The 14th of July is National Day in France. This is why I heard some fireworks going off about an hour ago from the window of my study (it is a warm night here – 24 degrees Celsius at 11pm – and our flat overlooks Lausanne and Lake Léman with the famous spa town of Evian just opposite us). In this country, the 14th of July of this year marks the hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of the first ascent of this icon of Switzerland, the Matterhorn (or Cervin in French – French and German are spoken in Valais/Wallis – and Cervino in Italian – one side of the mountain is in Italy).
As was to be expected, the commune of Zermatt has put on some celebrations to mark this anniversary (the mountain resort nestled almost at the foot of this most iconic mountain owes much of its fame – and riches with 1.2 million night stays in 2014 – to that horn which seems to tower almost ominously above what is now a small town). On 14th July 1865, the very first descent from the summit was marred by a tragedy that left a deep impression on nineteenth century Europe (for instance, I read somewhere that Queen Victoria of England even considered issuing a decree that would have banned her subjects from taking part in mountain climbing in the Alps): the least experienced of the three English climbers slipped and thus caused two of his fellow countrymen plus the team’s French guide to slip too; unfortunately, the rope that tied them to the other members of the team broke and the four were sent to their deaths. The ‘conqueror’ of the Matterhorn, the English illustrator turned mountain climber Edward Whymper, and the two Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder father and son, were thus the only survivors of the very first team to have made it to the top of the Matterhorn.
I also read somewhere that nobody would be allowed to climb the mountain today in respect of the people who died 150 years ago. An even greater tragedy is that, probably because of its iconic status, the Matterhorn draws thousands of mountain climbers each summer and that some die on the mountain every ‘climbing season’; over the years that separate us from the very first ascent, 150 years ago, as many as 500 have died on the Swiss side and some 200 on the Italian side (source: Swissinfo). The Matterhorn is, and this by a long shot, Switzerland’s deadliest mountain – the deadliest in Europe being Mont Blanc with well over 4,000 climbers killed there so far. It is so sad to think of all these deaths; however, we easily forget that mountains are dangerous places and that a moment of inattention can be lethal, whatever the height or steepness of the mountain we are climbing or descending.
- ‘150th anniversary: an iconic mountain and a broken rope bind a family legacy’, John Heilprin and Carlo Pisani for Swissinfo
- ‘The market value of a myth’, Swissinfo, 14th July 2015
- ‘The first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865’, Richard Nelsson, The Guardian, 14th July 2015
- ‘Exclusive guiding scene guards a celebrated brand’, John Heilprin, Swissinfo, 10th July 2015
- ‘150 years on, Matterhorn guides’ family stake claim in history’, Jo Fahy, Swissinfo, 9th July 2015
- ‘La montagne qui tue le plus en Suisse’ in http://cervin.24heures.ch (in French)
- ‘Autumn run near Zermatt – part II’ (post on this blog)
Postscript (15th July)
However, there is no doubt that for those upon whom Mont Cervin (why not use the French name for once) has cast its spell, it must be hard to resist the ‘call’ of that mountain because this huge alpine rock is simply B E A U T I F U L, as this clip by Christian Mülhauser, presented at a festival of mountain films two years ago (http://www.fifad.ch/portfolio/the-peak), will demonstrate: