SUPER ALPINE

Scrambles Amongst the Alps

by Edward Whymper

CHAPTER 5

Renewed Attempts to Ascend the Matterhorn

A cannonade on the Matterhorn
A cannonade on the Matterhorn. (1862)

The year 1862 was still young, and the Matterhorn, clad in its wintry garb, bore but little resemblance to the Matterhorn of the summer, when a new force came to do battle with the mountain from another direction. Mr. T. S. Kennedy of Leeds conceived the extraordinary idea that the peak might prove less impracticable in January than in June, and arrived at Zermatt in the former month to put his conception to the test. With stout Peter Perm and sturdy Peter Taugwalder he slept in the little chapel at the Schwarzensee, and on the next morning, like the Messrs. Parker, followed the ridge between the peak called Hörnli and the great mountain. But they found that snow in winter obeyed the ordinary laws, and that the wind and frost were not less unkind than in summer. “The wind whirled up the snow and spiculæ of ice into our faces like needles, and flat pieces of ice a foot in diameter, carried up from the glacier below, went flying past. Still no one seemed to like to be the first to give in, till a gust fiercer than usual forced us to shelter for a time behind a rock. Immediately it was tacitly understood that our expedition must now end. but we determined to leave some memento of our visit, and, after descending a considerable distance, we found a suitable place with loose stones of which to build a cairn. In half an hour a tower six feet high was erected, a bottle, with the date, was placed inside, and we retreated as rapidly as possible.” This cairn was placed at the spot marked upon Dufour’s Map of Switzerland 10,820 feet (3298 metres), and the highest point attained by Mr. Kennedy was not, I imagine, more than two or three hundred feet above it.

Shortly after this, Professor Tyndall gave, in his little tract - Mountaineering in 1861 - an account of the reason why he had left Breuil in August, 1861, without doing anything. It seems that he sent his guide Bennen to reconnoitre, and that the latter made the following report to his employer: “Herr, I have examined the mountain carefully, and find it more difficult and dangerous than I had imagined. There is no place upon it where we could well pass the night. We might do so on yonder col upon the snow, but there we should be almost frozen to death, and totally unfit for the work of the next day. On the rocks there is no ledge or cranny which could give us proper harbourage; and starting from Breuil, it is certainly impossible to reach the summit in a single day.” “I was entirely taken aback,” says Tyndall, “by this report. I felt like a man whose grip had given way, and who was dropping through the air…” Bennen was evidently dead against any attempt upon the mountain. “We can, at all events, reach the lower of the two summits,” I remarked. “Even that is difficult,” he replied; “but when you have reached it, what then? The peak has neither name nor fame.”8

I was more surprised than discouraged by this report by Bennen. One-half of his assertions I knew to be wrong. The col to which he referred was the Col du Lion, upon which he had passed a night less than a week after he had spoken so authoritatively; and I had seen a place not far below the “Chimney” - a place about five hundred feet above the col - where it seemed possible to construct a sleeping-place. Bennen’s opinions seem to have undergone a complete change. In 1860 he is described as having been enthusiastic to make an attempt - in 1861 he was dead against one. Nothing dismayed by this, my friend Mr. Reginald MacDonald, our companion on the Pelvoux - to whom so much of our success had been due - agreed to join me in a renewed assault from the south; and although we failed to secure Melchior Anderegg and some other notable guides, we obtained two men of repute - namely, Johann zum Taugwald and Johann Kronig of Zermatt. We met at that place early in July, but stormy weather prevented us even from crossing to the other side of the chain for some time. We crossed the Col Théodule on the 5th, but the weather was thoroughly unsettled: it was raining in the valleys and snowing upon the mountains. Shortly before we gained the summit we were made extremely uncomfortable by hearing mysterious rushing sounds, which sometimes seemed as if a sudden gust of wind was sweeping along the snow, and at others almost like the swishing of a long whip; yet the snow exhibited no signs of motion and the air was perfectly calm. The dense, black storm-clouds made us momentarily expect that our bodies might be used as lightning-conductors, and we were well satisfied to get under shelter of the inn at Breuil without having submitted to any such experience.

We had need of a porter, and by the advice of our landlord descended to the châlets of Breuil in search of one Luc Meynet. We found his house, a mean abode, encumbered with cheese-making apparatus, and tenanted only by some bright-eyed children; but as they said that Uncle Luc would soon be home, we waited at the door of the little châlet and watched for him. At last a speck was seen coming round the corner of the patch of pines below Breuil, and then the children clapped their hands, dropped their toys and ran eagerly forward to meet him. We saw an ungainly, wobbling figure stoop down and catch up the little ones, kiss them on each cheek, and put them into the empty panniers on each side of the mule, and then heard it come on carolling, as if this was not a world of woe; and yet the face of little Luc Meynet, the hunchback of Breuil, bore traces of trouble and sorrow, and there was more than a touch of sadness in his voice when he said that he must look after his brother’s children. All his difficulties were, however, at length overcome, and he agreed to join us to carry the tent.

