I recently came across a spectacular aerial picture (taken by Fi Bunn of FiPhotos) of the final 700 feet of the Matterhorn taken from an unusual angle from the west, and suddenly realised that it showed, better than any picture I’ve ever seen before, the extraordinary, daring route by which the Italians made the second ascent of the mountain on July 17th 1865.
The story of the first two ascents of the Matterhorn is very dramatic, representing a five-year race to the summit by the two main protagonists, the Englishman Edward Whymper and the Italian Jean-Antoine Carrel – who, alone with Whymper, believed the ‘devilish’ and ‘invincible’ mountain was assailable.
Carrell, a 30-year old ex-soldier known by all as ‘the Bersagliere’ (the sharpshooter) – ‘thick-set but agile’ – made his first attempt as far back as 1857. On that occasion he had with him a cousin, Jean Jacques and a remarkable 20-year old cleric, Aimé Gorret – ‘tall, bony, straight as a pine tree’, but pale-faced because, unlike his colleagues, he spent most of his time in a seminary. Nicknamed ‘the Mountain Bear’, he was described by Sir Arnold Lunn as ‘one of Nature’s nonconformists, highly unconventional and outspoken.’
They set out enthusiastically in a ‘light-hearted’, exploratory spirit, and gained the south-west ridge of the mountain by the most obvious route. They continued to the top of a small subsidiary summit known as the ‘Tete du Lion’ where they found themselves cut off from the main mountain by an unexpectedly deep notch. They amused themselves by casting rocks into the abyss, but were undeterred. The mountain ‘would not run away; sooner or later they would find a way.’
They made several more attempts the following year – their high point being an obstacle known as ‘the Chimney’ at 12,550 feet. After this, Gorret became ordained and returned to Aosta. ‘But from that time onwards,’ he said, ‘the ascent of the Matterhorn became an idée fixe for us. Carrel had his Matterhorn on the brain. As for me, I thought of it during the day, and dreamed of it at night; for me it was a nightmare. Each year saw new attempts, each attempt marked a new failure, each failure was a new provocation. For a few years I was unable to take part in the attempts; my time was not my own.’
All this time, Carrel kept working his way ever higher up the ridge. By 1861, Whymper had entered the fray and, like Carrel, made several attempts, sometimes solo (one involving a fall which nearly cost him his life), pushing his way up the ridge nearly as far as the ‘Italian Shoulder’.
By 1865, sixteen attempts had been made and the competition between Whymper and the Italians – now deeply involved in the Unification of Italy – was more intensely nationalistic than ever, being enthusiastically promoted by the scientist Quintino Sella and the engineer Felice Giordano. Whymper had by now decided that his best chance of reaching the summit was to join forces with Carrel – ‘with him I had hopes, but without him none’.
But when he arrived in Valtournanche there were two setbacks. First, the weather was bad, and then Carrel suddenly announced that he had a long-standing engagement to travel in the Aosta valley ‘with a family of distinction’.
The next day the weather continued bad but the day after that it dawned fine and Whymper was awoken to be told that a large party had set off to try the Matterhorn.
‘Who is the leader of the party?’
‘Yes, and César.’
The ‘family of distinction’ turned out to be Signor Giordano, who was paying for the expedition.
Whymper was furious. ‘I saw in a moment that I had been bamboozled and humbugged.’ But the mountain was still smothered in mist and the large Italian party (consisting of many mules and porters) was obviously planning to take several days to make the ascent. It so happened that, shortly before this, Whymper had come to the conclusion that the Matterhorn might be easier to climb on the Swiss side, so he immediately decided to put his new theory to the test. He might beat them yet.
On July 13th, the Carrels and another guide, Joseph Maquignaz, camped about halfway up the Italian ridge and the next day, after a leisurely start, reached the Italian shoulder, 800 feet below the summit, at about midday. They were just starting to traverse the horizontal knife-edge ridge to the base of formidably steep final peak, when there were cries from the summit and stonefall to attract their attention. Whymper had triumphed.
The Italians’ spirit seemed to evaporate immediately and they crept dejectedly back down the mountain. ‘An evil day!’ Carrel wrote in his diary. However, Giordano, watching through telescopes, and seeing a flag being erected on the summit, assumed that his party had succeeded, only to be disabused the next morning by a very crestfallen Carrel.
Giordano gathered the team together and urged them as a question of honour for the sake of Italy to go back, and Carrel agreed. ‘If you’ll come,’ he said to the others, ‘I will start again immediately.’
But they refused point blank. ‘Not I!’ said one. ‘No more for me,’ said another. ‘If you gave me a thousand francs I wouldn’t go back,’ said the third.
And it was then that the Abbé Gorret stepped forward.
‘So, you give up the Matterhorn!’ he said. ‘If you do not want to go again, I will go myself. Who will follow me?’
Apparently, several people mocked, ‘Oh, if the Abbé is in it, success is assured!’
Carrell and the Abbé were fully prepared to set out by themselves, but at the last moment two of Favre the innkeeper’s servants, J.B. Bich (known as ‘Bardolet’) and J-A. Meynet volunteered to join the party. Giordano, too, said he wanted to come, but Carrell refused to take him, saying he couldn’t both lead the team to the summit and look after a tourist with no mountaineering experience. He couldn’t be responsible for his safety.
At 6.30 the following morning (July 16th) having heard Mass at the chapel of Breuil, the little party of four started out. By ten o’clock they had reached the Col du Lion.
‘So here was the Matterhorn in front of me,’ said the Abbé Gorret, ‘and we were going to attack it with a last supreme effort. My heart beat hard. I had palpitations; I felt I wanted to kiss the Matterhorn!’
At 2 p.m. they reached the tent platform they’d used before at the foot of the Great Tower and stopped for the night. The following morning they continued their ascent and by 10 a.m. had reached the foot of the final peak.
‘We were about to enter unknown country,’ the Abbé said, ‘for no man had gone beyond this point.’
As to the possible route, opinions were divided. The Bersagliere Carrel had noticed some slabs of rock to their left that were redder than the rest and thought they could traverse the west face to reach the Zmutt Ridge on the Swiss side, while the Abbé Gorret preferred to continue up the ridge and scale the final tower directly. Carrel, being the leader, prevailed.
So they started a giddy traverse across the tremendously exposed face nearly 4000 feet above the Tiefenmatten Glacier – ‘crawling on our bellies over the living rock’ according to Gorret. They had not got very far before some blocks of ice and rocks rained down from the summit – one of the stones wounding Gorret in the arm – so they traversed back a little way towards the Breuil ridge. Carrel then spotted a horizontal line of weakness higher up and turned directly towards the summit on rocks that were almost perpendicular.
‘This part occupied the most time and effort,’ Gorret said.
They eventually found themselves on a spectacular narrow ledge of steeply shelving snow below the final crag which overhung a little. Gripping the rocks above them with their hands they edged along the snow shelf with extreme care while blocks of ice passed over their heads and smashed on to the rocks they had just climbed.
‘Although the shelf was not more than two yards wide,’ Gorret said, ‘and the slope was of about 75º, we gave it all kinds of pleasant names: the corridor, the gallery, the railroad, etc.’ (In fact, the name ‘Carrel’s Gallery’ is the one that has been given to this feature ever since.)
Unfortunately, just before they reached the Zmutt Ridge, the ‘Gallery’ ran out, and they found themselves cut off from the ridge by a nearly vertical narrow gully.
So near, but so far! If they could but reach another snow ledge about 25 feet lower down the problem would be solved. They could lower themselves on a rope, but then it might not be possible to climb back up again. And what could they lower themselves from?
‘We had not even time to fix a metal hook to the rock; we should not get out of here in daylight, and yet there were only a few more steps! This was the only remaining obstacle!’
Once more it was the Abbé who saved the day. Being the heaviest and strongest of the four, he volunteered to lower the others, sacrificing the summit for himself for the sake of the success of the party. Meynet volunteered to stay with him because it was such a frightening place for one man to be left alone.
So the Abbé, the ‘Mountain Bear’, dug his heels into the ground above the abyss – his back leaning against the rock, his arms tight against his chest – and lowered Carrel and Bich to the snow ledge. They quickly gained the skyline of the Zmutt ridge and disappeared from sight on the north face of the mountain. ‘Running,’ said the Abbé. Although the upper section of the Zmutt ridge has a tricky step in it (now graded III+), they clearly found it much easier than the traverse they had just done – Carrel later told Whymper: ‘Man cannot do anything much more difficult than that!’*
The Abbé and Meynet now had the unenviable task of waiting patiently, marooned on their exposed perch some five hundred feet below the summit and four thousand feet above the glacier, waiting patiently for their colleagues to return. How long would they have to wait? Perhaps they would never return?
The Abbé remained very calm – ‘I was happy,’ he said. He was talking to the mountain, goading it, as if to make it go, and show it that it had been tamed: ‘Beast! I’ve got you!’
We don’t know how long they had to wait, but it was probably the best part of an hour, possibly longer, and Gorret had difficulty keeping awake. So he passed the time by pointing out to Meynet the beauties of the mountains around them and of the valleys far beneath.
