The Alps – The Matterhorn – Second Assault

Four years ago I had not entertained a wish or a thought regarding the climbing of the Matterhorn. Indeed, assailing mountains of any kind was then but an accidental interlude to less exciting occupations upon the glaciers of the Alps. But in 1859 Mr. Vaughan Hawkins had inspected the mountain from Breuil, and in 1860, on the strength of this inspection, he invited me to join him in an attack upon the untrodden peak. Guided by Johann Bennen, and accompanied by an old chamois-hunter named Carrel, we tried the mountain, but had to halt midway among its precipices. We returned to Breuil with the belief that, if sufficient time could be secured, the summit—at least, one summit—might be won. Had I felt that we had done our best on this occasion, I should have relinquished all further thought of the mountain ; but, unhappily, I felt the reverse, and thus a little cloud of dissatisfaction hung round the memory of the attempt. In 1861 I once more looked at the Matterhorn, but, as shown in Chapter X., was forbidden to set foot upon it. Finally, in 1862, the desire to finish what I felt to be a piece of work only half completed beset me so strongly that I resolved to make a last attack upon the unconquered hill.

The resolution, as a whole, may have been a rash one, but there was no rashness displayed in the carrying out of its details. I did not ignore the law of gravity, but felt, on the contrary, that the strongest aspirations towards the summit of the Matterhorn would not prevent precipitation to its base through a false step or a failing grasp. The general plan proposed was this : Two first-rate guides were to be engaged, and, to leave their arms free, they were to be accompanied by two strong and expert porters. The party was thus to consist of five in all. During the ascent it was proposed that three of those men should always be, not only out of danger, but attached firmly to the rocks ; and while they were thus secure, it was thought that the remaining two might take liberties, and commit themselves to ventures which would otherwise be inexcusable or impossible. With a view to this, I had a rope specially manufactured in London, and guaranteed by its maker to bear a far greater strain than was ever likely to be thrown upon it. A light ladder was also constructed, the two sides of which might be carried like huge alpenstocks, while its steps, which could be inserted at any moment, were strapped upon a porter’s back. Long iron nails and a hammer were also among our appliances. Actual experience considerably modified these arrangements, and compelled us in almost all cases to resort to methods as much open to a savage as to people acquainted with the mechanical arts.

Throughout the latter half of July rumours from the Matterhorn were rife in the Bernese Oberland, and I felt an extreme dislike to add to the gossip. Wishing, moreover, that others who desired it might have a fair trial, I lingered for nearly three weeks among the Bernese and Valasian Alps. This time, however, was not wasted. It was employed in burning up the effete matters which nine months’ work in London had lodged in my muscles—in rescuing the blood from that fatty degeneration which a sedentary life is calculated to induce. I chose instead of the air of a laboratory that of the Wetterhorn, the Galenstock, and the mountains which surround the Great Aletsch glacier. Each succeeding day added to my strength.

There is assuredly morality in the oxygen of the mountains, as there is immorality in the miasma of a marsh, and a higher power than mere brute force lies latent in Alpine mutton. We are re-cognising more and more the influence of physical elements in the conduct of life, for when the blood flows in a purer current the heart is capable of a higher glow. Spirit and matter are interfused ; the Alps improve us totally, and we return from their precipices wiser as well as stronger men.

It is usual for the proprietor of the hotel on the AEggischhorn to retain a guide for excursions in the neighbourhood ; and last year he happened to have in his employment one Walters, a man of superior strength and energy. He was the house companion of Bennen, who was loud in his praise. Thinking it would strengthen Bennen, hand and heart, to have so tried a man beside him, I engaged Walters, and we all three set off with cheerful spirits to Zermatt. Thence we proceeded over the Matterjoch ; and as we descended to Breuil we looked long at the dangerous eminences to our right, among which we were to trust ourselves in a day or two. There was nothing jubilant in our thoughts or conversation ; the character of the work before us quelled presumption. We felt nothing that could be called confidence as to the issue of the enterprise, but we also felt the inner compactness and determination of men who, though they know their work to be difficult, feel no disposition to shrink from it. The Matterhorn, in fact, was our temple, and we aproached it with feelings not unworthy of so great a shrine. Arrived at Breuil, we found that a gentleman, whose long perseverance merited victory (and who has since gained it), was then upon the mountain. The succeeding day was spent in scanning the crags and in making preparations. At night Mr. Whymper returned from the Matterhorn, having left his tent upon the rocks. In the frankest spirit, he placed it at my disposal, and thus relieved me from the necessity of carrying up my own. At Breuil I engaged two porters, both named Carrel, the youngest of whom was the son of the Carrel who accompanied Mr. Hawkins and me in 1860, while the other was old Carrel’s nephew. He had served as a bersaglier in three campaigns, and had fought at the battle of Solferino ; his previous habits of life rendered him an extremely handy and useful companion, and his climbing powers proved also very superior.