In the past winter I had turned my attention to tents, and that which we had brought with us was the result of experiments to devise one which should be sufficiently portable to be taken over the most difficult ground, and which should combine lightness with stability. Its base was just under six feet square, and a section perpendicular to its length was an equilateral triangle, the sides of which were six feet long. It was intended to accommodate four persons. It was supported by four ash poles six feet and a half long and one inch and a quarter thick, tapering to the top to an inch and an eighth: these were shod with iron points. The order of proceeding in the construction of the tent was as follows: Holes were drilled through the poles about five inches from their tops for the insertion of two wrought-iron bolts, three inches long and one-quarter of an inch thick. The bolts were then inserted, and the two pairs of poles were set out (and fixed up by a cord) to the proper dimensions. The roof was then put on. This was made of the rough, unbleached calico called forfar, which can be obtained in six-feet widths, and it was continued round for about two feet on each side, on to the floor. The width of the material was the length of the tent, and seams were thus avoided in the roof. The forfar was sewn round each pole, particular care being taken to avoid wrinkles and to get the whole perfectly taut. The flooring was next put in and sewn down to the forfar. This was of the ordinary plaid mackintosh, about nine feet square, the surplus three feet being continued up the sides to prevent draughts. It is as well to have two feet of this surplus on one side, and only one foot on the other, the latter amount being sufficient for the side occupied by the feet. One end was then permanently closed by a triangular piece of forfar, which was sewn down to that which was already fixed. The other end was left open, and had two triangular flaps that overlapped each other, and which were fastened up when we were inside by pieces of tape. Lastly, the forfar was nailed down to the poles to prevent the tent getting out of shape. The cord which was used for climbing served for the tent: it was passed over the crossed poles and underneath the ridge of the roof, and the two ends - one fore and the other aft - were easily secured to pieces of rock. Such a tent costs about four guineas, and its weight is about twenty-three pounds; or, if the lightest kind of forfar is used, it need not exceed twenty pounds.

Sunday, the 6th of July, was showery, and snow fell on the Matterhorn, but we started on the following morning with our three men, and pursued my route of the previous year. I was requested to direct the way, as none save myself had been on the mountain before, but I did not distinguish myself on this occasion, and led my companions nearly to the top of the small peak before the mistake was discovered. The party becoming rebellious, a little exploration was made toward our right, and we found that we were upon the top of the cliff overlooking the Col du Lion. The upper part of the small peak is of a very different character to the lower part: the rocks are not so firm, and they are usually covered or intermixed with snow and glazed with ice: the angle too is more severe. While descending a small snow-slope to get on to the right track, Kronig slipped on a streak of ice and went down at a fearful pace. Fortunately, he kept on his legs, and by a great effort succeeded in stopping just before he arrived at some rocks that jutted through the snow, which would infallibly have knocked him over. When we rejoined him a few minutes later we found that he was incapable of standing, much less of moving, with a face corpse-like in hue, and trembling violently. He remained in this condition for more than an hour, and the day was consequently far advanced before we arrived at our camping-place on the col. Profiting by the experience of last year, we did not pitch the tent actually on the snow, but collected a quantity of débris from the neighbouring ledges, and after constructing a rough platform of the larger pieces, levelled the whole with the dirt and mud.

Meynet had proved invaluable as a tent-bearer, for, although his legs were more picturesque than symmetrical, and although he seemed to be built, on principle, with no two parts alike, his very deformities proved of service; and we quickly found he had a spirit of no common order, and that few peasants are more agreeable companions or better climbers than little Luc Meynet, the hunchback of Breuil. He now showed himself not less serviceable as a scavenger, and humbly asked for gristly pieces of meat rejected by the others, or for suspicious eggs, and seemed to consider it a peculiar favour, if not a treat, to be permitted to drink the coffee-grounds. With the greatest contentment he took the worst place at the door of the tent, and did all the dirty work which was put upon him by the guides, as gratefully as a dog who has been well beaten will receive a stroke.

A strong wind sprang up from the east during the night, and in the morning it was blowing almost a hurricane. The tent behaved nobly, and we remained under its shelter for several hours after the sun had risen, uncertain what it was best to do. A lull tempted us to move, but we had scarcely ascended a hundred feet before the storm burst upon us with increased fury. Advance or return was alike impossible: the ridge was denuded of its débris, and we clutched our hardest when we saw stones as big as a man’s fist blown away horizontally into space. We dared not attempt to stand upright, and remained stationary on all fours, glued, as it were, to the rocks. It was intensely cold, for the blast had swept along the main chain of the Pennine Alps and across the great snow-fields around Monte Rosa. Our warmth and courage rapidly evaporated, and at the next lull we retreated to the tent, having to halt several times in that short distance. Taugwald and Kronig then declared that they had had enough, and refused to have anything more to do with the mountain. Meynet also informed us that he would be required down below for important cheese-making operations on the following day. It was therefore needful to return to Breuil, and we arrived there at 2.30 p.m., extremely chagrined at our complete defeat.