Carrel and Bich climbed the top part of the Zmutt ridge very rapidly – Carrel said they ‘galloped’ – and gained the western summit of the Matterhorn at about 3 p.m, planting their Italian flag next to Whymper’s cairn.
They didn’t waste a moment, but descended at once. Gorret and Meynet pulled them back up to the Gallery with the rope and they retraced their steps down the Breuil ridge as fast as possible. They were so pressed for time that they couldn’t stop to eat, and got back to their tent below the Great Tower just as night was falling (9 p.m.). Here they had supper and the remains of their wine mixed with ice.
In the morning, Gorret could feel an icy weight on his head. ‘What on earth have you put on my head?’ he said to Carrel.
‘Nothing.’ There was a foot of hail pressing down on the outside of the tent. When they looked out, the mountain was white. They waited for two hours for the weather to improve, and then Carrel led them with great skill down the icy rocks.
‘Courage!’ ‘Be careful!’ ‘Mind how you go!’
Finally they were at the foot of ‘the Lion’ below all difficulties and they saw a flag floating on the mountain hut below. Then two – then three. And people coming to meet them. Their arrival was a triumph.
But when they reached the hut at midday, there was a different story. They learned that Whymper’s party had met with disaster on the most difficult part of their descent four days before, when a novice (who should never have been included in the party) slipped, dragging the front members of the seven-man party from their holds. The rope had snapped and four of them had fallen to their deaths, leaving only Whymper and his two guides (Taugwalder, father and son) alive.
But the Italians were celebrating. At Breuil, there were bonfires and songs, dancing and wine-drinking. And at Valtournanche they composed a little song in celebration of Carrel:
Hurrah for the hero, Italian born,
Who has conquered the mighty Matterhorn!*
But at Zermatt there were tears.
What a reversal of fortunes! The Italian disappointment had turned to triumph, the English triumph to tragedy. Such was the extraordinary story of the first two ascents of the Matterhorn, 151 years ago.
*The translation is by Guido Rey. The chorus they sang, he says, ‘was somewhat as follows: Vive le Monsieur Italien / Qui a vaincu le Mont Cervin!’ He doesn’t explain why they sang in French rather than Italian. 🙂
No one climbed the mountain in 1866.
In August 1867, Carrel, Bich and Meynet repeated their route with the Englishman, F. Crauford Grove.
A month later, another Italian party, consisting of the three Maquignaz brothers, Cesar and J-B Carrel and his daughter, Felicité, climbed the Italian ridge directly to the summit, by a route that was at least grade IV+ by modern standards. (The present guidebook describes it as ‘an unprecedented feat of climbing for the period.’)
The Hörnli Ridge was repeated for the first time in 1868 by J.M.Elliott, J-M Lochmatter and P. Knubel.
In 1869, the Maquignaz brothers fixed ropes and a rope ladder (known as the ‘Echelle Jordan’) at the hardest part of the Italian route, making the ascent much easier (but still harder than the Hörnli Route, which was also tamed by fixed ropes at about the same time.)
By 1880, the mountain had been climbed 132 times on the Swiss side and just 27 on the Italian.
In 1879, the great English mountaineer A.F. Mummery made the first ascent of the Zmutt ridge with Alexander Burgener and two other guides. This is now generally regarded as the best route on the mountain.
The South-East (Furggen) Ridge was climbed in 1911, and the even harder North Face in 1931.
In 1965, the centenary year of the first ascent, Walter Bonatti soloed the North Face.
In 1966, the author of this article met John Whymper, great nephew of Edward Whymper, returning to the Hörnli Hut after climbing the Hörnli Ridge (see signature below); and the following year, the author, with his twin brother, John Stainforth, climbed the nearby Zinal Rothorn with the guide Heinrich Taugwalder, the great great grandson of ‘Old Peter’ Taugwalder,** who had been with Whymper on the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
The sources for the facts and quotations used in this article:
Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871; Centenary Edition)
Guide Rey, The Matterhorn (Revised by R.L.G.Irving, 1936)
Arnold Lunn, Matterhorn Centenary (1965)
Gaston Rébuffat, Men and the Matterhorn (1967)
With special thanks to Fi Bunn and Roberto Bertero.
* For the III+ step in the upper Zmutt ridge, see this modern topo. Carrel made the remark to Whymper about the difficulty of the ‘Gallery’ four years later, in 1869 (Whymper, Scrambles, p. 316, footnote.)
** For further details about the Taugwalders, see an earlier posting I wrote on the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Matterhorn.