“Seven Went Up, Only Three Came Down”: How The Unsolved Mystery Of The Matterhorn Keeps Our Fascination Alive
150 years since the infamous first ascent, we paid a visit to the world's most iconic mountain.
Words by Jack Clayton | Photos by Jack Clayton
Roger Federer, Martina Hingis, Stanislas Warwinka, Xherdan Shaqiri, cuckoo clocks, hole-ridden cheese, Lindt Lindor chocolate balls, CERN HQ, fondue, that flag with a plus sign, steadfast neutrality, four official languages, a private banking system, Sepp Blatter, multi-purpose knives; with all that going on, it can be easy to forget that Switzerland is also responsible for some of the world’s most spectacular lakes and mountains.
...in the years leading up to the first successful ascent, the Matterhorn was thought by many to be unconquerable.
None of these said mountains, as far as Mpora is concerned, is more spectacular than the Matterhorn. The mountain, which should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever binged themselves silly on that gift-from-the-gods more commonly known as Toblerone, could not be more iconic if it tried. When it’s not staring out at you from chocolate packaging, it’s busy being the most photographed oversized-hill in the entire world and Switzerland’s most famous landmark.
We recently visited the nearby-town of Zermatt to bask in the mountain’s glow, and celebrate 150 years since the first ascent. If you're not familiar with the story of the first ascent, here's a brief synopsis of a genuinely legendary moment in alpine history.
On the 14th of July, 1865, the Englishman Edward Whymper was part of a seven-man climbing group that reached the summit and, in doing so, changed the history of mountaineering forever. The other six members of the team were Lord Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, Douglas Hadow, Michel Croz, and a father-son pairing from Zermatt - both called Peter Taugwalder. At the time, and in the years leading up to the first successful ascent, the Matterhorn was thought by many to be unconquerable.
This part of the story then, the bit that focuses primarily on the group's incredible achievement, paints Whymper and his team as a band of Victorian magicians who made the seemingly-impossible possible. However, like so many of the most memorable moments in history, it was a tragedy that immortalised the story and made it echo down through the ages.
...it was a tragedy that immortalised the story and made it echo down through the ages.
The exact details of what happened during the descent are still a matter of conjecture, but what is known for absolute certainty is that seven went up the mountain and only three came back down it alive.
The basic outline states that Douglas Hadow, a novice mountaineer by all accounts, slipped and fell into the French guide Michel Croz. Hudson and Douglas were unprepared for this and went down with them. The rope that was connecting them to Whymper and Taugwalder snapped, and the four men who had fallen were killed.
Was foul play involved? Did the supposedly-arrogant Whymper cut himself free from the rope on the way up so he could be the first to stand at the summit? Thus forcing the group to use a thinner, and less safe, rope on the way back down. Or was it all just a tragic accident, that has morphed into something sensationalist via the passages of time?
What becomes abundantly clear, if you spend anytime in Zermatt, is that everyone associated to the mountain has a theory about what happened on that fateful day. People’s ideas vary massively, depending on who you ask, and there just isn't a clear-cut explanation for what actually happened. All the local population have their ideas, however, and will happily fill up your ears with them if you give them half a chance.
At one point during the trip, a nice old Swiss lady discovers I’m English and apologises multiple times because her theory paints Whymper as an arrogant and selfish man whose rash actions caused the deaths of his fellow climbers. When I point out that Whymper is no relative of mine, and that her theory has caused me no offence whatsoever (despite our shared Englishness), she smiles and thanks me for always giving Switzerland twelve points at Eurovision. Naturally, I decide to take full-credit for this.
...what is known for absolute certainty is that seven went up the mountain and only three came back down it alive.
But we’re not just here for a history lesson, to revel in the suspicions of nice old Swiss ladies, and to cement Eurovision Song Contest relations. Mpora is, of course, all about the soul-stirring spirit of action and adventure. With this in mind, we just couldn’t have gone all that way and then missed out on the chance to don our walking boots and go hiking in this truly awe-inspiring environment.
