Time and History 1:40 P.M. Whymper Climbs the Matterhorn

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1:40 in the Afternoon

July 14, 1865. The Matterhorn was conquered by the English climber Edward Whymper. The 14,690-ft. Matterhorn, located in the Pennine Alps on the Swiss-Italian border near the town of Zermatt, is neither the highest nor the most difficult mountain to climb, but its four ridges, sharply tapering in a peaked summit, have always beckoned mountaineers.

It was Whymper's seventh attempt, and this time he had competition from an Italian party headed by an ex-friend, the brilliant Italian mountaineer Giovanni Antonio Carrel. Whymper assembled a party of seven men, including himself. Accompanying him was the youthful but experienced English climber Lord Francis Douglas and guides Peter Taugwalder, Sr., and his son, also named Peter. The Rev. Charles Hudson also joined forces with Whymper and brought along 19-year-old novice climber Douglas Hadow. (Hudson insisted that Hadow join the party. Whymper agreed, though later he claimed that he had opposed the inclusion of the youth.) Hudson also brought with him the legendary Alpinist guide Michel Auguste Croz, whom Whymper had originally invited to join his attempt. Croz had at that time refused because he was employed by Hudson.

The party set out at 5:30 A.M. on July 13. By midday they had reached an 11,000-ft. ridge and pitched their tents, waiting for the next day to begin the final 4,000-ft. assault. By 10:00 A.M. on July 14 they had less than 800 ft. to go. After a slow, dangerous climb, the party was within 200 ft. of the summit. With an easy stretch before them, Croz, Hudson, and Whymper ran a neck-and-neck race that ended in a dead heat on the summit. Whymper was delighted that "not a footstep could be seen." But the summit of the Matterhorn is a 100-yd.-long ridge. He was on the Swiss end and wanted to be certain that his competition, Carrel's party, had not reached the other end before him. He was delighted to find that it, too, was untrodden. Whymper peered over the edge and could see the Italian party heading toward him. To attract their attention Whymper threw rocks. The bitterly disappointed Italians stopped, turned, and began to descend. Whymper set up a flag, which was seen both in Zermatt and Breuil, where the villagers believed that the Italians had won. The party remained on the summit for "one crowded hour of glorious life." Just before leaving, Whymper broke off the topmost piece of rock from the Matterhorn and put it in his bag. The slow descent began.

Three quarters of an hour later, disaster struck. The inexperienced Hadow slipped and dragged Croz., Hudson, and Douglas down with him. The other three members of the party braced themselves as they watched their companions fall. Then the rope broke and the four falling men plunged 4,000 ft. to their deaths. Paralyzed by shock, Whymper and the two Taugwalders did not budge for half an hour. When they finally began to move, Whymper examined the rope and discovered that they had not been attached by proper heavy climbing rope, but by thin weak rope intended only as a reserve piece of equipment. When they finally reached Zermatt, the hotel owner asked what had happened. Whymper replied, "The Taugwalders and I have returned."

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