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The Entwined History of Zermatt and the Matterhorn

July 04, 2024  · 
The Entwined History of Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Steeped in history, the beautiful mountain town of Zermatt is a hallmark of mountaineering heritage. Nestled at the foot of the Matterhorn, Zermatt’s history, culture and identity are intrinsically interwoven with the iconic peak of one of the world’s most famous mountains. 

The very names of the town and the mountain are linked, both deriving from the German term for the alpine meadows, ‘matten’, surrounding the valley. 

The village of Zermatt is surrounded by some of Switzerland’s highest peaks. Dufourspitze, the highest peak of Monte Rosa, is the tallest peak in the country, its summit standing at 4,634m above sea level. Though not the tallest, the Matterhorn is undoubtedly the most iconic, by way of its near-perfect pyramidal shape and its storied yet tragic role in mountaineering history. 

The Matterhorn

Often translated as “the peak of the meadows”, the Matterhorn has enchanted and mystified visitors for centuries. An almost entirely symmetrical pyramid, the shape of the Matterhorn is instantly recognisable and has been a source of inspiration for artists, geographers, mountaineers and novelists for countless years. 

Although not Europe’s tallest peak, it is the Matterhorn’s sharp, defined lines, curving summit, and impossibly perfect appearance that has led to its popularity and significance. Nicknamed by many as the ‘mountain of all mountains’ the Matterhorn is an emblem of the Alps itself. 

The Matterhorn is still one of Europe’s tallest peaks, however, and stands at an altitude of 4,478m. It was one of the last of the Alps’ mountains to be climbed and remains one of the deadliest in the world.  

For many years, the Matterhorn was deemed utterly insurmountable. It was admired from afar, and those who dreamed of reaching the mountain’s summit were considered entirely fanciful. 

The expeditions to reach the Matterhorn’s summit - and the tragic outcome of the first successful ascent - have forever tied the Matterhorn’s legacy to the “Golden Age of Mountaineering”. 

The Tragic Success of the Matterhorn’s First Ascent 

Successful it might have been, the story of the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn is not a happy one. 

British illustrator and explorer Edward Whymper had dreamed of climbing the Matterhorn since he first laid eyes on it as a painter in Zermatt. Eight previous unsuccessful attempts to scale the mountain preceded Whymper’s historic expedition in 1865.

When a rival group of explorers based in Cervinia set out to climb the Matterhorn from the Italian side of the mountain, Whymper knew this would be his final opportunity to make history as the first man to reach the Matterhorn’s peak. 

More determined than ever, Whymper assembled an almost rag-tag group of individuals: two novice mountaineers called Lord Francis Douglas and Douglas Hadow; Charles Hudson, a chaplain from Lincolnshire; Michel Croz, a mountain guide from Chamonix, and a father-son mountain guide duo, both named Peter Taugwalder. 

Whymper encountered much of his group at Hotel Monte Rosa, and it was from here that the climbing party set off on 13 July 1865. 

The party set up base camp at 3,380m, reaching this spot at midday. They scouted out the area, examining their proposed route and looking for any potential difficulties it could pose. Finding none, they retired to their camp for the day, setting off anew on the morning of 14 July. 

Setting off at the break of dawn, the group began to climb up the east face. It was - surprisingly - an easy climb, the rockface revealing what Whymper later described as “a huge natural staircase”. They reached 3,900m unroped and without great strain. 

From here, the journey became more difficult, the mountain face steeper and more demanding, challenging the less experienced members of the party. 

But the group continued on, resting occasionally and only for short periods of time. They were aware of the expedition on the Italian side of the mountain, which had set out a day before them, and were concerned that they would be beaten to the top. 

By lunchtime that same day, the summit of the Matterhorn came into sight. Once deemed insurmountable, the achievement that had eluded Whymper for so long was finally, triumphantly, within reach.

In Whymper’s own words, he chronicled the moment he reached the top:

“The slope eased off, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race which ended in a dead heat. At 1.40pm the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.”

The snow undisturbed by any prior visitors, Croz and Whymper knew for certain that they had beaten the Italian expedition to the summit. Their assumption was proven correct when, peering over the cliff, they laid eyes on the Italian group – still making their way upwards, a mere 200m below. Croz and Whymper yelled out, grabbing the attention of the Italian expedition, who swiftly abandoned their efforts and made their way back down the mountain to Cervinia. 

Whymper’s party stayed no more than an hour at the summit of the Matterhorn before they began their descent. All seven men were joined together with rope and began their descent with painstaking care, moving one man at a time, their pace steady and sure-footed. 

It was only an hour into their downward journey when tragedy struck. 

Hadow was the first to slip, losing his footing on the rock ledge. Hadow fell and landed upon Croz, the French mountain guide climbing ahead of him. Unprepared for the impact, Croz fell too. The weight of two men falling brought down Douglas and Hudson, dragged down by the rope that connected them. 

Whymper and Taugwalder clung onto the rocks in front of them, hoping that by holding firm, they would be able to stop the other men from falling the whole way down the mountain. 

But the rope connecting Croz to Taugwalder frayed and broke, sending the four men plummeting down the mountain. With scrambling hands, they tried to find purchase on the mountain, but they were unable to save themselves. Whymper and the Taugwalders watched on in horror as their companions disappeared over the edge of the precipice. 

The broken rope from the Whymper expedition on display at the Matterhorn Museum, Zermatt.

With no choice left, the three remaining men continued their descent down the mountain. They camped through the night on a ridge on the Matterhorn and reached Zermatt early on the morning of 15 July. 

Whymper had achieved his dream, but at a great cost. 

The news of Whymper’s tragic expedition rippled throughout the world, making waves in Switzerland and the United Kingdom in particular. So significant was it in Britain that Queen Victoria temporarily considered placing a blanket ban on mountaineering for all British citizens. 

Despite the morbidity of the expedition, it planted a seed of wonder in the minds of many. Whymper’s expedition was the first to be successful, but it certainly would not be the last, as mountaineers across the globe would endeavour to follow in his footsteps. 

Just six years later, Lucy Walker became the first woman to reach the summit of the Matterhorn – and did so in a long flannel skirt. 

The Legacy of the Matterhorn in Zermatt 

The significance of the story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn, and the great public interest that it generated, lent a hand in turning Zermatt into what it is today. 

In the mid-1800s, Zermatt was little more than a quaint mountain village. Undoubtedly charming, it was in no way set up for tourists. In fact, at the time, visitors to Zermatt often found themselves staying with the parish priest or the local doctor.

Whymper’s expedition transformed Zermatt into a place of international wonder. It put Zermatt on the map and ushered in an age of tourism. Railways were constructed, making travel to the mountain town easier than ever, and tourist facilities were built, Zermatt beginning to become the town we know today. 

In 1871, the Hotel Zermatt - now the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof - was constructed, followed by the Hotel Riffelalp in 1884 (now the Riffelalp Resort).

In 1898 came Zermatt’s first electric cable car, the Gornergrat Bahn. At the dawn of the 20th Century, Zermatt’s skiing industry boomed. The first ski classes were held, the skiing club was formed, and in 1928 the first full winter season took place. 

Now, almost a hundred years on, Zermatt is an internationally revered skiing destination. With hundreds of kilometres of slopes, superb skiing infrastructure, and an abundance of charming chalets and hotels, there’s no wonder many believe it to be one of the finest ski resorts in the world. 

Learn more about a holiday in Zermatt in our helpful resort guide, or view our full Zermatt portfolio here


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