The east and north faces of the Matterhorn at dawn. Valais Alps, Switzerland. [Photo] Mario Colonel

The Matterhorn

Posted on: July 1, 2006

I turn off my car's ignition and, alone in the October dawn, I approach Cervino, the Matter-horn, the royal mountain. Born at its feet, I decided, at an early age, to live on and for this peak. It has always been there, dominating the surroundings, shaping my life. Watching me.

Glaciers created the Matter-horn's four sharp corners, eroding away several cirques to leave a perfect pyramid. These four walls dominate Valtournenche and Breuil on the Italian side, Vallese and Zermatt on the Swiss. I grew up in Valtour-nenche to the clinking of pins and gear, to the sound of my father preparing to try a new route, to my uncle's fairytales about climbers living out their quests on its sides. Everyone in Valtournenche is linked to the mountain's presence—to its history, its guides, its alpinists and their great ascents. Gaston Rebuffat called it a "cloud of rocks held together by ice." It inevitably marks our lives.

As a young man, I lived entirely off the mountain, becoming a guide, an alpinist, a ski and snowboard instructor, a mountain photographer. In the end, I simply started a dare with it, my lifelong friend: that I would leave my own impression on its walls, as it has done on me.

The Unclimbable Mountain

Without other nearby peaks to distract from its austere, crystalline form, the Matterhorn is incomparable, an icon of beauty and seeming unattainability. In the collective imagination, in Europe, it symbolizes all mountains. Rebuffat described such unconscious dreams in Men and the Matterhorn: "I... had never been outside my native Provence; and yet... I knew the Matterhorn.... At school ... when the master [said], 'Now, draw ... a mountain,' all of us, without knowing or intending it, would draw Matterhorns." It's not surprising that this archetype would attract innumerable climbers, and in the process of their attempts, failures and successes become a deeply layered palimpsest of climbing history, cultural obsession and alpine dreams.

In 1789 Horace Benedict de Saussure, an early Alpine explorer, named the mountain's "triangular obelisk" "the most beautiful sight in the region." But when he finished its first trigonometric measurement in 1792, he judged it unclimbable.

By 1857 equipment and technical levels were in a state of continual evolution: alpenstocks were yielding to long-handled ice axes and early forms of crampons had been introduced (although many climbers either considered them "artificial aid" or did not yet trust them for difficult routes). The Alpine Club was founded that year, in London, with eighty members, and its exploits began attracting public interest. Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, had been conquered nearly eighty years before. But while some explorers' attentions had shifted to bigger ranges such as the Himalaya and the Karakoram, there remained a last great problem in Europe: the Matterhorn.

Jean-Antoine Carrel ("The Sharpshooter"), a Valtournenche hunter and guide, and the first to attempt the Matterhorn. Though Edward Whymper beat him to the summit, Carrel restored the honor of Valtournenche by climbing the peak two days later, via the southwest ridge, a route known today as the Lion Ridge. [Photo] Alessandro Beltrami

Jean-Antoine Carrel, "Il Bersagliere" ("The Sharpshooter"), a Valtournenche hunter in his thirties, was the first to try it. He made his initial attempts, with his brother Jean-Jacques and the pastor Aime Gorret, along the southwest ridge as early as 1857. By 1858 he had repeatedly reached 3960 meters, near where the Luigi Amedeo and Carrel huts now stand, when Edward Whymper arrived in town.

Whymper was an ambitious English climber, already famous at age twenty for difficult first ascents in the Alps. When he got to Valtournenche he asked several people to recommend a guide for the Matterhorn. The response was always the same: Jean-Antoine Carrel.

Edward Whymper, the young English climber who made the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Four of Whymper's companions died during the descent, and Whymper would finish his book, Scrambles Amongst the Alps, with the climbing world's most famous cautionary words: "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." [Photo] Courtesy Herve Barmasse

In Scrambles Amongst the Alps, Whymper depicts Carrel as "the only first-rate climber I could find who believed that the Matterhorn was not inaccessible. With him, I had hopes, but without him, none...." Carrel was rough, deliberate, courageous, with a resolute and somewhat aloof demeanor, and unequalled climbing skill. Many said that he was the one guide who never got lost. The two made a number of attempts on the peak, employing ingenious tools, such as a prototype of today's skyhook.

Their rapport was not always idyllic. The Italian complained of the Englishman's snobbery, and Carrel made several more attempts on his own, eventually forming secret arrangements in 1865 with the distinguished Sella family, who had founded the Club Alpino Italiano two years earlier, to climb the peak. Imagine Whymper's surprise and rage when he got to Breuil in the first week of July 1865 to rejoin his guide and discovered his separate plans!

Whymper rushed back to Zermatt, where he gathered his trusted Chamonix guide, Michel Croz; his fellow countryman Lord Francis Douglas; Douglas' father-and-son guides, Peter and Peter Taugwalder; the Reverend Charles Hudson (first ascensionist of the Punta Dafour, the highest peak of Monte Rosa) and Robert Hadow. The party immediately embarked for the northeast ridge on the Swiss side.

Never before attempted, the northeast ridge had always seemed inaccessible, perhaps because of an error in perspective. From up close, however, it revealed itself to be much easier than the southwest ridge, and the decision to switch would prove key to Whymper's success.

On July 13 the seven men left Zermatt and bivouacked above the base of the northeast ridge at about 3360 meters. The next day they set out again at dawn, encountering serious difficulties only on the summit pitches. Around 1:40 p.m. they became the first to tread the Matterhorn's summit (4478m).

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.