Crime Scene Matterhorn: Trial by Tabloid TV

Visitors arriving in Zermatt this week for the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn may be surprised to find that history has been rewritten for the occasion. The most famous accident in mountaineering history, familiar through the writings of one of its survivors, Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps, is recast with Whymper himself as the guilty party.

In the wonderful setting of an open air stage beneath the mountain, a new play ‘The Matterhorn Story’ by local resident Livia Richard portrays the two other survivors, the guides ‘Old’ Peter Taugwalder and his son ‘Young’ Peter, as victims: naïve illiterates unable to defend themselves against the sly insinuations of their arrogant and powerfully connected English patron Whymper.

Ms Richard makes no attempt to disguise the semi-fictional nature of her play.  The same cannot be said of a new film about the events of July 1865, ‘Tatort Matterhorn’ (Crime Scene Matterhorn) which was broadcast on Swiss, German and Austrian TV earlier this year.

Whymper plays the white man in Crime Scene Matterhorn.

Crime Scene Matterhorn promises new sources and revelations, and describes itself as a forensic criminal investigation.  But the explorer Pen Hadow – descendant of the unfortunate Douglas Hadow whose slip precipitated the disaster – and an assortment of local supporters of Old Peter Taugwalder, do not make the most convincing detectives.  If Whymper’s version has to be read as a case for the defence, theirs is a case for the prosecution.

They cite a Viennese newspaper article (Neue Freie Presse – Aug 4th 1865) describing, in hypothetical terms, a scenario whereby Old Peter Taugwalder’s strength is just about to give out when a hand with a knife reaches over his shoulder and cuts the rope.  It is Whymper, and his action sends the four men below tumbling to their deaths.   The film re-enacts this scene, then admits its utter implausibility.

Next, the prosecution suggests that in response to all the rumours flying around after the accident, Whymper had to come up with a counter-accusation, and for that reason blamed Old Peter Taugwalder, thereby destroying the guide’s reputation and wrecking his life.

But Whymper wrote nothing that could be construed as critical of Old Peter Taugwalder for 6 years, and even then it was decidedly restrained – in contrast to his remarks about the younger Taugwalder who, far from being ruined, traded with great success on his Matterhorn notoriety.

“No blame can be attached to any of the guides,” Whymper wrote to a friend on July 25th 1865.

An alternative new version of events that the film does try to present as plausible runs roughly as follows:

Whymper under fire. “A cannonade on the Matterhorn” from Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Whymper’s obsession with the Matterhorn and desire to win the race to the top led to fatal mistakes in the organisation of the expedition. He shouldn’t have agreed to go up with people he didn’t know.  He failed to check the equipment, notably Hadow’s unsuitable footwear.  He must have soon realised that Hadow was not up to it, and should have turned back.

Detaching himself from the rope – in the film’s re-enactment – Whymper races to the top alone, not with Croz as described in Scrambles.  This is bad form and provokes a schism.    The Hudson team decides to go down leaving Whymper behind.  Lord Francis Douglas switches allegiance and joins the Hudson team.

In a heroic bid to reintegrate the group, Old Peter Taugwalder hurries down after them on his own, catches up with them and ties himself to Lord Francis Douglas with the only rope available to him. They wait for Whymper and Young Peter, and all tie up together.  We know the rest.

This seems pretty far-fetched, frankly.  What about Taugwalder’s statement to the official Inquiry, that the mood among the climbers on the summit was one of joy unconfined?  And is it likely that Croz and Hudson would have arranged a cordon of four with Lord Francis Douglas, aged 18, in the vital anchor position at the back?

The question of Hudson’s share of blame for the alleged errors in the planning and execution of the ascent is not addressed by the film, although he was Hadow’s friend and protector, and co-leader of the expedition with Whymper.