On our first full-day in Zermatt, and with a mild hangover lingering upon the party, our friendly Swiss guide Fabienne takes us to the top of Europe's highest viewing platform via gondola and cable car. As you can imagine, for those of us who drank too much the night before, the fact that we don’t have to walk to the viewing platform, which is 3883 metres above sea level, comes as somewhat of a relief to the group.
If Belinda Carlisle is to be believed and Heaven really is a “place on earth," it’s here in the mountains of Switzerland.
The views from up here are some of the most amazing I’ve ever laid witness to. The Matterhorn stands before us like an Athenian Titan, and with the Breithorn over on our right also looking like the absolute business I have to quietly pinch myself just to make sure these views are actually real and not some figment of my imagination.
When taking in something like this, from such a captivating viewpoint, it's difficult to believe that only 48 hours earlier I was neck-deep in the hustle and bustle of London Town. There’s a lot to be said for what our capital city has to offer, if you ignore the overpriced housing and the air-pollution, but nowhere within its cluttered geography will you find a spectacle quite as impressive as this. If Belinda Carlisle is to be believed and Heaven really is a “place on earth," it’s here in the mountains of Switzerland.
...it's difficult to believe that only 48 hours earlier I was neck-deep in the hustle and bustle of London Town.
After soaking up every last drop of the 360º panoramic juice, and a view that incorporates an incredible thirty-eight 4,000 metre peaks, we head down into the Glacier Palace where we’re confronted with something straight out of the ‘Chronicle Of Narnia’ pages. The Palace itself is filled with wonderful ice sculptures, and a surprisingly fun slide (also made from ice). If you’ve always fancied sitting on a frosty throne and proclaiming yourself “King of the Mountain," that is also an option.
We finish exploring the magical ice kingdom, moments before our hands succumb to frostbite, leave the Glacier Palace and make our way back down the mountain. After forking out on a new pair of hiking boots before the trip, they finally get put to good use here. The gondola takes us to a walkable distance from Zermatt, and we let our feet do the rest. Weaving quietly through the trees like a band of wood-elves, it’s hard to emphasise just how peaceful this place can be.
Of course, this being a luxurious part of Switzerland we don’t exactly go feral and, in fact, stop off for an extremely nice lunch on the way. With Rösti on the menu, it’s not a difficult choice in the slightest. After polishing it off, and eating everything but the plate, we hike back to our hotel and prepare for the evening’s entertainment.
The Matterhorn Story is a play, performed in a stunning open-air theatre at Riffelberg, that retells the events leading up to the first ascent as well as the tragic aftermath that followed it. With characters switching between German, Swiss German, and English it can be be difficult to follow exactly what is happening if you’re not versed in multiple languages. The actors do convey a real sense of feeling throughout, however, and the breathtaking view of the Matterhorn standing in the background alone, against a setting sun, is worth selling your kidneys for.
After spending another night at the magnificent Monte Rosa Hotel, which incidentally was the starting point for Edward Whymper and his assault on the Matterhorn, we begin the day by heading up the Rothorn (3,103 metres). Everywhere you go in Switzerland it would seem that you’re confronted by spectacular scenery, and this place proves to be no exception. I take more photos than I now know what to do with, and watch a paraglider launch himself into the achingly beautiful valley below.
Next up, is a gourmet hike. This, as the name suggests, is an applaud-worthy combination of fine dining and mild exercise. It’s basically a lad’s bar crawl, minus the laddishness and with less on emphasis getting absolutely hammered. It’s a great way of seeing the sights, as well as satisfying the appetite you inevitably build up during the walking parts.
As we make our way down the mountain, and to the first food spot, our guide Fabienne leads us to a stunning lake that beautifully reflects the environment around it. Predictably, I manage to find a rock suitable for standing on and lark about childishly; making a variety of “classic" mountaineering postures, both heroic and stupid in equal measure. Is Switzerland ready for this particular brand of Mpora comedy? It's difficult to say, due to the fact that there's hardly anyone around (this is a good thing).
