: the face has to be raised up to look at it - it seems overhead. Although this is the impression, the fact is that the summit of the Matterhorn from this point makes an angle with the eye of less than 16°, while the Dom, from the same place, makes a larger angle, but is passed by unobserved. So little can dependence be placed on unaided vision. The view of the mountain from Breuil, in the Val Tournanche, is not less striking than that on the other side, but usually it makes less impression, because the spectator grows accustomed to the sight while coming up or down the valley. From this direction the mountain is seen to be broken up into a series of pyramidal, wedge-shaped masses: on the other side it is remarkable for the large, unbroken extent of cliffs that it presents, and for the simplicity of its outline. It was natural to suppose that a way would more readily be found to the summit on a side thus broken up than in any other direction. The eastern face, fronting Zermatt, seemed one smooth, impossible cliff from summit to base: the ghastly precipices which face the Z’Mutt glacier forbade any attempt in that direction. There remained only the side of Val Tournanche, and it will be found that nearly all the earliest attempts to ascend the mountain were made on that side.

The first efforts to ascend the Matterhorn of which I have heard were made by the guides - or rather by the chasseurs - of Val Tournanche. These attempts were made in the years 1858-’59, from the direction of Breuil, and the highest point that was attained was about as far as the place which is now called the “Chimney” (cheminée), a height of about twelve thousand six hundred and fifty feet. Those who were concerned in these expeditions were Jean-Antoine Carrel, Jean Jacques Carrel, Victor Carrel, the Abbe Gorret and Gabrielle Maquignaz. I have been unable to obtain any further details about them.

The next attempt was a remarkable one; and of it, too, there is no published account. It was made by Messrs. Alfred, Charles and Sandbach Parker, of Liverpool, in July, 1860. These gentlemen, without guides, endeavoured to storm the citadel by attacking the eastern face, that to which reference was just now made as a smooth, impracticable cliff. Mr. Sandbach Parker informs me that he and his brothers went along the ridge between the Hörnli and the peak until they came to the point where the ascending angle is considerably increased. This place is marked on Dufour’s map of Switzerland 3298 metres (10,820 feet). They were then obliged to bear a little to the left to get on to the face of the mountain, and afterward they turned to the right and ascended about seven hundred feet farther, keeping as nearly as was practicable to the crest of the ridge, but occasionally bearing a little to the left; that is, more on to the face of the mountain. The brothers started from Zermatt, and did not sleep out. Clouds, a high wind and want of time were the causes which prevented these daring gentlemen from going farther. Thus their highest point was under twelve thousand feet.

The third attempt upon the mountain was made toward the end of August, 1860, by Mr. Vaughan Hawkins, from the side of the Val Tournanche. A vivid account of his expedition has been published by him in Vacation Tourists; and it has been referred to several times by Professor Tyndall in the numerous papers he has contributed to Alpine literature. I will dismiss it, therefore, as briefly as possible.

Mr. Hawkins had inspected the mountain in 1859 with the guide J. J. Bennen, and he had formed the opinion that the south-west ridge would lead to the summit. He engaged J. Jacques Carrel, who was concerned in the first attempts, and, accompanied by Bennen (and by Professor Tyndall, whom he had invited to take part in the expedition), he started for the gap between the little and the great peak.

Bennen was a guide who was beginning to be talked about. During the chief part of his brief career he was in the service of Wellig, the landlord of the inn on the Æggischhorn, and was hired out by him to tourists. Although his experience was limited, he had acquired a good reputation; and his book of certificates, which is lying before me, shows that he was highly esteemed by his employers. A good-looking man, with courteous, gentlemanly manners, skilful and bold, he might by this time have taken a front place amongst guides if he had only been endowed with more prudence. He perished miserably in the spring of 1864 not far from his home, on a mountain called the Haut de Cry, in the Valais.

