Troubled mountaineer was first to scale the Matterhorn
“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.”
Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps, 1871
A hundred years after his death, the mountaineer Edward Whymper (1840 - 1911) is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 82 Waldegrave Road, Teddington; his final home and the only one he ever owned. The plaque will be unveiled at 12 noon on 16th September by Mick Fowler, mountaineer and current President of the Alpine Club, of which Whymper was a prominent member.
Probably the best-known climber of the so-called Golden Age of British mountaineering of the 1850s and 60s, Whymper was the driving force behind the first ascent of the Matterhorn. However, four of the seven-man party lost their lives on the way down the mountain, a triumph and tragedy that cast a shadow over the rest of his life. Born in Lambeth and a wood engraver and illustrator by trade, Whymper first travelled to Switzerland in 1860 on a commission from a publisher to make sketches of Alpine scenes. He became interested in the new pursuit of mountaineering, then regarded as an ‘extreme sport’, and in 1865, after eight attempts, he finally reached the summit of the Matterhorn. Whymper’s party reached the peak a couple of days before a rival Italian expedition; along with the French guide Michel Croz, he himself was the first to reach the actual summit.
Tragedy hit the expedition on the way down to their base at Zermatt; the most inexperienced climber, Douglas Hadow, lost his footing and took three other men with him to their deaths after a climbing rope snapped. Croz was among the fatalities, as were Lord Francis Douglas and the Reverend Charles Hudson; these were not, as The Times put it, “common men” and the disaster raised a storm in England amid rumours of sabotage and rope cutting. Whymper faced much criticism for pursuing such a dangerous pastime; indeed Queen Victoria suggested to Gladstone that mountaineering ought to be outlawed.
Whymper rarely climbed in the Alps again, although he visited the area regularly, and in 1871 he published a book documenting his expedition on the Matterhorn, Scrambles amongst the Alps, which remains in print today. He was a member of the Alpine Club for 50 years and served as its Vice President (1872 – 74). Whymper was also much in demand as a lecturer; being socially ambitious, he would sometimes ask his nephew to sit in the audience and alert him to dropped aitches by snapping his fingers. He was a skilled photographer and in later life used his own lantern slides to illustrate his lectures. He took part in many scientific expeditions to far flung places, including Greenland, the Rockies and the Andes; Whymper made the first recorded ascents of the Ecuadorian peaks Chimborazo and Cotopaxi – on the latter, a live volcano, he set a new record for the highest altitude overnight camp.
By nature, Whymper was a solitary man, but he enjoyed a close relationship with the philanthropist and traveller Charlotte Hanbury that ended in her death in 1900. Six years later he married Edith Levin, the niece of his Southend landlady, who was some forty-five years his junior. They moved to the house in Teddington and had a daughter called Ethel, who also became a mountaineer, but separated in 1910; Whymper accused his estranged wife of gold digging. His choice of a wedding gift to her, an ice axe, perhaps hinted at the likely success of the union.
Howard Spencer, English Heritage blue plaque historian said: “Whymper stands among the most prominent of early English mountaineers. A solitary man, he was more at home among the inhospitable peaks of the Alps than in the company of others, and the Matterhorn tragedy only exacerbated his tendency to morose introspection. Yet he deserves to be remembered for being the first to plot a successful route up a peak long thought to be an impossible climb, and for inspiring many other similarly brave endeavours.”
Mike Fowler, President of the Alpine Society said: “The Matterhorn is without doubt one of the most spectacular and readily recognised mountains in the Alps. Whymper’s ascent of this outstanding peak has gone down in history as one of the most audacious but tragic first ascents of the golden Victorian era.”