Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/June 1913/Edward Whymper: Alpinist of the Heroic Age

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By Professor B. E. YOUNG


ON September 16, 1911, there died suddenly at Chamonix, France, a man who made a most unusual figure in his specialty. Most of us must have thought of Edward Whymper as long since dead and gone to the limbo of travelers, for he did his work a generation ago, reached his fame and enjoyed it, and had lately been forgotten, in the general commercialization of sports that has taken place in the last two decades.

Any one who has sojourned in the Alpine region for any length of time has been struck with the enormous number of tourists and sportsmen visiting this chief playground of the nations, and with the extraordinary perfection of the system of taking care of them and meeting their every whim. There are few centers, even the small ones, without their Club Alpin. It was not so when Whymper went to the Alps on a professional errand in 1860 and began his career as a climber.

By neither heredity nor environment did Whymper come by his mountaineering. Born in London, April 27, 1840, he was the son of an artist and engraver on wood, who gave him a good education at Clarendon House School and by private tutor, and then trained him carefully and with excellent results in his own profession. By 1860 young Whymper had become an artist of sufficient ability to be sent to Switzerland by a London publisher to make some sketches of the great Alpine peaks, and more particularly to prepare some illustrations which were intended to celebrate the triumph of an English party, headed by Professor Bonney, who intended to make the ascent of Mont Pelvoux in Dauphiny. Whymper states that at this time he had only a literary acquaintance with mountaineering, and had not even seen, much less set foot upon, a mountain. The party of distinguished Englishmen failed in their attempt to conquer this virgin mountain. A very agreeable Frenchman, who accompanied the party, was charmed with Whymper, and begged him to return with him to the assault. In 1861 he did so, and with his friend made the first ascent of Mont Pelvoux; thus was he infected with the love of high places!

In 1861, Edward Whymper found in the Alps none of the modern machinery of mountaineering; there were no railroads to the top of Jungfrau; no railings on the Matterhorn and no hotels on the Mer de Glace; travel was slow, mostly on foot, or by the unreliable diligence, which took a traveler only to the foot of the lower valleys. Although De Saussure, the Swiss pioneer, had done his work on Mont Blanc as early as 1787, he had had so few successors that he seemed almost a contemporary. Professional guides were few, not especially experienced or adventurous when new territory was contemplated, so that we must not be astonished to find that Whymper, Tyndall, Forbes, Kennedy, Sir Alfred Wills, Sir Leslie Stephen sometimes dispensed with guides or used them more as porters or servants than as advisers.

It was the heroic age of Alpinism. The vast flood of development and facilitation—vulgarization, let us say—did not come until the seventies or eighties. Almost every ascent was a geographical achievement, accomplished by the bitterest toil. The early sixties were a school in which were educated some of the great climbers and explorers of the nineteenth century.

Having learned his first lesson on the Pelvoux, Whymper dallied for no further lessons, but attacked the Matterhorn at once, in his vacation of 1861. The Matterhorn was then the last great Alpine peak that remained unsealed; less on account of the difficulty of the feat than by the doubt inspired by the invincible appearance of the mountain. It was regarded with terror by the climbers and with affrighted superstition by the natives. Even to-day it is dreadfully impressive to the casual tourist; it never seems commonplace and stands almost alone among mountains. It still has no rivals in the Alps for difficulty, and but few in the world.

To-day it is curious to read of Whymper's fruitless searchings here and there to find guides for the Matterhorn. There was apparently only one man in the Swiss valleys who believed that the mountain could be ascended, and that was Jean-Antoine Carrel, destined later to become the most famous of guides. With him Whymper made his first attack upon the peak, in August, 1861. One other guide, J.-J. Carrel, accompanied them. They failed, but learned valuable lessons. Similar attempts were made in 1862 and 1863 without success, but all the time Whymper was making marvelous progress as a scientific mountaineer.

Whymper's impatience with his guides led him in 1862 to make another attempt on the mountain alone. Many of us read in our first readers the story of his solitary scramble on the Col du Lion, terminating in a terrific fall down an ice slope. Here he was saved only by a hair from a fall on to the Glacier du Lion, a thousand feet below. This early experience seems to have been a valuable one for him.

In 1864 Whymper turned aside from the Matterhorn to make what seems to the writer one of his chief feats—the ascent of the Pointe des Ècrins. This is the highest of the French Alps, and in 1864 was still unconquered. It is an exceedingly steep and smooth tooth of rock. It was one of the severest climbs that Whymper ever had in his career, full of peril and physical suffering. The party reached the summit by the glacier of the Ancula. Bead again Whymper's description of this glacier:

Imagine a triangular plane 700 or 800 feet high, set at an angle exceeding 50 degrees; let it be smooth, glassy; let the uppermost edges be cut into spikes and teeth, and let them be bent some one way, some another. Let the glassy face be covered with minute fragments of rock, scarcely attached, but varnished with ice. Imagine this, and then you will have a very faint idea of the face of the Ecrins, on which we stood. It was not possible to avoid detaching stones, which, as they fell, caused words unmentionable to rise. The greatest friends would have reviled each other in such a situation.

