ZERMATT, Switzerland — The mystery dates back a century and a half. To be precise, on Tuesday 150 years will have passed since the first triumphant ascent to the summit of the Matterhorn, that legendary bent megalith that towers above the border of Italy and Switzerland. And it was just one hour after that history-making achievement in 1865 that four of the seven climbers fell to their deaths.
Was murder involved, or criminal negligence, as local gossip has maintained ever since? Or was it just an accident complicated by strong personalities and a clash between a well-off British mountaineer and two illiterate local Swiss-German guides?
To anyone arriving in Zermatt this week, the storied resort at the foot of the one of the world’s most famous peaks seemed to be celebrating famed British mountaineer Edward Whymper’s achievement on July 14, 1865. On Monday, tourists paused by the rushing waters of the River Vispa, gazing up in awe as lights marking Whymper’s path up the Matterhorn illuminated the mountain, which was bathed in a gorgeous mauve sunset.
On Tuesday, a day of silence will be observed in memory of the more than 500 climbers who’ve died on those rock faces, including those in Whymper’s expedition, with no activities allowed on the mountain. Gunshots will ring out at 3 p.m., the approximate time the four climbers fell off the mountain in 1865.
But scratch the surface of Zermatt and you’ll soon find as much controversy as celebration when you hear about the bitter rivalry with the French town of Chamonix that dates back to the so-called “Golden Age of Mountaineering.” In those days impetuous, courageous Brits like the 25-year-old Whymper pioneered the sport by walking up fearsome Alpine peaks in little more than tweed suits and brown boots with embedded nails.
In the early 1860s, it has to be remembered, Zermatt and Chamonix were very sleepy agrarian economies, and in fact quite poor. The business of guiding eccentric foreigners to the mountaintops brought what seemed to be huge and hitherto unknown amounts of money. Rivalries were intense and competition, figuratively at least, was cut-throat.
So it is that even after 150 years, a still-simmering feud over who was responsible for the tragedy during the first ascent of the Matterhorn hangs like a late afternoon cloud over this town. It’s as if that 1996 tale of Everest, Into Thin Air, were set in 1865 with a dash of Alpine Hatfield-and-McCoy bad blood thrown in.
Two of the survivors from the climb were Peter Taugwalder Sr. and his son Peter Jr., who were from Zermatt, and one of the dead was a revered and much more highly experienced guide from Chamonix named Michel Croz.
The most dastardly rumor holds that Taugwalder Sr., jealous of Croz, cut the rope, thus eliminating his competition. Or if it wasn’t out of jealousy, goes another theory, Taugwalder Sr. cut the rope when he saw it wasn’t going to hold, thus saving himself and his son.
Even though there is zero proof that Taugwalder Sr. had the presence of mind or guts to commit murder on the Matterhorn, that didn’t stop a local Swiss TV network from showing a widely watched program called Crime Scene: Matterhorn this year.
“Come on, unless Taugwalder Senior literally had a knife drawn as they walked down—and even then, it’s far-fetched to think he cut the rope,” says Edwin Hammond, 77, a longtime member of the Alpine Club and a respected Alpine historian. Hammond, who first “summited” the Matterhorn in 1967, said Taugwalder “may” have been guilty, but only of “not paying enough attention to the equipment.”
Even though Zermatt is celebrating Whymper’s feat, the dirty local secret is that some people despised Whymper, who was so single-minded and anti-social that few warmed to him—even before the accident.
At the quirky, trendy Alex Hotel, the go-to lodging for decades of jet-setters, when someone mentioned Edward Whymper near the front desk on Monday, a person passing by quickly shouted, “I know the Taugwalder version!”
“It’s really sad that people have to take sides,” says local writer and Whymper expert Sara Randell who, as part of the anniversary celebrations that include a videobook and a play staged outdoors high above the village, is blogging daily about the 1865 ascent as a fictional journalist in online diaries that can be found at www.matterhorn2015.ch.