Mr. Hawkins’ party, led by Bennen, climbed the rocks abutting against the Couloir du Lion on its south side, and attained the Col du Lion, although not without difficulty. They then followed the south-west ridge, passed the place at which the earliest explorers had turned back (the Chimney), and ascended about three hundred feet more. Mr. Hawkins and J. J. Carrel then stopped, but Bennen and Professor Tyndall mounted a few feet higher. They retreated, however, in less than half an hour, finding that there was too little time, and, descending to the col by the same route as they had followed on the ascent, proceeded thence to Breuil - down the couloir instead of by the rocks. The point at which Mr. Hawkins stopped is easily identified from his description. Its height is 12,992 feet above the sea. I think that Bennen and Tyndall could not have ascended more than fifty or sixty feet beyond this in the few minutes they were absent from the others, as they were upon one of the most difficult parts of the mountain. This party therefore accomplished an advance of about three hundred and fifty or four hundred feet.

Mr. Hawkins did not, as far as I know, make another attempt; and the next was made by the Messrs. Parker in July, 1861. They again started from Zermatt, followed the route they had struck out on the previous year, and got a little higher than before; but they were defeated by want of time, left Zermatt shortly afterward on account of bad weather, and did not again renew their attempts. Mr. Parker says: “In neither case did we go as high as we could. At the point where we turned we saw our way for a few hundred feet farther, but beyond that the difficulties seemed to increase.” I am informed that both attempts should be considered as excursions undertaken with the view of ascertaining whether there was any encouragement to make a more deliberate attack on the north-east side.

My guide and I arrived at Breuil on he 28th of August, 1861, and we found that Professor Tyndall had been there a day or two before, but had done nothing. I had seen the mountain from nearly every direction, and it seemed, even to a novice like myself, far too much for a single day. I intended to sleep out upon it as high as possible, and to attempt to reach the summit on the following day. We endeavoured to induce another man to accompany us, but without success. Matthias zum Taugwald and other well-known guides were there at the time, but they declined to go on any account. A sturdy old fellow - Peter Taugwalder by name - said he would go. His price? “Two hundred francs.” “What! whether we ascend or not?” “Yes - nothing less.” The end of the matter was, that all the men who were more or less capable showed a strong disinclination or positively refused to go (their disinclination being very much in proportion to their capacity), or else asked a prohibitive price. This, it may be said once for all, was the reason why so many futile attempts were made upon the Matterhorn. One first-rate guide after another was brought up to the mountain and patted on the back, but all declined the business. The men who went had no heart in the matter, and took the first opportunity to turn back,5 for they were, with the exception of one man - to whom reference will be made presently - universally impressed with the belief that the summit was entirely inaccessible.

We resolved to go alone, but, anticipating a cold bivouac, begged the loan of a couple of blankets from the innkeeper. He refused them, giving the curious reason that we had bought a bottle of brandy at Val Tournanche, and had not bought any from him! No brandy, no blankets, appeared to be his rule. We did not require them that night, as it was passed in the highest cow-shed in the valley, which is about an hour nearer to the mountain than is the hotel. The cowherds, worthy fellows seldom troubled by tourists, hailed our company with delight, and did their best to make us comfortable, brought out their little stores of simple food, and, as we sat with them round the great copper pot which hung over the fire, bade us in husky voice, but with honest intent, to beware of the perils of the haunted cliffs. When night was coming on we saw stealing up the hillside the forms of Jean-Antoine Carrel and the comrade. “Oh ho!” I said, “you have repented?” “Not at all: you deceive yourself.” “Why, then, have you come here?” “Because we ourselves are going on the mountain tomorrow.” “Oh, then it is not necessary to have more than three?” “Not for us.” I admired their pluck, and had a strong inclination to engage the pair, but final ly decided against it. The comrade turned out to be the J. J. Carrel who had been with Mr. Hawkins, and was nearly related to the other man.

Both were bold mountaineers, but Jean-Antoine was incomparably the better man of the two, and he is the finest rock-climber I have ever seen. He was the only man who persistently refused to accept defeat, and who continued to believe, in spite of all discouragements, that the great mountain was not inaccessible, and that it could be ascended from the side of his native valley.

