Mind Shadows      The Matterhorn

At 14,693 feet (4,478 meters), the Matterhorn is almost a pyramid with four faces aligned according to the cardinal points of the compass, each tremendously steep, each with avalanches frequently tumbling snow and ice into glaciers. As mountaineering became a sport in the Nineteenth Century, other peaks in the Alps were scaled, but the Matterhorn remained unconquered. It became the ultimate challenge because it demanded great technical skill, and because fear rose in the gut of would-be climbers gazing up at its sheer, slick faces. On the border between Switzerland and Italy, it towers over Zermatt on the Swiss side, and Breuil-Cervina in Italy. The Zermatt approach was long considered impossible. The rock was too steep, too sheer, too unforgiving. High mountain weather is forever unpredictable, with sunny skies followed by raging storms. Again and again climbers tried to scale the Matterhorn and failed. It became an obsession for many, including Englishman Edward Whymper, a wood-engraver’s son. Whymper, an artist commissioned to make drawings of the Alps, wanted to become the first man on the summit. In July 1865 he ascended the easiest route, the Hornli Ridge, and stood atop the mountain, looking out over range upon range of mountains fading into the horizon, with freezing wind roaring in his face, and storm clouds racing overhead, and Zermatt tiny in the valley below. On the descent, four of seven men plunged down the face to their deaths. Charles Hadow, a Cambridge student, slipped on ice, unbalancing a Chamonix guide Michel Croz, which yanked a father and son, old and young Peter Taugwalder, both guides, as well as Charles Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas, leaving the entire party of seven hanging by a rope over an abyss. Whymper and two guides threw their weight into holding the others from falling and helped check the fall, but there the men hung, dangling as they watched the rope straining against all its weight.In 1865 pitons—spikes driven into rock to anchor sections of rope—had not yet been invented. The rope broke, and the lower four plunged to their deaths in a glacier almost a mile below. These were Croz, Hadow, Hudson, and Douglas. Except for Lord Douglas, all the bodies were later found. Today, the graves can be visited in a Zermatt cemetery. In 1931, the difficult north face was finally climbed by two unemployed brothers from Munich, Franz and Toni Schmid. At the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, Art Competitions and Exhibition, Toni and Franz were awarded a Gold Medal, Merit for Mountaineering, for the first ascent of the north slope. Toni’s medal was posthumous. He died that same year, age 22, in a climbing accident seventy five days before the Games began. His brother Franz died in 1992, age 87.

Even today, the Matterhorn counts among mountains having the highest number of deaths. Because of the many ascents since the 1950s, long lengths of fixed rope and ladders encourage more climbers than is safe. The traffic makes the mountain dangerous. Unlike Whymper’s time, today climbers on the Hornli ridge have the advantage of a hut, really a solid building, before the steep ascent on that slope. Farther on, they have the Solvay Hut, also well made. Despite these conveniences deaths are frequent. In August 1997, two Americans died climbing the Matterhorn from the Swiss side. That same year, an Idaho woman and a Californian died climbing it from the Italian. They fell to their deaths roped together on the East Ridge. Also in August 1997 seven other climbers died, including a 22 year old who fell into a crevasse and perished from exposure before climbers could reach him. In 2005, an Australian lost his footing and when his body was located he could not be identified because his head and face had been severely disfigured as he bounced off precipices and crags. In March of 2006 DNA confirmed his identity.

Until his death in 1911, Edward Whymper grieved over his lost companions, never forgetting the tragedy of the very first Matterhorn ascent. For the would-be climber, his words remain true today. “Look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”


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