The 14th July 1865 is a day marked in mountaineering folklore.
Exactly 150 years ago to the day saw the first ascent of the iconic Matterhorn mountain in Switzerland. A conquering of one of the most iconic famous peaks in the world, and the last great Alpine peak to be climbed. The ascent that alpine summer, led by Edward Whymper, saw the young Englishman and six others successfully reach the summit of the great peak for the first time. During the long descent back down into Zermatt in the valley below, a fatal accident saw the untimely deaths of four of the group; a slip from a group member, Douglas Hadow followed by a rope breaking between the fourth and fifth members of the party saw Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, Hadow and Michel Croz, slipping off the ridge, and their bodies falling into the abyss below.
The frayed ends of the rope can be seen in the Mattherhorn museum in the centre of Zermatt. An unremarkable broken piece of twisted material, it’s modesty belies the tragic history and story behind it – namely the lure of the famous mountain visible from the door of the museum. The Matterhorn looms over, dominating the views, its famous triangular dimensions visible across the town and valley beyond.
In the summer of 2014, I visited Zermatt and took a trip on the Gornergrat mountain railway for an incredible view across the valley towards the Matterhorn, and surrounded by a panoramic view of high alpine peaks, and a sea of ice far below.
Opened in 1898, this steep mountain railway leaves the centre of Zermatt and winds up to the summit of Gornergrat, over 3,000 metres high.
There are five stations after Zermatt, each progressively higher as the railway climbs ever higher above the tree line and into the clouds.
We rode the train to the terminus at Gornergrat. The final stretches of the railway snake into the station over a rocky ridge.
Beyond the station, and behind the summit hotel, lies a large viewing platform where, on a clear day, you can stare in awe at the surroundings. During our visit, this area was extremely busy, packed with tourists blindly taking selfies against a white, cloudy background.
From our map, we could see the dotted line of a path leaving the viewing platform, and followed this, away from the crowds and headed along the rocky ridge. This path drops away to the valley below, and loops back around to Riffelberg station, where we could rejoin the railway descending back down to Zermatt. Within seconds, we were away from the crowds and the clouds – we had the amazing views of the Gorner glacier all to ourselves.
Our walk was constantly delayed as we kept pausing to look at the incredible sea of ice beneath us.
Shortly after, we turned a corner to be met with the unmistakable sight the Matterhorn. Partly obscured by cloud on this summers day, the towering beacon of rock is unmissable even when partly obscured.
What a sight it must be on a clear day, looming over the valley below for all to see. The picture below is from http://www.zermatt.ch/, and not from our trip. Mountains, clear blue sky. No better combination! I adore the Alps in the summer months, although a view like this one of the Matterhorn may have to wait until the next trip!
Some 150 years ago, it must have been such a sight for Whymper and his fated friends, setting off of their attempt of the summit, knowing that no-one had reached the pinnacle previously. As we descended by train back to Zermatt below, it was impossible to not glance up at the mountain across the way, both in wonder and also to turn a thought for those who did not return.
The graves of some of the climbers from the 1865 trip, along with many others, can be found in the mountaineers graveyard in Zermatt. Tucked away a quiet space near the little church at the centre of the town, the area is a final resting place for those who lost their lives in pursuit of a dream.