Jean-Antoine Carrel, attracted by rumours, had come up to the inn during our absence, and after some negotiations agreed to accompany us, with one of his friends named Pession, on the first fine day. We thought ourselves fortunate, for Carrel clearly considered the mountain a kind of preserve, and regarded our late attempt as an act of poaching. The wind blew itself out during the night, and we started again, with these two men and a porter, at 8 A. M. on the 9th, with unexceptionable weather. Carrel pleased us by suggesting that we should camp even higher than before; and we accordingly proceeded, without resting at the col, until we overtopped the Tête du Lion. Near the foot of the “Chimney,” a little below the crest of the ridge and on its eastern side, we found a protected place; and by building up from ledge to ledge (under the direction of our leader, who was a mason by profession) we at length constructed a platform of sufficient size and of considerable solidity. Its height was about twelve thousand five hundred and fifty feet above the sea; and it exists, I believe, at the present time. We then pushed on, as the day was very fine, and after a short hour’s scramble got to the foot of the Great Tower upon the ridge (that is to say, to Mr. Hawkins’ farthest point), and afterward returned to our bivouac. We turned out again at 4 A. M., and at 5.15 started upward once more, with fine weather and the thermometer at 28°. Carrel scrambled up the Chimney, and MacDonald and I after him. Pession’s turn came, but when he arrived at the top he looked very ill, declared himself to be thoroughly incapable, and said that he must go back. We waited some time, but he did not get better, neither could we learn the nature of his illness. Carrel flatly refused to go on with us alone. We were helpless. MacDonald, ever the coolest of the cool, suggested that we should try what we could do without them, but our better judgment prevailed, and finally we returned together to Breuil. On the next day my friend started for London.

Three times I had essayed the ascent of this mountain, and on each occasion had failed ignominiously. I had not advanced a yard beyond my predecessors. Up to the height of nearly thirteen thousand feet there were no extraordinary difficulties: the way so far might even become “a matter of amusement.” Only eighteen hundred feet remained, but they were as yet untrodden, and might present the most formidable obstacles. No man could expect to climb them by himself. A morsel of rock only seven feet high might at any time defeat him if it were perpendicular. Such a place might be possible to two, or a bagatelle to three men. It was evident that a party should consist of three men at least. But where could the other two men be obtained? Carrel was the only man who exhibited any enthusiasm in the matter, and he in 1861 had absolutely refused to go unless the party consisted of at least four persons. Want of men made the difficulty, not the mountain.

The weather became bad again, so I went to Zermatt on the chance of picking up a man, and remained there during a week of storms. Not one of the good men, however, could be induced to come, and I returned to Breuil on the 17th, hoping to combine the skill of Carrel with the willingness of Meynet on a new attempt by the same route as before; for the Hönli ridge, which I had examined in the mean time, seemed to be entirely impracticable. Both men were inclined to go, but their ordinary occupations prevented them from starting at once.

My tent had been left rolled up at the second platform, and whilst waiting for the men it occurred to me that it might have been blown away during the late stormy weather; so I started off on the 18th to see if this were so or not. The way was by this time familiar, and I mounted rapidly, astonishing the friendly herdsmen - who nodded recognition as I flitted past them and the cows - for I was alone, because no man was available. But more deliberation was necessary when the pastures were passed and climbing began, for it was needful to mark each step in case of mist or surprise by night. It is one of the few things which can be said in favour of mountaineering alone (a practice which has little besides to commend it) that it awakens a man’s faculties and makes him observe. When one has no arms to help and no head to guide him except his own, he must needs take note even of small things, for he cannot afford to throw away a chance; and so it came to pass upon my solitary scramble, when above the snow-line and beyond the ordinary limits of flowering plants, when peering about noting angles and landmarks, that my eyes fell upon the tiny straggling plants - oftentimes a single flower on a single stalk - pioneers of vegetation, atoms of life in a world of desolation, which had found their way up - who can tell how? - from far below, and were obtaining bare sustenance from the scanty soil in protected nooks; and it gave a new interest to the well-known rocks to see what a gallant fight the survivors made (for many must have perished in the attempt) to ascend the great mountain. The gentian, as one might have expected, was there, but it was run close by saxifrages and by Linaria alpina, and was beaten by Thlaspi rotundifolium; which latter plant was the highest I was able to secure, although it too was overtopped by a little white flower which I knew not and was unable to reach.

The tent was safe, although snowed up, and I turned to contemplate the view, which, when seen alone and undisturbed, had all the strength and charm of complete novelty. The highest peaks of the Pennine chain were in front - the Breithorn (13,685 feet), the Lyskamm (14,889), and Monte Rosa (15,217); then turning to the right, the entire block of mountains which separated the Val Tournanche from the Val d’Ayas was seen at a glance, with its dominating summit, the Grand Tournalin (11,155). Behind were the ranges dividing the Val d’Ayas from the valley of Gressoney, backed by higher summits. More still to the right the eye wandered down the entire length of the Val Tournanche, and then rested upon the Graian Alps with their innumerable peaks, and upon the isolated pyramid of Monte Viso (12,643) in the extreme distance. Next, still turning to the right, came the mountains intervening between the Val Tournanche and the Val Barthelemy: Mont Rouss (a round-topped, snowy summit, which seems so important from Breuil, but which is in reality only a buttress of the higher mountain, the Château des Dames) had long ago sunk, and the eye passed over it, scarcely heeding its existence, to the Becca Salle (or, as it is printed on the map, Bee de Sale), a miniature Matterhorn, and to other and more important heights. Then the grand mass of the Dent d’Hérens (13,714) stopped the way - a noble mountain, encrusted on its northern slopes with enormous hanging glaciers, which broke away at mid-day in immense slices, and thundered down on to the Tiefenmatten glacier; and lastly, most splendid of all, came the Dent Blanche (14,318), soaring above the basin of the great Zmuttgletscher Such a view is hardly to be matched in the Alps, and this view is very rarely seen, as I saw it, perfectly unclouded.

