Somewhere buried in the ice of Zmutt Glacier on the north side of Switzerland’s famous Matterhorn, straddling the border with Italy and overlooking the quaint Alpine town of Zermatt, lays the body of 19-year old Lord Francis Douglas.
They’ve never found him.
On July 14, 1865, he was one of a team of seven men linked together on a single rope, hoping to be the first to reach the summit of what today is one of the world’s most famous mountains.
The young English nobleman was one of them.
Many had tried and failed.
The climb was organized and led by Edward Whymper from Wales, an artist-engraver and skilled alpine climber.
He’d attempted the climb seven times before but never succeeded.
This time, he was determined to make it to the top — spurred on by a rival Italian team heading up the mountain from the Italian side, that already had a two-day head-start.
Whymper decided on a ridge on the northeast side that most considered almost unclimbable.
Seasoned mountaineers today don’t consider the Matterhorn a big deal — but it can be deadly. Reports vary considerably as to where the Matterhorn ranks among the world’s most dangerous mountains. At least one source says it’s No. 2, after Annapurna in the Himalayas.
National Geographic says, “The Matterhorn rises as an unforgivingly steep pyramid with four ridges and four walls. To climb it you must actually climb — gripping miniscule ripples of rock with your fingertips, placing your feet on the thinnest of ledges, and pulling your body straight up.”
Believing he could catch up to the Italians, Whymper quickly assembled a team of climbers with mixed talents.
Youngest were Lord Francis Douglas who “was nimble as a deer” after several seasons climbing the Alps, and fellow Englishman Douglas Robert Hadow — both about 19.
Hadow was a novice and needed constant assistance during that historic climb — and his inexperience would lead to tragedy.
Michel Croz was Whymper’s old mountain-climbing pal from Chamonix, France, who joined the team at the last minute.
“Old Peter” Taugwalder was a veteran and highly respected mountain guide from Zermatt, and he brought his son “Young Peter” along with him.
The final member of the team was “sure-footed” Reverend Charles Hudson, vicar of Skillington in Lincolnshire, who was considered by the mountaineering fraternity to be the best amateur of his time, according to Whymper.
On July 12, the team headed for the mountain.
It was a tough climb until they were near the summit, where it became unexpectedly easy.
“The slope eased off, at length we could be detached, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race which ended in a dead heat,” Whymper wrote in his book “Scrambles Amongst the Alps.”
On the 14th “At 1.40 P.M., the world was at our feet and the Matterhorn was conquered!”
The first to plant his ice axe into the snow at the summit — with a shirt attached as a flag — was Edward Whymper, followed by Croz, Rev. Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, Hadow, and then father and son Taugwalder.
“Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen,” Whymper wrote — they’d beaten the Italians, whom they could see approaching from the other side.
Looking up and seeing they’d been beaten, the disappointed rivals turned around and headed down the mountain.
The view from the top was perfect that day.
“Mountains fifty — nay, a hundred — miles off looked sharp and near,” Whymper said. “All their details — ridge and crag, snow and glacier — stood out with faultless definition.”
The jubilant group celebrated for about an hour before starting their descent.
Then tragedy struck.
Hadow knocked over his climbing helper, Michel Croz, who fell, dragging Rev. Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas down with him.
“I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downwards,” Whymper wrote. “In another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps, and Lord Francis Douglas immediately after him …
“Old Peter and I planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit: the rope was taut between us and the jerk came on us both as one man.
“We held; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. For a few seconds, we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downwards on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavouring to save themselves …
“From the moment the rope broke, it was impossible to help them,” Whymper said.
Stunned, the surviving three stayed where they were for another half hour, then resumed the climb down — sick at heart.
They called out to their fallen comrades, hoping that maybe someone survived.
There was no answer.
Whymper later wrote to a friend. “For two hours after the accident I thought every moment that the next would be my last … The two guides were unnerved to such an extent that I suspected every minute one or the other would have slipped, and then it would have been all over.”
Three of the bodies were found days later on the ice below and are now buried in Zermatt.
But not Lord Francis Douglas.
Had the manila hemp rope between Douglas and Old Peter not broken, all seven probably would have been killed. Today, it would be unlikely that so many climbers would be roped together.
Glory for Edward Whymper would be long in coming. He and Old Peter would be the targets of blame for the tragedy and at an investigation, they were accused of deliberately cutting the rope to save themselves, but the break appears to have been caused by too much tension.
Both men were cleared of blame, but the tragedy haunted Whymper the rest of his life.
He never climbed in the Alps again.
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Fast-forward 105 years:
Your History Corner columnist was in the first party to climb the Matterhorn in the 1970s.
On July 10 that year, it was a crisp sunny day and weather was not a factor. Shoes were, however. My mountain guide Ludwig Imboden from a small town near Zermatt insisted on the rental of climbing boots rather than using the ones I’d brought.
They didn’t fit and dollar-sized blisters made much of the climb agonizing.
We hiked up to the Hörnli Hut, joined about a dozen others, ate some simple food and snatched a couple of hours of sleep.
Around 3 a.m., we were rousted from the crude bunks, downed hot tea and cereal and left the hut. A short flat walk in the cold night air ended at a frighteningly vertical cliff — clearly visible in the moonlight.
Ludwig and I were roped together and he led the way up.
Having trained for several days with another mountain guide on the Klein Matterhorn — “Little Matterhorn” — I was ready physically but had disconcerting thoughts about the Whymper party tragedy.
On the big Matterhorn, I thought of them as we crossed the very place where the rope broke, sending the four men tumbling down.
It was exhilarating reaching the top. The sun was up and we could see Mont Blanc far to the west and other snow-capped peaks around us.
We rested for about 20 minutes and then headed down, arriving at the Hörnli Hut about noon.
Shortly after leaving Hörnli for Zermatt, I encountered two Japanese men without guides on their way up to the hut. In broken Japanese, I chatted with them for several minutes, wished them luck and continued on my way.
About 8:10 that evening, I was back at the hotel and had just finished dinner when the town’s church bells started ringing. That seemed an odd time, so I asked the concierge why the bells?
“Some climbers are missing and that’s the alarm call for the search and rescue team,” he explained.
The two Japanese climbers had fallen down the east face to their deaths.
The following month, two more Japanese climbers plunged to their doom from the mountain. They found their bodies 45 years later.
Edward Whymper wrote in his book, “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step — and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
For Lord Francis Douglas and three others, it was.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com
• • •
“’Tis a lesson you should heed,
Try, try, try again.
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try, try again.
Then your courage should appear,
For if you will persevere You will conquer, never fear.
Try, try, try again.”
— William Edward Hickson, British philanthropist
Zermatt in the 1860s
“Zermatt itself is still only a village with 600 inhabitants (about forty of whom are guides), with picturesque châlet dwellings, black with age. The hotels, including the new inn on the Riffelberg, mostly belong to M. Alexandre Seiler, to whom the village and valley are very much indebted for their prosperity, and who is the best person to consult for information, or in all cases of difficulty.”
— Edward Whymper, Scrambles Among the Alps footnote
Watch a short movie of the final climb to the top of the Matterhorn by the Whymper party in 1865 and its tragic ending.
Matterhorn death toll
More than 500 people have died climbing the mountain since 1865 (other sources say 450), many on the descent. Deaths due to falls, inexperience, bad judgment, bad weather and falling rocks average now about 12 annually.
“Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances—Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them…”
— Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps
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Invitation to readers …
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Community History Popcorn stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.