Some mountain peaks are better left untouched. Or at least that’s what the residents of Zermatt were thinking in the 1850s. For many years, this mountain was believed to be unclimbable. The huge pyramidal peak that strides between Switzerland and Italy inspired only fear and respect. The superstition that spirits throw rocks down the mountain created even greater fear. At 4,478 meters high, the Matterhorn was better left alone.
But was there a time in history when humans didn’t obsess over conquering nature? Such was the case of Jean-Antoine Carrel, an Italian mountain climber who lived in a little village on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. His fascination with this mountain peak began taking control over his own mind. Soon after discovering it, he could think of nothing else but climbing the Matterhorn. Beginning in 1857 Carrel made several attempts to reach the summit, but the Italian side of the Matterhorn was hard to climb, so he repeatedly found himself having to turn back. But Carrel wasn’t the only one who fantasized about the Matterhorn.
On the other side of the Alps, in Britain, there was another restless soul whose mind was stayed on this peak. Edward Whymper first visited the Alps as an artist commissioned to draw picturesque mountain scenes. But after seeing the Matterhorn he became a mountaineer and began climbing the western Alps. Whymper’s first attempt to reach the Matterhorn was in 1861 from the village of Breuil, on the south side of the mountain. He tried to reach the summit for nearly three years.
Whymper and Carrel, although fierce competitors, found themselves often on the same team, trying to ascend the mountain. But most of the times they were competing against each other, trying to reach the summit independently. Between Carrel and Whymper it was a battle of egos. Carrel considered the Materhorn his own mountain and regarded Whymper as an intruder. He was secretly hoping to conquer it alone. Whymper, on the other hand, considered Carrel the best climber in the Alps and tried to hire him for what turned out to be his successful ascent. But during the week of their planned attempt, Carrel secretly agreed to guide an Italian team made of four individuals, leaving Whymper out of the loop. When the Englishman discovered that Carrel was attempting the mountain from the Italian side, he quickly put together a seven-man team in Zermatt and tried to reach the summit from the Swiss side.
The Swiss ridge was a steeper and more terrifying passage that was considered to be too risky for climbing. But in the end, the British climber together with three compatriots and three mountain guides managed to reach the peak on July 14, 1865, marking this the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
However, the joy of victory was short lived as only three of the seven mountaineers on his team survived the descent. One man slipped, pulling off three others. Whymper and his two guides, Peter Taugwalder Sr. and Peter Taugwalder Jr. caught the fall, but the rope suddenly broke and the other four guys fell 4,000 feet. In Zermatt, Whymper was accused of cutting the rope and investigated by the authorities. Although exonerated, the controversy continued. In England the public opinion denounced and condemned the uselessness of the sport of mountaineering. Europe was in turmoil over this tragedy and one way or another, everyone had an opinion. Sounds familiar? After the Matterhorn accident, Whymper abandoned mountaineering in the Alps, although he continued to climb elsewhere.
Carrel and his Italian team managed to reach the Matterhorn only three days later after the Whymper’s ascent. Disappointed and exhausted, Carrel only stayed at the summit long enough to plant an Italian flag by the side of the English flag planted there by Whymper three days earlier, then descended at once. Carrel died 25 years later, in 1890, while guiding a party of climbers on the south side of the Matterhorn. Caught in a sever storm, he managed to bring his clients down safely, but he collapsed from exhaustion and died at the foot of the mountain.
After Whymper’s successful ascent, thousands of people have attempted to climb the Matterhorn and more than 500 perished (more than on the Everest, Rainier or the Grand Teton.)
Death’s allegedly heroic nature has always lured those who never witnessed its horror. Walking past the tombstones of the people who paid this exorbitant price makes you wonder of the human mind.