Life and Tragedy in the Shadow of the Matterhorn: the Zermatt Museum

Matterhorn Museum – Zermatlantis, Zermatt, Switzerland

It’s not really surprising that the prosperous, neat and tidy town of Zermatt has a neat and tidy little museum.  Upon descending into the heart of the hyper-modern glass dome of the Zermatt Museum, you quickly find yourself in a little village square.  Which is neat and tidy.

In fact, the whole place is unexpectedly well done.  Opened in 2006, the museum is structured around the model of a village square, where the surrounding buildings tell you about certain subjects that are significant in local history – like the hotels, or the milk-making sheds.  You get to see the two sides of Zermatt: the world of the alpinists; and the subsistence-based lives of the locals.

What really surprised me was finding out that people have traipsed through the mountains for thousands of years.  Until the Little Ice Age of the 16th century, the routes over the passes were apparently less dangerous than the paths through the ravines and the Theodul Pass connected the two valleys on either side of the Matterhorn.  Archaeologists have discovered a rocky alcove above Zermatt which is equipped with a fireplace.  It’s 2,600m above sea level and was probably used by hunters, travellers and shepherds from 7900 BC until modern times, which is an incredible thought.  The bravery of the folk who passed through this terrain is unbelievable, and there is a sobering reminder that not all those who attempted the crossing made it: the belongings of an anonymous 16th century man lie in a glass case.

The next ‘house’ tells the stories of mountain guides, and some notable figures who climbed the Matterhorn.  Naturally the role of the mountain guides can’t be underestimated – without them, none of the alpinists would have made it very far, and their knowledge and experience was highly valued by those who were in search of guides.  The guides all had reference books, which were filled with the positive comments of those they’d escorted on trips.  I would say, however, that some guides didn’t need references: like Ulrich Inderbiner, who climbed the Matterhorn for the last time at the age of 90, after having already stood on the peak more than 370 times.

Also interesting were the stories of the ladies who either climbed or tried to climb the Matterhorn.  A big shout out to the aptly named Lucy Walker, who became the first woman to make it to the peak.  The first woman born in Zermatt who made the journey to the top of the mountain was Veronika Perren, in 1912.

The tragic story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn was shown in the ‘Alpine Museum’, a wooden hut in the corner of the village square.  The objects on show were collected by Alexander Seiler from the Matterhorn Glacier and these formed the foundations of this memorial museum, which also has some tragic remains of other unsuccessful expeditions.

The first ascent of the Matterhorn was achieved on the 14th July 1865.  The group was led by the English artist Edward Whymper, who had first arrived in the Alps in 1860 and soon became obsessed with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn.  He enlisted the help of the Italian guide, Jean-Antoine Carrel, and for four years they tried to climb the south-west ridge, at first as friends, but later as rivals.  In the summer of 1865, Carrel was engaged by Whymper in Breuil as usual, but due to the bad weather scuppering his attempts to climb, Carrel’s contract was broken, which allowed him to become the guide of Giordano, who was also eager to be the first to climb the Matterhorn.

When Whymper found out that he might be beaten to the top, he tried to get to Zermatt as quickly as possible, but could find no porters.  It was then that Lord Francis Douglas (uncle of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Alfred Douglas) arrived on the scene – with a guide and porters.  Whymper told him of his plans regarding the Matterhorn, and Douglas admitted that he was eager to ascend the mountain too, so they started off together.

In Zermatt, they engaged Peter Taugwalder and upon returning to the Monte Rosa Hotel, they met Charles Hudson and his friend Douglas Hadow, who had recently climbed Mont Blanc together in excellent time and were now in Zermatt with the intention of ascending the Matterhorn.  They decided to join forces with Whymper and Douglas, bringing their guide, Michel Croz, along with them.  Croz had worked with Whymper many times before, and they had planned to try and climb the Matterhorn together previously.

A party of eight left Zermatt for the mountain on 13th July: Whymper, Douglas, Hudson, Hadow, the guides Croz and Taugwalder, and the latter’s two sons, Peter and Joseph, who acted as porters.  On the morning of the 14th, Joseph went back to Zermatt, and the rest of the group went towards the east face of the Matterhorn. They made their way up without too many difficulties – all except Hadow, who was a less experienced mountaineer and needed constant assistance – and with two hundred feet of snow left to reach the peak, Whymper and Croz ran neck-and-neck to jointly conquer the Matterhorn.