Time sped away unregarded, and the little birds which had built their nests on the neighbouring cliffs had begun to chirp their evening hymn before I thought of returning. Half mechanically, I turned to the tent, unrolled it and set it up: it contained food enough for several days, and I resolved to stay over the night. I had started from Breuil without provisions or telling Favre, the innkeeper, who was accustomed to my erratic ways, where I was going. I returned to the view. The sun was setting, and its rosy rays, blending with the snowy blue, had thrown a pale, pure violet far as the eye could see; the valleys were drowned in a purple gloom, while the summits shone with unnatural brightness; and as I sat in the door of the tent and watched the twilight change to darkness, the earth seemed to become less earthly and almost sublime: the world seemed dead, and I its sole inhabitant. By and by the moon, as it rose, brought the hills again into sight, and by a judicious repression of detail rendered the view yet more magnificent. Something in the south hung like a great glow-worm in the air: it was too large for a star, and too steady for a meteor, and it was long before I could realise the incredible fact that it was the moonlight glittering on the great snow-slope on the north side of Monte Viso, at a distance, as the crow flies, of ninety-eight miles. Shivering, at last I entered the tent and made my coffee. The night was passed comfortably, and the next morning, tempted by the brilliancy of the weather, I proceeded yet higher in search of another place for a platform.

Solitary scrambling over a pretty wide area had shown me that a single individual is subjected to very many difficulties which do not trouble a party of two or three men, and that the disadvantages of being alone are more felt while descending than during the ascent. In order to neutralise these inconveniences, I had devised two little appliances, which were now brought into use for the first time. One was a claw, a kind of grapnel, about five inches long, made of shear steel one-fifth of an inch thick. This was of use in difficult places where there was no hold within arm’s length, but where there were cracks or ledges some distance higher. It could be stuck on the end of the alpenstock and dropped into such places, or, on extreme occasions, flung up until it attached itself to something. The edges that laid hold of the rocks were serrated, which tended to make them catch more readily: the other end had a ring to which a rope was fastened. It must not be understood that this was employed for hauling one’s self up by for any great distance, but that it was used in ascending, at the most, for only a few yards at a time. In descending, however, it could be prudently used for a greater distance at a time, as the claws could be planted firmly; but it was necessary to keep the rope taut and the pull constantly in the direction of the length of the implement, otherwise it had a tendency to slip away. The second device was merely a modification of a dodge practiced by all climbers. It is frequently necessary for a single man (or for the last man of a party) during a descent to make a loop in the end of his rope, which he passes over some rocks, and to come down holding the free end. The loop is then jerked off, and the process may be repeated. But as it sometimes happens that there are no rocks at hand which will allow a loose loop to be used, a slipknot has to be resorted to, and the rope is drawn in tightly. Consequently, it will occur that it is not possible to jerk the loop off, and the rope has to be cut and left behind. To prevent this, I had a wrought-iron ring (two and a quarter inches in diameter and three-eighths of an inch thick) attached to one end of my rope, and a loop could be made in a moment by passing the other end of the rope through the ring, which of course slipped up and held tightly as I descended holding the free end. A strong piece of cord was also attached to the ring, and on arriving at the bottom this was pulled: the ring slid back again, and the loop was whipped off readily. By means of these two simple appliances I was able to ascend and descend rocks which otherwise would have been completely impassable. The combined weight of these two things amounted to less than half a pound.

The rocks of the south-west ridge are by no means difficult for some distance above the Col du Lion. This is true of the rocks up to the level of the Chimney, but they steepen when that is passed, and remaining smooth and with but few fractures, and still continuing to dip outward, present some steps of a very uncertain kind, particularly when they are glazed with ice. At this point (just above the Chimney) the climber is obliged to follow the southern (or Breuil) side of the ridge, but in a few feet more one must turn over to the northern (or Z’Mutt) side, where in most years Nature kindly provides a snow-slope. When this is surmounted, one can again return to the crest of the ridge, and follow it by easy rocks to the foot of the Great Tower. This was the highest point attained by Mr. Hawkins in 1860, and it was also our highest on the 9th of July.

This Great Tower is one of the most striking features of the ridge. It stands out like a turret at the angle of a castle. Behind it a battlemented wall leads upward to the citadel. Seen from the Théodule pass, it looks only an insignificant pinnacle, but as one approaches it (on the ridge), so it seems to rise, and when one is at its base it completely conceals the upper parts of the mountain. I found here a suitable place for the tent, which, although not so well protected as the second platform, possessed the advantage of being three hundred feet higher up; and fascinated by the wildness of the cliffs, and enticed by the perfection of the weather, I went on to see what was behind.