The night wore away without any excitement, except from the fleas, a party of whom executed a spirited fandango on my cheek to the sound of music produced on the drum of my ear by one of their fellows beating with a wisp of hay. The two Carrels crept noiselessly out before daybreak, and went off. We did not leave until nearly seven o’clock, and followed them leisurely, leaving all our properties in the cow-shed, sauntered over the gentian-studded slopes which intervene between the shed and the Glacier du Lion, left cows and their pastures behind, traversed the stony wastes and arrived at the ice. Old, hard beds of snow lay on its right bank (our left hand), and we mounted over them on to the lower portion of the glacier with ease. But as we ascended crevasses became numerous, and we were at last brought to a halt by some which were of very large dimensions; and as our cutting powers were limited, we sought an easier route, and turned naturally to the lower rocks of the Tête du Lion, which overlook the glacier on its west. Some good scrambling took us in a short time on to the crest of the ridge which descends toward the south; and thence up to the level of the Col du Lion there was a long natural staircase, on which it was seldom necessary to use the hands. We dubbed the place “The Great Staircase.” Then the cliffs of the Tête du Lion, which rise above the couloir, had to be skirted. This part varies considerably in different seasons, and in 1861 we found it difficult, for the fine steady weather of that year had reduced the snow-beds abutting against it to a lower level than usual, and the rocks which were left exposed at the junction of the snow with the cliffs had few ledges or cracks to which we could hold. But by half-past ten o’clock we stood on the col, and looked down upon the magnificent basin out of which the Z’Mutt glacier flows. We decided to pass the night upon the col, for we were charmed with the capabilities of the place, although it was one where liberties could not be taken. On one side a sheer-wall overhung the Tiefenmatten glacier - on the other, steep, glassy slopes of hard snow descended to the Glacier du Lion, furrowed by water and by falling stones: on the north there was the great peak of the Matterhorn,6 and on the south the cliffs of the Tête du Lion. Throw a bottle down to the Tiefenmatten - no sound returns for more than a dozen seconds.

But no harm could come from that side - neither could it from the other. Nor was it likely that it would from the Tête du Lion, for some jutting ledges conveniently overhung our proposed resting-place. We waited for a while, basked in the sunshine, and watched or listened to the Carrels, who were sometimes seen or heard high above us upon the ridge leading toward the summit; and, leaving at mid-day, we descended to the cow-shed, packed up the tent and other properties, and returned to the col, although heavily laden, before six o’clock. This tent was constructed on a pattern suggested by Mr. Francis Galton, and it was not a success. It looked very pretty when set up in London, but it proved thoroughly useless in the Alps. It was made of light canvas, and opened like a book: one end was closed permanently and the other with flaps: it was supported by two alpenstocks, and had the canvas sides prolonged so as to turn in underneath. Numerous cords were sewn to the lower edges, to which stones were to be attached, but the main fastenings were by a cord which passed underneath the ridge and through iron rings screwed into the tops of the alpenstocks, and were secured by pegs. The wind, which playfully careered about the surrounding cliffs, was driven through our gap with the force of a blow-pipe: the flaps of the tent would not keep down, the pegs would not stay in, and it exhibited so marked a desire to go to the top of the Dent Blanche that we thought it prudent to take it down and to sit upon it. When night came on we wrapped ourselves in it, and made our camp as comfortable as the circumstances would allow. The silence was impressive. No living thing was near our solitary bivouac; the Carrels had turned back and were out of hearing; the stones had ceased to fall and the trickling water to murmur -

“The music of whose liquid lip
Had been to us companionship,
And in our lonely life had grown
To have an almost human tone.”
- J. G. Whittier.

It was bitterly cold. Water froze hard in a bottle under my head. Not surprising, as we were actually on snow, and in a position where the slightest wind was at once felt. For a time we dozed, but about midnight there came from high aloft a tremendous explosion, followed by a second of dead quiet. A great mass of rock had split off and was descending toward us. My guide started up, wrung his hands and exclaimed, “O my God, we are lost!” We heard it coming, mass after mass pouring over the precipices, bounding and rebounding from cliff to cliff, and the great rocks in advance smiting one another. They seemed to be close, although they were probably distant, but some small fragments, which dropped upon us at the same time from the ledges just above, added to the alarm, and my demoralised companion passed the remainder of the night in a state of shudder, ejaculating “Terrible!” and other adjectives.