About noon on an August day we disentangled ourselves from the hotel, first slowly sauntering along a small green valley, but soon meeting the bluffs, which indicated our approach to uplifted land. The bright grass was quickly left behind, and soon afterwards we were toiling laboriously upward among the rocks. The Val Tournanche is bounded on the right by a chain of mountains, the higher end of which abutted, in former ages, against Matterhorn. But now a gap is cut out between both, and a saddle stretches from the one to the other. From this saddle a kind of couloir runs downwards, widening out gradually and blending with the gentler slopes below. We held on to the rocks to the left of this couloir, until we reached the base of a precipice which fell sheer from the summits above. Water trickled from the upper ledges, and the descent of a stone at intervals admonished us that gravity had here more serious missiles at command than the drippings of the liquefied snow. So we moved with prudent speed along the base of the precipice, crossing at one place the ice-gulley where Mr. Whymper nearly lost his life. Immediately afterwards we found ourselves upon the saddle which stretches with the curvature of a chain to the base of the true Matterhorn. The opening out of the western mountains from this point of view is grand and impressive, and with our eyes and hearts full of the scene we moved along the saddle, and soon came to rest upon the first steep crags of the real Monarch of the Alps.

Here we paused, unlocked our scrip, and had some bread and wine. Again and again we looked to the cliffs above us, ignorant of the treatment that we were to receive at their hands. We had gathered up our traps, and bent to the work before us, when suddenly an explosion occurred overhead. We looked aloft and saw in mid-air a solid shot from the Matterhorn, describing its proper parabola, and finally splitting into fragments as it smote one of the rocky towers in front of us. Down the scattered fragments came like a kind of spray, slightly wide of us, but still near enough to compel a sharp look-. out. Two or three such explosions occurred, but we chose the back-fin of the mountain for our track, and from this the falling stones were speedily deflected right or left. Before the set of sun we reached our place of bivouac. A roomy tent was already there, and we had brought with us an additional light one, intended to afford accommodation to me. It was pitched in the shadow of a great rock, which seemed to offer a safe barrier against the cannonade from the heights. Carrel, the soldier, built a platform, on which he placed the tent, for the mountain itself furnished no level space of sufficient area.

Meanwhile, fog, that enemy of the climber, came creeping up the valleys, while dense flounces of cloud gathered round the hills. As night drew near, the fog thickencd through a series of intermittences which a mountain-land alone can show. Sudden uprushings of air would often carry the clouds aloft in vertical currents, while horizontal gusts swept them wildly to and fro. Different currents impinging upon each other sometimes formed whirling cyclones of cloud. The air was tortured in its search of equilibrium. Sometime all sight of the lower world was cut away—then again the fog would melt and show us the sunny pastures of Breuil smiling far beneath. Sudden peals upon the heights, succeeded by the sound of tumbling rocks; announced, from time to time, the disintegration of the Matterhorn. We were quite swathed in fog when we retired to rest, and had scarcely a hope that the morrow’s sun would be able to dispel the gloom. Throughout the night the rocks roared intermittently, as they swept down the adjacent couloir. I opened my eyes at midnight, and, through a minute hole in the canvas of my tent, saw a star. I rose and found the heavens swept clear of clouds, while above me the solemn battlements of the Matterhorn were projected against the blackened sky.

At 2 A.M. we were astir. Carrel made the fire, boiled the water, and prepared our coffee. It was 4 A.M. before we had fairly started. We adhered as long as possible to the hacked and weather-worn spine of the mountain, until at length its disintegration became too vast. The alternations of sun and frost have made wondrous havoc on the southern face of the Matterhorn ; but they have left brown-red masses of the most imposing magnitude behind—pillars, and towers, and splintered obelisks, grand in their hoariness—savage, but still softened by the colouring of age. The mountain is a gigantic ruin but its firmer masonry will doubtless bear the shocks of another æon. We were compelled to quit the ridge, which now swept round and fronted us like a wall. ‘ The weather had cleft the rock clean away, leaving smooth sections, with here and there a ledge barely competent to give a man footing. It was manifest that for some time our fight must be severe. We examined the precipice, and exchanged opinions. Bennen swerved to the right and to the left to render his inspection complete. There was no choice ; over this wall we must go, or give up the attempt. We reached its base, roped ourselves together, and were soon upon the face of the precipice. Walters was first, and Bennen second, both exchanging pushes and pulls. Walters, holding on to the narrow ledges above, scraped his ironshod boots against the cliff, thus lifting himself in part by friction. Bennen was close behind, aiding him with an arm, a knee, or a shoulder. Once upon a ledge, he was able to give Bennen a hand. Thus we advanced, straining, bending, and clinging to the rocks with a grasp like that of desperation, but with heads perfectly cool. We perched upon the ledges in succession—each in the first place making his leader secure, and accepting his help afterwards. A last strong effort threw the body of Walters across the top of the wall; and, he being safe, our success thus far was ensured.