The first step was a difficult one: the ridge became diminished to the least possible width, it was hard to keep one’s balance, and just where it was narrowest a more than perpendicular mass barred the way. Nothing fairly within arm’s reach could be laid hold of: it was necessary to spring up, and then to haul one’s self over the sharp edge by sheer strength. Progression directly upward was then impossible. Enormous and appalling precipices plunged down to the Tiefenmatten glacier on the left, but round the right-hand side it was just possible to go. One hindrance then succeeded another, and much time was consumed in seeking the way. I have a vivid recollection of a gully of more than usual perplexity at the side of the Great Tower, with minute ledges and steep walls; of the ledges dwindling down, and at last ceasing; of finding myself, with arms and legs divergent, fixed as if crucified, pressing against the rock, and feeling each rise and fall of my chest as I breathed; of screwing my head round to look for a hold, and not seeing any, and of jumping sideways on to the other side.

Places such as this gully have their charm so long as a man feels that the difficulties are within his power, but their enchantment vanishes directly they are too much for him, and when he feels this they are dangerous to him. The line which separates the difficult from the dangerous is sometimes a very shadowy, but it is not an imaginary one. It is a true line, without breadth. It is often easy to pass and very hard to see. It is sometimes passed unconsciously, and the consciousness that it has been passed is felt too late; but so long as a man undertakes that which is well within his power, he is not likely to pass this line, or consequently to get into any great danger, although he may meet with considerable difficulty. That which is within a man’s power varies, of course, according to time, place and circumstance, but as a rule he can tell pretty well when he is arriving at the end of his tether; and it seems to me, although it is difficult to determine for another, even approximately, the limits to which it is prudent for him to go, that it is tolerably easy to do so for one’s self. But (according to my opinion) if the doubtful line is crossed consciously, deliberately, one passes from doing that which is justifiable to doing that which is unjustifiable, because it is imprudent.

I expect that any intelligent critic will inquire, “But do you really mean to assert that dangers in mountaineering arise only from superlative difficulty, and that the perfect mountaineer does not run any risks?” I am not prepared to go quite so far as this, although there is only one risk to which the scrambler on the Higher Alps is unavoidably subject which does not occur to pedestrians in London’s streets. This arises from falling rocks, and I shall endeavour in the course of this work to make the reader understand that it is a positive danger, and one against which skill, strength and courage are equally unavailing. It occurs at unexpected times, and may occur in almost any place. The critic may retort, “Your admission of this one danger destroys all the rest of the argument.” I agree with him that it would do so if it were a grave risk to life. But although it is a real danger, it is not a very serious risk. Not many cases can be quoted of accidents which have happened through falling stones, and I do not know an instance of life having been lost in this way in the High Alps.9 I suppose, however, few persons will maintain that it is unjustifiable to do anything, for sport or otherwise, so long as any risk is incurred, else it would be unjustifiable to cross Fleet street at mid-day. If it were one’s bounden duty to avoid every risk, we should have to pass our lives indoors. I conceive that the pleasures of mountaineering outweigh the risks arising from this particular cause, and that the practice will not be vetoed on its account. Still, I wish to stamp it as a positive danger, and as one which may imperil the life of the most perfect mountaineer.

This digression has been caused by an innocent gully which I feared the reader might think was dangerous. It was an untrodden vestibule, which led to a scene so wild that even the most sober description of it must seem an exaggeration. There was a change in the quality of the rock, and there was a change in the appearance of the ridge. The rocks (talcose gneiss) below this spot were singularly firm - it was rarely necessary to test one’s hold: the way led over the living rock, and not up rent-off fragments. But here all was decay and ruin. The crest of the ridge was shattered and cleft, and the feet sank in the chips which had drifted down; while above, huge blocks, hacked and carved by the hand of time, nodded to the sky, looking like the gravestones of giants. Out of curiosity I wandered to a notch in the ridge, between two tottering piles of immense masses which seemed to need but a few pounds on one or the other side to make them fall, so nicely poised that they would literally have rocked in the wind, for they were put in motion by a touch, and based on support so frail that I wondered they did not collapse before my eyes. In the whole range of my Alpine experience I have seen nothing more striking than this desolate, ruined and shattered ridge at the back of the Great Tower. I have seen stranger shapes - rocks which mimic the human form, with monstrous leering faces, and isolated pinnacles sharper and greater than any here - but I have never seen exhibited so impressively the tremendous effects which may be produced by frost, and by the long-continued action of forces whose individual effects are imperceptible.

It is needless to say that it is impossible to climb by the crest of the ridge at this part: still, one is compelled to keep near to it, for there is no other way. Generally speaking, the angles on the Matterhorn are too steep to allow the formation of considerable beds of snow, but here there is a corner which permits it to accumulate, and it is turned to gratefully, for by its assistance one can ascend four times as rapidly as upon the rocks.

The Tower was now almost out of sight, and I looked over the central Pennine Alps to the Grand Combin and to the chain of Mont Blanc. My neighbour, the Dent d’Hérens, still rose above me, although but slightly, and the height which had been attained could be measured by its help. So far, I had no doubts about my capacity to descend that which had been ascended; but in a short time, on looking ahead, I saw that the cliffs steepened, and I turned back (without pushing on to them and getting into inextricable difficulties), exulting in the thought that they would be passed when we returned together, and that I had without assistance got nearly to the height of the Dent d’Hérens, and considerably higher than any one had been before.10 My exultation was a little premature.