We put ourselves in motion at daybreak, and commenced the ascent of the south-west ridge. There was no more sauntering with hands in the pockets - each step had to be earned by downright climbing. But it was the most pleasant kind of climbing. The rocks were fast and unencumbered with débris, the cracks were good, although not numerous, and there was nothing to fear except from one’s self. So we thought, at least, and shouted to awake echoes from the cliffs. Ah! there is no response. Not yet: wait a while - everything here is upon a superlative scale: count a dozen and then the echoes will return from the walls of the Dent d’Hérens, miles away, in waves of pure and undefiled sound, soft, musical and sweet. Halt a moment to regard the view! We overlook the Tête du Lion, and nothing except the Dent d’Hérens, whose summit is still a thousand feet above us, stands in the way: the ranges of the Graian Alps, an ocean of mountains, are seen at a glance, governed by their three great peaks, the Grivola, Grand Paradis and Tour de St. Pierre. How soft, and yet how sharp, they look in the early morning! The mid-day mists have not begun to rise - nothing is obscured: even the pointed Viso, all but a hundred miles away, is perfectly defined.

Turn to the east and watch the sun’s slanting rays coming across the Monte Rosa snow-fields. Look at the shadowed parts and see how even they, radiant with reflected light, are more brilliant than man knows how to depict. See how, even there, the gentle undulations give shadows within shadows, and how, yet again, where falling stones or ice have left a track, there are shadows upon shadows, each with a light and a dark side, with infinite gradations of matchless tenderness. Then note the sunlight as it steals noiselessly along and reveals countless unsuspected forms - the delicate ripple-lines which mark the concealed crevasse, and the waves of drifted snow, producing each minute more lights and fresh shadows, sparkling on the edges and glittering on the ends of the icicles, shining on the heights and illuminating the depths, until all is aglow and the dazzled eye returns for relief to the sombre crags.

Hardly an hour had passed since we left the col before we arrived at the “Chimney.” It proved to be the counterpart of the place to which reference has been before made: a smooth, straight slab of rock was fixed at a considerable angle between two others equally smooth. My companion essayed to go up, and after crumpling his long body into many ridiculous positions, he said that he would not, for he could not do it. With some little trouble I got up it unassisted, and then my guide tied himself on to the end of our rope, and I endeavoured to pull him up. But he was so awkward that he did little for himself, and so heavy that he proved too much for me, and after several attempts he untied himself and quietly observed that he should go down. I told him he was a coward, and he mentioned his opinion of me. I requested him to go to Breuil, and to say that he had left his “monsieur” on the mountain, and he turned to go, whereupon I had to eat humble pie and ask him to come back; for although it was not very difficult to go up, and not at all dangerous with a man standing below, it was quite another thing to come down, as the lower edge overhung in a provoking manner. The day was perfect, the sun was pouring down grateful warmth, the wind had fallen, the way seemed clear, no insuperable obstacle was in sight; but what could one do alone? I stood on the top, chafing under this unexpected contretemps, and remained for some time irresolute; but as it became apparent that the Chimney was swept more frequently than was necessary (it was a natural channel for falling stones), I turned at last, descended with the assistance of my companion, and returned with him to Breuil, where we arrived about mid-day.

The Carrels did not show themselves, but we were told that they had not got to any great height,7 and that the “comrade,” who for convenience had taken off his shoes and tied them round his waist, had managed to let one of them slip, and had come down with a piece of cord fastened round his naked foot. Notwithstanding this, they had boldly glissaded down the Couloir du Lion, J. J. Carrel having his shoeless foot tied up in a pocket handkerchief.

The Matterhorn was not assailed again in 1861. I left Breuil with the conviction that it was little use for a single tourist to organise an attack upon it, so great was its influence on the morals of the guides, and persuaded that it was desirable at least two should go, to back each other when required; and departed with my guide over the Col Théodule, longing more than before to make the ascent, and determined to return - if possible with a companion - to lay siege to the mountain until one or the other was vanquished.


5. The guide Bennen must be excepted.

6. The engraving is made after a sketch taken from the rocks of the Matterhorn, just above the Col.
How fearful And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!

7. I learned afterwards from Jean-Antoine Carrel that they got considerably higher than upon their previous attempts, and about 250 or 300 feet higher than Professor Tyndall in 1860. In 1862 I saw the initials of J. A. Carrel cut on the rocks at the place where he and his comrade had turned back.