This ascent landed us once more upon the ridge, with safe footing on the ledged strata of the disintegrated gneiss. Pushing upward, we approachcd the conical summit seen from Breuil—the peak, however, being the end of a nearly horizontal ridge foreshortened from below. But before us, and assuredly as we thought within our grasp, was the highest point of the renowned Matterhorn. ‘ Well,’ I remarked to Bennen, ‘ we shall at all events win the lower summit’ ‘ That will not satisfy us,’ was his reply. I knew he would answer thus, for a laugh of elation, which had something of scorn in it, had burst from the party when the true summit came in view. We felt perfectly certain of success ; not one amongst us harboured a thought of failure. ‘ In an hour,’ cried Bennen, ‘ the people at Zermatt shall see our flag planted yonder.’ Up we went in this spirit, with a forestalled triumph making our ascent a jubilee. We reached the first summit, and planted a flag upon it. Walters, however, who was an exceedingly strong and competent guide, but without the genius which is fired by difficulty, had previously remarked, with reference to the last precipice of the mountain, ‘ We may still find difficulty there.’ The same thought had probably brooded in other minds ; still it angered me slightly to hear misgiving obtain audible expression.

From the point on which we planted our first flagstaff a hacked and extremely acute ridge ran, and abutted against the final precipice. Along this we moved cautiously, while the face of the precipice came clearer and clearer into view. The ridge on which we stood ran right against it ; it was the only means of’ approach, while ghastly abysses fell on either side. We sat down, and inspected the place; no glass was needed, it was so near. Three out of the four men muttered almost simultaneously, ‘ It is impossible.’ Bennen was the only man of the four who did not utter the word. A jagged stretch of the ridge still separated us from the precipice. I pointed to a spot at some distance from the place where we sat, and asked the three doubters whether that point might not be reached without much danger. ‘ We think so,’ was the reply. ‘ Then let us go there.’ We reached the place, and sat down there. The men again muttered despairingly, and at length they said distinctly, ‘ We must give it up.’ I by no means wished to put on pressure, but directing their attention to a point at the base of’ the precipice, I asked them whether they could not reach that point without much risk. The reply was, ‘ Yes.” Then,’ I said, ‘ let us go there.’ We moved cautiously along, and reached the point aimed at. The ridge was here split by a deep cleft which separated it from the final precipice. So savage a spot I had never seen, and I sat down upon it with the sickness of disappointed hope. The summit was within almost a stone’s throw of us, and the thought of retreat was bitter in the extreme. Bennen excitedly pointed out a track which he thought practicable. He spoke of danger, of difficulty, never of impossibility ; but this was the ground taken by the other three men.

As on other occasions, my guide sought to fix on me the responsibility of return, but with the usual result. ‘ Where you go I will follow, be it up or down.’ It took him half an hour to make up his mind. But he was finally forced to accept defeat. What could he do ? The other men had yielded utterly, and our occupation was clearly gone. Hacking a length of six feet from one of the sides of our ladder, we planted it on the spot where we stopped. It was firmly fixed, and, protected as it is from lightning by the adjacent peak, it will probably stand there when those who planted it think no more of the Matterhorn.

How this wondrous mountain has been formed will be the subject of subsequent enquiry. It is not a spurt of molten matter ejected from the nucleus of the earth ; from base to summit there is no truly igneous rock. It has no doubt been up-raised by subterranean forces, but that it has been lifted as an isolated mass is not conceivable. It must have formed part of a mighty boss or swelling, from which the mountain was subsequently sculptured. These subjects, however, cannot be well discussed here. To get down the precipice we had scaled in the morning, we had to fix the remaining length of our ladder at the top, to tie our rope firmly on to it, and allow it to hang down the cliff. We slid down it in succession, and there it still dangles, for we could not detach it. A tempest of hail was here hurled against us ; as if the Matter-horn, not content with shutting its door in our faces, meant to add an equivalent to the process of kicking us downstairs. The ice-pellets certainly hit us as bitterly as if they had been thrown in spite, and in the midst of this malicious cannonade we struck our tents and returned to Breuil.

Three years subsequently, Carrel the bersaglier, and some other Val Tournanche men, reached my rope, found it bleached to whiteness, but still strong enough to bear the united weights of three men. By it they were enabled to scale the precipice, spend the night at a considerable elevation, and, through the scrutiny rendered possible by an early start, to find a way to the summit of the Matterhorn. They reached the top a day or two after the memorable first ascent from Zermatt.