About five p.m. I left the tent again, and thought myself as good as at Breuil. The friendly rope and claw had done good service, and had smoothed all the difficulties. I lowered myself through the Chimney, however, by making a fixture of the rope, which I then cut off and left behind, as there was enough and to spare. My axe had proved a great nuisance in coming down, and I left it in the tent. It was not attached to the bâton, but was a separate affair - an old navy boarding-axe. While cutting up the different snow-beds on the ascent, the bâton trailed behind fastened to the rope; and when climbing the axe was carried behind, run through the rope tied round my waist, and was sufficiently out of the way; but in descending, when coming down face outward (as is always best where it is possible), the head or the handle of the weapon caught frequently against the rocks, and several times nearly upset me. So, out of laziness if you will, it was left in the tent. I paid dearly for the imprudence.

The Col du Lion was passed, and fifty yards more would have placed me on the “Great Staircase,” down which one can run. But on arriving at an angle of the cliffs of the Tête du Lion, while skirting the upper edge of the snow which abuts against them, I found that the heat of the two past days had nearly obliterated the steps which had been cut when coming up. The rocks happened to be impracticable just at this corner, so nothing could be done except make the steps afresh. The snow was too hard to beat or tread down, and at the angle it was all but ice: half a dozen steps only were required, and then the ledges could be followed again. So I held to the rock with my right hand, and prodded at the snow with the point of my stick until a good step was made, and then, leaning round the angle, did the same for the other side. So far well, but in attempting to pass the corner (to the present moment I cannot tell how it happened) I slipped and fell.

The slope was steep on which this took place, and descended to the top of a gully that led down through two subordinate buttresses toward the Glacier du Lion, which was just seen, a thousand feet below. The gully narrowed and narrowed until there was a mere thread of snow lying between two walls of rock, which came to an abrupt termination at the top of a precipice that intervened between it and the glacier. Imagine a funnel cut in half through its length, placed at an angle of forty-five degrees, with its point below and its concave side uppermost, and you will have a fair idea of the place.

The knapsack brought my head down first, and I pitched into some rocks about a dozen feet below: they caught something and tumbled me off the edge, head over heels, into the gully. The bâton was dashed from my hands, and I whirled downward in a series of bounds, each longer than the last - now over ice, now into rocks - striking my head four or five times, each time with increased force. The last bound sent me spinning through the air, in a leap of fifty or sixty feet, from one side of the gully to the other, and I struck the rocks, luckily, with the whole of my left side. They caught my clothes for a moment, and I fell back on to the snow with motion arrested: my head fortunately came the right side up, and a few frantic catches brought me to a halt in the neck of the gully and on the verge of the precipice. Bâton, hat and veil skimmed by and disappeared, and the crash of the rocks which I had started, as they fell on to the glacier, told how narrow had been the escape from utter destruction. As it was, I fell nearly two hundred feet in seven or eight bounds. Ten feet more would have taken me in one gigantic leap of eight hundred feet on to the glacier below.

The situation was still sufficiently serious. The rocks could not be left go for a moment, and the blood was spurting out of more than twenty cuts. The most serious ones were in the head, and I vainly tried to close them with one hand while holding on with the other. It was useless: the blood jerked out in blinding jets at each pulsation. At last, in a moment of inspiration, I kicked out a big lump of snow and stuck it as a plaster on my head. The idea was a happy one, and the flow of blood diminished: then, scrambling up, I got, not a moment too soon, to a place of safety and fainted away. The sun was setting when consciousness returned, and it was pitch dark before the Great Staircase was descended; but by a combination of luck and care the whole forty-eight hundred feet of descent to Breuil was accomplished without a slip or once missing the way. I slunk past the cabin of the cowherds, who were talking and laughing inside, utterly ashamed of the state to which I had been brought by my imbecility, and entered the inn stealthily, wishing to escape to my room unnoticed. But Favre met me in the passage, demanded, “Who is it?” screamed with fright when he got a light, and aroused the household. Two dozen heads then held solemn council over mine, with more talk than action. The natives were unanimous in recommending that hot wine (syn. vinegar), mixed with salt, should be rubbed into the cuts. I protested, but they insisted. It was all the doctoring they received. Whether their rapid healing was to be attributed to that simple remedy or to a good state of health, is a question: they closed up remarkably soon, and in a few days I was able to move again.

It was sufficiently dull during this time. I was chiefly occupied in meditating on the vanity of human wishes, and in watching my clothes being washed in the tub which was turned by the stream in the front of the house; and I vowed that if an Englishman should at any time fall sick in the Val Tournanche, he should not feel so solitary as I did at this dreary time.11

The news of the accident brought Jean-Antoine Carrel up to Breuil, and along with the haughty chasseur came one of his relatives, a strong and able young fellow named Cæsar. With these two men and Meynet I made another start on the 23d of July. We got to the tent without any trouble, and on the following day had ascended beyond the Tower, and were picking our way cautiously over the loose rocks behind (where my traces of the week before were well apparent) in lovely weather, when one of those abominable and almost instantaneous changes occurred to which the Matterhorn is so liable on its southern side. Mists were created out of invisible vapours, and in a few minutes snow fell heavily. We stopped, as this part was of excessive difficulty, and, unwilling to retreat, remained on the spot several hours, in hopes that another change would occur; but as it did not, we at length went down to the base of the Tower, and commenced to make a third platform, at the height of 12,992 feet above the sea. It still continued to snow, and we took refuge in the tent. Carrel argued that the weather had broken up, and that the mountain would become so glazed with ice as to render any attempt futile; and I, that the change was only temporary, and that the rocks were too hot to allow ice to form upon them. I wished to stay until the weather improved, but my leader would not endure contradiction, grew more positive and insisted that we must go down. We went down, and when we got below the col his opinion was found to be wrong: the cloud was confined to the upper three thousand feet, and outside it there was brilliant weather.