The pair checked that there were no marks left by any other climbers, and when peering over the cliff, Whymper saw the Italian group some 200 metres below.  Upon seeing their rivals on the summit, the group didn’t bother to complete their climb but turned back.

After staying on the summit for a hour, Whymper’s party began their descent.  Croz went first, followed by Hadow, Hudson, Douglas, Taugwalder senior, Whymper and Taugwalder junior.  They moved slowly and carefully, one man moving at a time, all attached to a rope.  Barely an hour into their journey, Hadow slipped.  He fell on Croz.

In a letter to The Times, Whymper wrote:

As far as I know, at the moment of the accident no one was actually moving. I cannot speak with certainty, neither can the Taugwalders, because the two leading men were partially hidden from our sight by an intervening mass of rock […] From the movements of their shoulders it is my belief that Croz […] was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself; at this moment Mr Hadow slipped, fell on him, and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr Hadow flying downwards; in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps and Lord F. Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment; but immediately we heard Croz’s exclamation, Taugwalder and myself planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit; the rope was tight between us, and the shock came on us as on one man. We held; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord F. Douglas. For two or three seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands endeavouring to save themselves; they then disappeared one by one and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorn glacier below, a distance of nearly 4,000 feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them.

After recovering a little from the shock of what they’d experience, Whymper and the Taugwalders made their way down the Matterhorn and tried to find their friends.  The bodies weren’t recovered until the 19th of July – Croz, Hadow and Hudson were buried near the Church of Zermatt.  Lord Douglas’ body was never recovered.

The survivors were called on to answer for what had happened to the unfortunate climbers.  Whymper was accused of betraying his companions, and Taugwalder was accused of cutting the rope between him and Lord Douglas.  He was acquitted but rumours persisted – a few years after the accident, he emigrated to America.  Recent tests on the rope seem to confirm Whymper’s conviction that the rope was unable to sustain the shock of the men’s sudden fall and snapped.  It was also meant to have been only a reserve rope, as it was the oldest taken on the expedition.

A truly tragic story that is very tastefully and respectfully dealt with in the museum.

After 1865, more and more researchers, climbers and visitors came to Zermatt in the summers.  Hotels pioneer Alexander Seiler ran the successful Monte Rosa, Riffelberg and Mont Cervin Hotels, and as the draw of Zermatt grew stronger, further grand hotels popped up: like the Zermatterhof Hotel.  The tourists didn’t just bring work to the hotels and guides.  Strong young men worked as sedan chair bearers while women set up little teahouses on the walking trails, selling drinks, alpine flowers and small souvenirs.

It must have been very strange for the local population to be suddenly exposed to the strange tourists that started flocking to their town.  When you see the houses that the people of Zermatt lived in, and how their lives revolved around their livestock, you can’t help but think that these crazy foreign people must have genuinely baffled them.

A final fascinating figure that was mentioned in the museum was Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a professor, physicist and geologist from Geneva. He researched mountains for thirty years, and in 1768 he initiated the first climb on Mont-Blanc.  A year later he stood on the peak with 18 co-participants.  In 1792, he was part of the first climb of the Little Matterhorn.  He calculated the height of the Matterhorn with the help of a sextant, barometer and a fifty foot long chain, which he laid on the glacier.  His measurement was 4,502 m above sea level – only 24m off the actual height of 4,478m.

So In Summary

Basically there’s not much to the museum – but if you’re in a thoughtful frame of mind then the section on the alpinists is really quite moving.  Looking at the photographs of these Englishmen who plummeted down the mountain and seeing objects rescued from the snow after ill-fated trips up the Matterhorn was profoundly depressing.  But that’s a good thing.  We should remember that any trip up the mountain is dangerous and still claims lives: just a stroll around the graveyard one minute away from the museum proves that.

At the same time, the museum celebrates the local population, its skilful guides and hardy people, and makes you really think about the wonderful, determined spirit of adventure that has led men and women throughout history to some remarkable feats.

Further Information

The museum has a website that is part of Zermatt’s general tourist information site, but it tells you all the practical stuff you may need to know and in English: www.zermatt.ch

How To Get There

Zermatt is teeny-tiny and entirely pedestrianised.  You’ll find it easy to walk there from the train station.

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