The Matterhorn’s Fatal Attraction
Few mountains have exerted such a magnetic attraction as the Matterhorn, the 14,690-foot-high crag that is as much a symbol of Switzerland as the Eiffel Tower is of France. But as any visitor to the “Climber’s Cemetery” in Zermatt can attest, the mountain’s allure can have deadly consequences.
Over 500 alpinists have lost their lives on the Matterhorn in the last 150 years. The peak first began to mesmerize climbers in the 1850s, when the English were pioneering the sport of mountaineering. In 1861, a 20-year-old magazine illustrator named Edward Whymper started trying to tackle the Matterhorn’s southwestern face, attempting eight times without success. In 1865, Whymper changed tactics, deciding to try the mountain’s famous eastern face, which looks like a sheer cliff to the naked eye. On July 13, he set off with a team of seven, including three English friends and three guides. After a punishing climb, the group made it to the summit on the morning of the 14th, beating a rival Italian group by a few days. But then disaster struck. On the descent, one of the safety ropes broke and four men plunged to their deaths. Only Whymper and two Swiss guides. The Times of London denounced all mountaineers as “dilettantes of suicide,” and Queen Victoria considered banning British citizens from climbing.
Later in life, Whymper went on to many other famous climbing successes, from South America to Greenland, but he was forever haunted by the deadly Matterhorn. Today, despite the danger, hundreds of climbers every year try to emulate Whymper’s 1865 success by conquering the astonishing peak.