Carrel was not an easy man to manage. He was perfectly aware that he was the cock of the Val Tournanche, and he commanded the other men as by right. He was equally conscious that he was indispensable to me, and took no pains to conceal his knowledge of the fact. If he had been commanded or if he had been entreated to stop, it would have been all the same. But, let me repeat, he was the only first-rate climber I could find who believed that the mountain was not inaccessible. With him I had hopes, but without him none; so he was allowed to do as he would. His will on this occasion was almost incomprehensible. He certainly could not be charged with cowardice, for a bolder man could hardly be found; nor was he turning away on account of difficulty, for nothing to which we had yet come seemed to be difficult to him; and his strong personal desire to make the ascent was evident. There was no occasion to come down on account of food, for we had taken, to guard against this very casualty, enough to last for a week; and there was no danger and little or no discomfort in stopping in the tent. It seemed to me that he was spinning out the ascent for his own purposes, and that although he wished very much to be the first man on the top, and did not object to be accompanied by any one else who had the same wish, he had no intention of letting one succeed too soon - perhaps to give a greater appearance of éclat when the thing was accomplished. As he feared no rival, he may have supposed that the more difficulties he made the more valuable he would be estimated, though, to do him justice, he never showed any great hunger for money. His demands were fair, not excessive; but he always stipulated for so much per day, and so, under any circumstances, he did not do badly.

Vexed at having my time thus frittered away, I was still well pleased when he volunteered to start again on the morrow if it was fine. We were to advance the tent to the foot of the Tower, to fix ropes in the most difficult parts beyond, and to make a push for the summit on the following day.

The next morning (Friday, the 25th), when I arose, good little Meynet was ready and waiting, and he said that the two Carrels had gone off some time before, and had left word that they intended marmot-hunting, as the day was favourable for that sport. My holiday had nearly expired, and these men clearly could not be relied upon; so, as a last resort, I proposed to the hunchback to accompany me alone, to see if we could not get higher than before, though of reaching the summit there was little or no hope. He did not hesitate, and in a few hours we stood - for the third time together - upon the Col du Lion, but it was the first time Meynet had seen the view unclouded. The poor little deformed peasant gazed upon it silently and reverently for a time, and then unconsciously fell on one knee in an attitude of adoration, and clasped his hands, exclaiming in ecstasy, “O beautiful mountains!” His actions were as appropriate as his words were natural, and tears bore witness to the reality of his emotion.

Our power was too limited to advance the tent, so we slept at the old station, and, starting very early the next morning, passed the place where we had turned back on the 24th, and subsequently my highest point on the 19th. We found the crest of the ridge so treacherous that we took to the cliffs on the right, although most unwillingly. Little by little we fought our way up, but at length we were both spread-eagled on the all-but perpendicular face, unable to advance and barely able to descend. We returned to the ridge. It was almost equally difficult, and infinitely more unstable; and at length, after having pushed our attempts as far as was prudent, I determined to return to Breuil, and to have a light ladder made to assist us to overcome some of the steepest parts. I expected, too, that by this time Carrel would have had enough marmot-hunting, and would deign to accompany us again.

We came down at a great pace, for we were now so familiar with the mountain and with each other’s wants that we knew immediately when to give a helping hand and when to let alone. The rocks also were in a better state than I have ever seen them, being almost entirely free from glaze of ice. Meynet was always merriest on the difficult parts, and on the most difficult kept on enunciating the sentiment, “We can only die once,” which thought seemed to afford him infinite satisfaction. We arrived at the inn early in the evening, and I found my projects summarily and unexpectedly knocked on the head.

Professor Tyndall had arrived while we were absent, and he had engaged both Cæsar and Jean-Antoine Carrel. Bennen was also with him, together with a powerful and active friend, a Valaisan guide named Anton Walter. They had a ladder already prepared, provisions were being collected, and they intended to start on the following morning (Sunday). This new arrival took me by surprise. Bennen, it will be remembered, refused point-blank to take Professor Tyndall on the Matterhorn in 1861. “He was dead against any attempt on the mountain,” says Tyndall. He was now eager to set out. Professor Tyndall has not explained in what way this revolution came about in his guide. I was equally astonished at the faithlessness of Carrel, and attributed it to pique at our having presumed to do without him. It was useless to compete with the professor and his four men, who were ready to start in a few hours, so I waited to see what would come of their attempt.