...the breathtaking view of the Matterhorn standing in the background alone, against a setting sun, is worth selling your kidneys for.
After I’ve finished dicking around by the exceedingly picturesque lake, we do about 30 minutes more of gentle strolling before coming to our first restaurant of the day. And so begins a thoroughly enjoyable pattern that spreads across the afternoon: we eat, we walk, we eat, we walk, we eat, we have some laughs, we walk some more, and then we eat some more. If you like hiking and eating your own body weight in food, and just can’t decide which of those activities you like more, this traditional Swiss pastime will be right up your street.
The final stretch of the hike, between our last restaurant-stop and Zermatt, offers up some of the most gorgeous views of the entire trip. At one point we’re informed that the particular path we’re on is, due to its gentle difficulty level, actually named after the Swiss German term for pensioners. And while I’m not yet at retirement age, and slightly concerned by how difficult I’m finding a supposedly easy walking segment, I do feel like I could sit down on a boulder and happily grow old in these surroundings.
We round off our time in Zermatt with dinner (yes, more food) at a Japanese place called Myoko. Knife-juggling, hell-fire, and the gnarliest egg chopping you will ever see; it’s all here. If you’ve ever wanted to nearly have your eyebrows burned off, or watch a man almost cut his finger off, you must go here. Without wanting to sound too much like Giles Coren here, the grub is also exquisite.
Places like Zermatt are so far removed from the UK, in terms of scenery and lifestyle, they might as well be on another planet. When you first see a herd of goats getting guided through the town, for example, led by a group of goat-herding children no less you know once and for all that you’re not in Kansas anymore. By the end of our stay here, we’re so used to the goats that we’ve privately given all of them names and have firmly established which goats are our favourites.
Escaping to Zermatt and seeing this mountain for yourself, whether it be in summer or winter, is like travelling into your very own illustrated storybook.
There’s just something about this place, and the Matterhorn in particular, that magnetises eyeballs towards it and keeps people coming back for more. Hooked on one side like the nose of a villainous pirate, and practically vertical on the other, the mountain really is an absolute vision. The first time you lay eyes on it, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed by it. You’ll express feelings you didn’t know a mountain could instigate within you, and when it’s finally time to say goodbye to it you’ll feel it tattooing itself upon your heart forever.
As Polish mountaineer and fellow journalist Łukasz Ziółkowski puts it, “(The Matterhorn)...looks like the kind of mountain you draw as a kid." Of course that’s not to say the Matterhorn is child’s play, or that it’s covered in various shades of finger paint, more that it encompasses all of the ideas we form about mountains when we’re young. Escaping to Zermatt and seeing this mountain for yourself, whether it be in summer or winter, is like travelling into your very own illustrated storybook.
You’ll express feelings you didn’t know a mountain could instigate within you, and when it’s finally time to say goodbye to it you’ll feel it tattooing itself upon your heart forever.
The only thing you can’t escape in Zermatt is the Matterhorn itself. Everywhere you look, it’s there. In shop windows, on local artwork, and towering over the town like a mountain-shaped Gulliver morning, noon, and night. That’s not a criticism of Zermatt, of course. In fact, it’s exactly what makes this tiny village in Switzerland one of the most special places on earth. Built in the shadow of one of the world’s, and arguably the solar system’s, greatest landmarks; the destinies of Zermatt and the Matterhorn are so wrapped within one another now that they effectively live and breathe as one
The village of Zermatt is about a three to four hour train ride from Zurich. It really is a beautiful rail route, taking in some of the loveliest and most ‘postcard-esque’ views you could ever hope to see from the comfort of a train carriage. One minute I’ve got my head in a book, the next I’m pressing my face up against the window like a kid outside a candy store; refusing to pick my book backup in case I should miss something. The fact that the scenery did this to me both on the outward journey and the return, speaks volumes of the Swiss landscape and its power to engross.
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