Zermatt came to the Alpine Club in Shoreditch yesterday evening to announce its plans for the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn on July 14th 1865. These will include a free day on all lifts – surely unprecedented – and a 24 hour curfew with no one allowed on the Matterhorn out of respect for the four who died 150 years ago and the 500 climbers who have since lost their lives on a mountain described to me by one Alpine Club member as “not particularly difficult but extremely dangerous.”
There will also be an open air theatre at Riffelberg through July and August, with regular performances of a new play, The Matterhorn Story, by the Zermatt-based dramatist Livia Anne Richard, who came to the Alpine Club to give a preview, with beautiful accompaniment from an Alpenhorn and Whymper’s tent, ice axe and alpenstock as eloquent props provided courtesy of the Alpine Club. The horn was longer than the Alpine Club is wide and had to be played half in, half out of the window.
After her reading of the documents, Ms Richard decided there was no need for dramatic invention. In this instance facts are stronger than fiction, she told us.
But what facts? Everyone knows that seven men got to the top, and three got down alive. The weakest link lost his footing, the rope broke between the fourth and fifth man; numbers one to four died; five, six and seven survived. The rope that broke was unfit for purpose. Why? The official enquiry was either hopelessly or deliberately uninformative, so we have only the survivor Whymper’s account to go on. Is it reliable?
Livia Richard’s version of the facts has the powerful rich aristocratic Englishman (Whymper) silencing the poor illiterate Swiss peasant – the Zermatt guide Peter Taugwalder. Never mind that Edward Whymper was a 25 year old middle-class jobbing illustrator. Charles Hudson, another protagonist, was a vicar.
The first point Ms Richard wished to impress on us was that Whymper was neither the hero nor the leader of the expedition, but the “guest” of Hudson. If so, and Hudson is to be considered the expedition leader, he presumably takes more of the blame for any failure of leadership. It might be more accurate to say that Whymper was the guest of Lord Francis Douglas, who had hired the guide Taugwalder senior and agreed to support Whymper in his desire to go for the Matterhorn with all speed. Their party was formed and ready to go, as was Hudson’s, when they met at dinner in the Hotel Monte Rosa, and agreed to join forces rather than compete.
But Hudson was indeed the older man and in Michel Croz of Chamonix he had the guide Whymper trusted and admired above all others. When Hudson vouched for his young friend Hadow, Whymper took his word for it.
After any accident, as Ms Richard told us, the blame game begins.
“Whymper immediately spread the rumour that Taugwalder had cut the rope to save himself,” she said. This seems unlikely and contradicts everything Whymper wrote at the time and afterwards. That rumour, he tells us, started in Chamonix which wanted to blame the Swiss for the loss of its man Croz. Anyone who knew anything about climbing would know that Taugwalder could not have cut the rope, and anyone who looked at the rope would know it had not been cut. Even Whymper’s harshest critic Arnold Lunn insisted on that.
Meanwhile “Peter Taugwalder spread the story that we always tell in Zermatt” whereby Whymper cuts the rope on the way up, rather than untie it, because he is in such a hurry to be first to the top. That’s why there is not enough strong rope for Taugwalder to use when attaching himself to Lord Francis Douglas for the descent, and he has to use a flimsy reserve rope instead.
I first heard Zermatt’s version of the story about 20 years ago from Leander Taugwalder, who has a mountain restaurant in a meadow beneath the Matterhorn at Blatten. Interestingly, when I visited Blatten last summer and prompted him to repeat the allegation, he declined, shrugged his shoulders and said “you know, in a situation like that, mistakes are made. It’s a long time ago”. Whymper may or may not have cut the rope. The evidence that he did has an element of Chinese whispers; there is no record of Taugwalder claiming that he did, and anyway it’s a red herring. Whymper details the amount of rope the party carried: 350ft of two different kinds of strong rope, plus 200ft of thinner rope ‘of a kind that I used formerly (stout sash line)’. They took so much because of the great difficulties they expected to encounter on the mountain.
Instead they were amazed by the ease of the ascent and used no fixed ropes to help them down. Whymper writes that he and Hudson discussed this and agreed that it should be done, but for some reason it wasn’t. (Failure of leadership, as Whymper admits). So it would be surprising if Whymper was wrong in claiming that there was plenty of strong rope available. Unless his account is all lies, of course.
“I’m not trying to blame Whymper,” said Livia Richard, “but to rehabilitate Peter Taugwalder”. Up to a point.
Other fanciful elements of Ms Richard’s new drama are less controversial.
She has “the women of Zermatt” – a quaint concept – pleading with the men not to attempt the evil-spirit-infested mountain, especially on the unlucky 13th. One can see the theatrical appeal of such a scene, which has the makings of a typical sentimental genre painting of the Victorian era.
She has a riotous celebration party in full swing when Whymper and the Taugwalders return to Zermatt with news of the accident. Again, this will make great theatre – where’s Verdi with a rousing chorus when you need one? Whymper’s description of his return is rather lower-key, but never mind that.
And she invents a love story, the details of which she did not reveal to us, except to say that it is not a homo-erotic love story involving Rev Hudson and young Hadow. Great relief all round.
In conclusion Zermatt’s genial tourism director Daniel Luggen reminded us that after the accident Queen Victoria tried to ban the fashionable pursuit of Alpinism. “Of course people want to do anything that’s banned, so the Queen made a great promotion for Zermatt,” he declared. And in recognition of this service, Zermatt sent a mountain guide to Buckingham Palace to deliver by hand Queen Elizabeth’s invitation to the anniversary celebrations in July.
Her Majesty has not yet refused this invitation.
150 years on, the greatest climbing story ever told has lost none of its power to enthral and divide opinion. I can’t wait to see the play and get all stirred up in defence of that most remarkable and least sympathetic of Victorian adventurers, Mr Edward Whymper. Meanwhile there is a two-part documentary on Swiss TV – Crime Scene Matterhorn – to get steamed up about later this month. Have the researchers found the mysterious missing page from the hotel Monte Rosa’s log book, on which Whymper wrote his first version of the story on July 15th?
More likely, there will be more new supposition than new facts, and much turning in the grave in Whymper’s Chamonix churchyard.
For a summary of the events of the first ascent of the Matterhorn based mainly on Whymper’s account, click here
To consult Whymper’s book Scrambles Amongst the Alps, click here