Zermatt, Switzerland is a small Alpine farming town at the base of the Matterhorn that turned into a major tourist destination after 1865. That year, which marks the end of the Civil War in the United States, also marks the end of the “Golden Age of Mountaineering and Alpinism” in Europe. On July 14 of that year, the Matterhorn — the great, lone standing Toblerone chocolate summit — was reached by a group of mostly novice mountain climbers, and the great expeditions and competitions to reach its peak “first” were complete.
Today in Zermatt there is a museum commemorating that first expedition and daily life in the Alpine towns of that time. They call it “Zermatlantis” because of its construction almost entirely underground and it advertises, hauntingly, the infamous “Broken Rope” from the accident of the first expedition.
The story is as haunting and shocking and mysterious as advertised.
It goes like this: on that first expedition seven men, ages 18 to 45, started climbing up the side of the mountain from Zermatt on the morning of July 13. It was a group of four English tourists, Douglas Robert Hadow, Lord Francis Douglas, the Reverend Charles Hudson, and the famous mountaineer and explorer Edward Whymper. The group was led by three guides, the Swiss-German native to Zermatt Peter Taugwalder Sr., his son of the same name, and the French mountaineer Michel Auguste Croz.
The seven-member party spent the night at a base camp on the mountain and continued the hike the next morning on July 14. The group became the first to summit the Matterhorn at about 1:40 PM that afternoon. On the descent back down the side of the mountain, Douglas Hadow, nineteen years old at the time and an extremely inexperienced climber, slipped and fell into Michel Croz in front of him, and because they were all attached to a single rope, the weight of Michel and Hadow pulled Douglas and Hudson down as well.
Peter Taugwalder Sr., a very experienced Alpine climber, saw what happened and immediately looped the rope around a rock, hoping to stop the momentum of the four falling men. The rope, however, was extremely frail — a far cry from the industrial ropes and cables we use for mountain climbing today — and broke halfway between Taugwalder and Reverend Hudson. The four men — Croz, Hadow, Douglas, and Hudson — toppled down the mountain, disappearing into the clouds, and landing dead on the glacier over 300 meters below.
The three remaining men finished the descent. When Edward Whymper published the story in London a few days later, the British Empire is shocked and frenzied in a national outrage. The families of the dead men are caught up in a whirlwind of media hounding for their reactions. There is even a push for Queen Victoria to ban mountaineering for British citizens. (This, of course, does not pass.). But there was another unintended side effect of this tragedy: by the end of the century, Zermatt goes from a sleepy, remote mountain town to almost the complete tourist destination that it is today.
There were several other significant factors, besides the tragedy itself, that led to this happening. For a know-nothing town to become significant on an international scale, it requires more than one sensational event. Several factors of daily life, sometimes centuries old, must line up perfectly with the trajectory of the contemporary circumstances. This was certainly the case with Zermatt.
The first factor is that Zermatt is a very Catholic town and that matters. In 1865, the peoples’ devout Catholicism affected every aspect of their daily lives, so much so that the search party wouldn’t go out to look for the four bodies the following day (June 15) because it was a Sunday and they feared excommunication if they missed mass. (This is partly why I believe the body of Douglas was never recovered, although very mysteriously we have his shoe and his belt. It is my theory that he didn’t die when he hit the glacier, but perhaps detached himself from the rope and wandered in search of help, dying of exposure later.)
The second factor is that the only published account of the accident is that of Whymper, and that is the case for the same reason that Zermatt remains Catholic. Protestantism and the Protestant Reformation is a direct result of the impact of the printing press (in fact, that has been the point of this entire study abroad trip) — that is, the ideas of the church reformers were widely distributed as a result of the ability to mass produce the printed word.
This is evident geographically: towns in Germany and Switzerland that had printing presses after about 1520 are almost always protestant, whereas those that didn’t are almost always Catholic. A remote mountain town like Zermatt would never have gotten a printing press nor had immediate access to one. But there is something else that accompanies the presence of a printing press in Reformation Era Europe: access to literacy. The ability to have more books demands the ability for more people to be able to read them. In a remote town with no access to more printed books, people were taught to read the family Bible from their parents and grandparents, which resulted in exceptionally low literacy rates.
Edward Whymper was responsible for most of the major advances in mountain climbing and navigation in the mid-nineteenth century. He published journals on how to use new mountaineering and exploration technologies, did famous sketches of various Alpine and Andean expeditions he led, and discovered historically significant portions of the Alps, like Roman trade routes he identified from various coins found in mountain passes.
But he was also a British colonialist, which taints his achievements with a lack of respect for the cultures they impacted. After the tragedy of the first expedition, his account sensationalized the story (in his report, Whymper speaks of seeing a “strange weather phenomenon” before the descent that strongly resembled three crosses arched across the sky) and painted the other two living guides, Peter Taugwalder Sr. and his son, in a very unflattering light. Peter Taugwalder Sr. was blamed and put on trial in the United Kingdom for having cut the rope between him and Hudson in order to save himself out of cowardice.
This, however, was impossible and he was eventually acquitted. Curiously, Taugwalder Sr. never wrote or spoke out in defense of himself, and he was chastised for this by his son. But of course he never wrote in his own defense! In a town that never received a printing press, a local farmer and mountaineer from the heart of the Swiss Alps who spoke only German was not literate! Peter Taugwalder couldn’t write, and he paid for it.
As a result, the story — highly sensationalized by Whymper — is propagated in the United Kingdom, and tourists flock to Zermatt to live the thrill of the story of the Matterhorn summit. It’s not until the early 20th century, 12 years after Whymper’s death, that Peter Taugwalder, Jr. wrote his account of what happened on the mountain on July 14, 1865 (in which he claims he never saw the three crosses Whymper describes) in support of his father’s bravery.
Zermatt has an interesting place in a historical moment, where it is possible to observe the clash of a society that lacks a world-changing technology with a society that has that technology. So what happens when your society doesn’t get a printing press? Well, Zermatt teaches us that you get run over by the societies that did.