“The controversy obscures so much of what was fascinating about Whymper and his time,” says Randell. “It was this very Victorian time and men like Whymper were imbued with a drive and a confidence that they could do anything. It was the age of British expansion throughout the world with all sorts of advances in science and engineering.”
But the longtime resentment of Whymper, a London illustrator who was sent to the Alps in 1860 to sketch the peaks and ended up climbing them, truly stems from his classic memoir of his mountaineering career, Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-’69, published in 1871.
In the book, Whymper essentially trashed the two Taugwalders, inferring that they were cowards at best, and at worst that they were negligent in using a weak length of rope so that when Peter Hadow, the least experienced member of the group, slipped, the rope between the first four leading the way down did not hold. Paintings at the Musée Alpin in Chamonix based on Whymper’s account of the tragedy show Hadow, Michel Croz, Charles Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas flailing helplessly as they slide down the mountain and into a crevasse more than 4,000 feet below.
Douglas’s body, which many believe has some of the crucial weak rope circled around it, has never been recovered. Experts have tested ropes over the years in connection with all the accusations surrounding the tragedy, and what is still not clear is why Taugwalder Sr. did not use a stronger length of rope, which he had available, to tie the first four together.
Whymper wrote in his book that right after the other four men fell, the Taugwalders were paralyzed with terror and “cried like infants and trembled in such a manner as to threaten us with the fate of the others.” Whymper went on at great length about what wimps the Taugwalders allegedly were as the descent continued: “Several times old Peter turned with ashy face and faltering limbs and said, with terrible emphasis, ‘I cannot!’”
To make matters worse, rumors began in Chamonix that Taugwalder Sr. had deliberately cut the rope to kill his competitor.
A three-day criminal inquiry that started on July 21, 1865, concluded that Peter Hadow, because of his inexperience, had slipped and caused the accident. No criminal charges were ever filed. But the Taugwalder family’s reputation suffered anyway. And because the Taugwalders could not read or write, their version of the accident was little known. “Whymper has always been the only factual source,” said Hammond.
Whymper’s version was the only one extant, that is, until now.
Matthias Taugwalder, 32, a strong-willed direct descendant of Peter Taugwalder Sr., who has thrice climbed the Matterhorn himself, has for the first time told what he said is the “Taugwalder version.”
Taugwalder, who is also a computer scientist and photographer, used crowd-sourcing to fund a fascinating, tri-lingual exhibit now at the Matterhorn Museum which is billed as “The Search for the Truth.”
Using long-unseen documents and enlisting the opinion of mountaineering legend Reinhold Messner, among others, Taugwalder makes the case that his ancestors deserve to be exonerated for blame in the 1865 tragedy.
“There was always one truth until now, Whymper’s truth,” said the tall, imposing Taugwalder at the museum on Sunday. “But there is more than one truth.”
Taugwalder’s exhibit is fair. Part of it is called “Three Views” and includes a video interview with Nigella Hall, Whymper’s granddaughter, who expresses sympathy for the fallen victims. The great-great nephew of Peter Hadow is also interviewed, insisting his ancestor also was unfairly blamed for the tragedy.
But Matthias Taugwalder is clearly in agreement with Messner, who, in a video interview at the museum, expresses the views of many who feel Whymper placed blame on the Taugwalders to deflect attention from his own responsibility for the accident as the group leader. His record of competence was not impressive. He had made 10 previous attempts to scale the Matterhorn and failed. “There’s no doubt Whymper glossed the account of the first [successful] ascent in his favor,” said Messner.
But many of the British expats who have come to love Zermatt as much as Whymper did say the controversy needlessly obscures an amazing feat.
“The real story of July 14, 1865, is not who slipped, how thick the rope was or who takes the blame for the failed ascent,” said Angus Potter, who first came to Zermatt as a child and now runs the Chez Nous bed-and-breakfast. “The story is the stunning achievement of the summit bid for the Matterhorn which had eluded those Victorian climbers for so long.”