One of the less satisfactory aspects of this trial by tabloid TV is the role of Pen Hadow who makes no secret of his mission to prove that his great uncle, the ‘fall guy’ who is always blamed for the disaster, was in fact the man least responsible for it.  He is on a hiding to nothing, because Douglas Hadow was indeed ‘the fall guy’.  This is one of the few facts that has never been disputed, and no one has ever criticised him for it.  He should not have been there, and the man responsible for his participation was Hudson, not Whymper.

Pennyghent, Yorkshire

“Mr Hadow was no mountaineer,” wrote Mrs. Birkbeck in a famous letter, “….  but good Mr. Hudson was of such a generous mind that what he could do easily himself, he gave other people the credit of being able to do.  Mr. Hadow came to Settle with Mr. Hudson (I think in 1864) and we walked up our small hill ‘Pennyghent’; on one side there is a small piece of rock which has to be descended with care, but most of our party could walk down it with ease. Poor Mr. Hadow found it very difficult and had to be helped down. Later, we were not surprised to hear he had slipped on the Matterhorn.”

In a climactic LOL moment near the end of the film Pen Hadow produces a rabbit from his hat in the best Perry Mason tradition. He has discovered ‘a new source’ in the Bodleian Library.  It is a book published in 1965, The Matterhorn Centenary by Arnold Lunn.   In the publishing business as in tourism, centenaries are always a good opportunity to re-assess history.

Lunn’s well-known story of Whymper cutting the rope on the way up, in his haste to be first to the top, and thus forcing Old Peter to use a flimsy reserve rope on the way down, is presented as a ‘completely new hypothesis.’  Of course it is no such thing.

“Outrageous!” Pen Hadow splutters, turning to the jury; …. “frankly rather shoddy”.   These remarks are aimed at Whymper, but a jury might take the view that shoddy and outrageous is a fair description of the film.

Every court case needs an expert witness, and the prosecution finds a professor of ropes in Zurich who says the fibres of the fatal sash cord look as though they were cut.  This inconvenient finding, which does not fit any version of the story, is left dangling in mid-air.  The film makers test various ropes for strength, but fail to consider their length.  Whymper, characteristically, gives the detail and states that 250 feet of strong rope was available to Taugwalder.

Would the prosecution secure a conviction?  If I was in the jury, Whymper would not have much to worry about.

Over 674 pages, the most comprehensive analysis of the evidence, Alan Lyall’s book “The First Descent of the Matterhorn” (1997), finds in favour of Whymper and against  ….. among others, Arnold Lunn.  As Stephen Goodwin observed in his review of the book in the Alpine Journal, Lyall’s hostility to Lunn is equal to Lunn’s “virulent allergy to Whymper”.

The facts look different, depending on where we stand.  If Lyall’s defence of Whymper represents the British version of history, Zermatt presents a quite different Swiss version, resulting not simply from local pride – or, as Stephen Goodwin prefers, ‘stubborn parochial defensiveness’ – but also from a difference of methodology.

The Swiss version relies heavily on ‘oral tradition,’ of necessity because standards of literacy were not high in the 19th century Alpine guiding community.  The British historian feels uncomfortable in the presence of anything less than a document and refers to the oral tradition as hearsay or gossip.

Arnold Lunn, with his love of the Swiss ‘Bergler’ community, had a foot in both camps and tried to bring the Swiss version to the UK, but overplayed his hand and was shouted down.  Now a German-born film maker based in London, Tilman Remme, has done something similar with Crime Scene Matterhorn.

His film has been watched by millions in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, but the English version of it has yet to find a broadcaster.  Lyall’s book has not been translated into German; nor has Hannes Taugwalder’s defence of the family name, ‘Die Wahrheit Näher’ (closer to the truth; 1991) been translated into English.  To judge from the review of it in the Alpine Journal of that year, we aren’t missing much.

Where is the truth to be found?  Crime Scene Matterhorn ends on a sombre note with a local guide picking through the rocks at the foot of the North Face, pulling out bits of broken rope, clothing, bones, a boot with a shin sticking out of it.   The mountain has the last word.


For an earlier post on this subject click here  

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