Everything seemed to favour it, and they set out on a fine morning in high spirits, leaving me tormented with envy and all uncharitableness. If they succeeded, they carried off the prize for which I had been so long struggling; and if they failed, there was no time to make another attempt, for I was due in a few days more in London. When this came home clearly to me, I resolved to leave Breuil at once, but when packing up found that some necessaries had been left behind in the tent. So I went off about mid-day to recover them, caught the army of the professor before it reached the col, as they were going very slowly, left them there (stopping to take food) and went on to the tent. I was near to it when all at once I heard a noise aloft, and on looking up perceived a stone of at least a foot cube flying straight at my head. I ducked and scrambled under the lee side of a friendly rock, while the stone went by with a loud buzz. It was the advanced guard of a perfect storm of stones, which descended with infernal clatter down the very edge of the ridge, leaving a trail of dust behind, with a strong smell of sulphur that told who had sent them. The men below were on the look-out, but the stones did not come near them, and breaking away on one side went down to the glacier.

I waited at the tent to welcome the professor, and when he arrived went down to Breuil. Early next morning some one ran to me saying that a flag was seen on the summit of the Matterhorn. It was not so, however, although I saw that they had passed the place where we had turned back on the 26th. I had now no doubt of their final success, for they had got beyond the point which Carrel, not less than myself, had always considered to be the most questionable place on the whole mountain. Up to it there was no choice of route - I suppose that at no one point between it and the col was it possible to diverge a dozen paces to the right or left - but beyond it it was otherwise, and we had always agreed in our debates that if it could be passed success was certain.

The accompanying outline from a sketch taken from the door of the inn at Breuil will help to explain. The letter A indicates the position of the Great Tower; C, the “cravate” (the strongly-marked streak of snow referred to in note 11, and which we just failed to arrive at on the 26th); B, the place where we now saw something that looked like a flag. Behind the point B a nearly level ridge leads up to the foot of the final peak, on which the same letters indicate the same places. It was just now said, we considered that if the point C could be passed, success was certain. Tyndall was at B very early in the morning, and I did not doubt that he would reach the summit, although it yet remained problematical whether he would be able to stand on the very highest point. The summit was evidently formed of a long ridge, on which there were two points nearly equally elevated - so equally that one could not say which was the highest - and between the two there seemed to be a deep notch, marked D on the outlines, which might defeat one at the very last moment.

My knapsack was packed, and I had drunk a parting glass of wine with Favre, who was jubilant at the success which was to make the fortune of his inn, but I could not bring myself to leave until the result was heard, and lingered about, as a foolish lover hovers round the object of his affections even after he has been contemptuously rejected. The sun had set before the men were descried coming over the pastures. There was no spring in their steps: they too were defeated. The Carrels hid their heads, but the others said, as men will do when they have been beaten, that the mountain was horrible, impossible, and so forth. - Professor Tyndall told me they had arrived within a stone’s throw of the summit, and admonished me to have nothing more to do with the mountain. I understood him to say that he should not try again, and ran down to the village of Val Tournanche, almost inclined to believe that the mountain was inaccessible, leaving the tent, ropes and other matters in the hands of Favre, to be placed at the disposal of any person who wished to ascend it - more, I am afraid, out of irony than generosity. There may have been those who believed that the Matterhorn could be ascended, but anyhow their faith did not bring forth works. No one tried again in 1862.


Footnotes
8. Mountaineering in 1861, pp. 86-7. Tyndall and Bennen were mistaken in supposing that the mountain has two summits; it has only one. They seem to have been deceived by the appearance of that part of the south-west ridge which is called “the shoulder” (l’épaule), as seen from Breil. Viewed from that place, its southern end has certainly, through foreshortening, the semblance of a peak; but when one regards it from the Col Theodule, or from any place in the same direction, the delusion is at once apparent.

9. The contrary is the case in regard to the Lower Alps. Amongst others, the case may be mentioned of a lady who (not very long ago) had her skull fractured while sitting at the base of the Mer de Glace.

10. A remarkable streak of snow (marked “cravate” in the outline of the Matterhorn, as seen from the Theodule) runs across the cliff at this part of the mountain. My highest point was somewhat higher than the lowest part of this snow, and was consequently nearly 13,500 feet above the sea.

11. As it seldom happens that one survives such a fall, it may be interesting to record what my sensations were during its occurrence. I was perfectly conscious of what was happening, and felt each blow; but, like a patient under chloroform, experienced no pain. Each blow was, naturally, more severe than that which preceded it, and I distinctly remember thinking “Well, if the next is harder still, that will be the end!” Like persons who have been rescued from drowning, I remember that the recollection of a multitude of things rushed through my head, many of them trivialities or absurdities, which had been forgotten long before; and, more remarkable, this bounding through space did not feel disagreeable. But I think that in no very great distance more, consciousness as well as sensation would have been lost, and upon that I base my belief, improbable as it seems, that death by a fall from a great height is as painless an end as can be experienced. The battering was very rough, yet no bones were broken. The most severe cuts were one of four inches long on the top of the bead, and another of three inches on the right temple: this latter bled frightfully. There was a formidable-looking cut, of about the same size as the last, on the palm of the left hand, and every limb was grazed, or cut, more or less seriously. The tips of the ears were taken off, and a sharp rock cut a circular bit out of the side of the left boot, sock, and ankle, at one stroke. The loss of blood, although so great, did not seem to be permanently injurious. The only serious effect has been the reduction of a naturally retentive memory to a very common-place one; and although my recollections of more distant occurrences remain unshaken, the events of that particular day would be clean gone but for the few notes which were written down before the accident.