A few days afterward he climbed the Aiguille VeTte, a considerable feat in itself, though "Whymper, in his modesty, makes little of it. This was the first of the great Chamonix Aiguilles to be ascended.

It was not until his eighth attempt on the 13th of July, 1865, that Whymper finally attained the summit of the Matterhorn. He left Zermatt at 5:30 in the morning with three guides, Michel-Auguste Croz, whom Whymper loved as a brother, old Peter and young Peter Taugwalder, Lord Francis Douglas, the Rev. Charles Hudson and Mr. Hadow, a young man of nineteen. After long study, Whymper had rejected the usual route up the Matterhorn by the southwest or Italian ridge. Professor John Tyndall and he, in their fruitless emulation of each other, had stuck to this traditional route. Mr. Whymper now determined to try the eastern face, convinced, as he says, that its almost perpendicular appearance from Zermatt was an optical illusion and that the dip of the strata, which on the Italian side formed a continuous series of over-hangs—"ghastly precipices"—on the opposite side would become a great natural staircase with steps inclining inward. This apparently trivial deduction was the key to the ascent of the Matterhorn, and this route has since become the usual one.

All readers of adventure are familiar with this ascent. Sleeping over-night on the mountain, they reached the summit, with severe rockwork just before the finish. On the descent, however, came what is perhaps the most sensational accident, everything considered, in the history of mountain climbing. Let us quote Whymper's own words:

A few minutes later (that is, just after the descent was undertaken) a sharp-eyed lad ran into the Monte Rosa Hotel (at Zermatt), saying that he had seen an avalanche fall from the summit of the Matterhorn on to the Matterhorngletscher. The boy was reproved for telling idle stories: he was right, nevertheless, and this was what he saw. Michel Croz had laid aside his axe, and in order to give Mr. Hadow greater security was absolutely taking hold of his legs and putting his feet, one by one, into their proper positions. As far as I know, no one was actually descending. I can not speak with certainty, because the two leading men were partially hidden from my sight by an intervening mass of rock, but it is my belief from the movements of their shoulders, that Croz, having done as I have said, was in the act of turning round to go down a step or two himself; at this moment Mr. Hadow slipped, fell against him and knocked him over. I heard one startled exclamation from Croz, then saw him and Mr. Hadow flying downward: in another moment Hudson was dragged from his steps, and Lord F. Douglas immediately after him. All this was the work of a moment. Immediately we heard Croz's exclamation, old Peter and I planted ourselves as firmly as the rocks would permit: the rope was taut between us, and the jerk came on us both as on one man. We held, but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. For a few seconds we saw our unfortunate companions sliding downward on their backs, and spreading out their hands, endeavoring to save themselves. They passed from our sight uninjured, disappeared one by one, and fell from precipice to precipice on to the Matterhorngletscher below, a distance of nearly four thousand feet in height. From the moment the rope broke it was impossible to help them. So perished our comrades.

Only Whymper and two of the guides were saved by the breaking of the rope.

For the space of half an hour we remained on the spot without moving a single step. The two men, paralyzed by terror, cried like infants. . . . Old Peter rent the air with exclamations of "Chamonix! Oh, what will Chamonix say?" He meant, "Who would believe that Croz could fall?" The young man did nothing but scream or sob, "We are lost! we are lost!" Fixed between the two I could neither move up nor down.

It was hours afterward before they descended the mountain and some days before the bodies of three of the unfortunates were rescued; that of Lord Francis Douglas was never found. Some day, perhaps, it will come forth fresh and life-like from the foot of the glacier.

Such were the difficulties of Alpine climbing in 1865. Scarcely can we realize to-day what an achievement this was. Says Javelle in his "Souvenirs d'un Alpiniste ":

After the first ascent of Mont Blanc and until that of Everest the most beautiful conquest of the climbers is certainly the Matterhorn.

Besides his own trials, Whymper describes seven other well-organized attempts to scale the mountain that had been made during the half-dozen years preceding his achievement. The fearful cold, snow storms and almost cyclonic winds of the upper reaches, contributed to the discomfiture of these earlier parties. One might add that while these other climbers were fine, bold mountaineers, they lacked the extraordinary preparedness and resourcefulness, amounting almost to luck, of Edward Whymper.

It may be said that this ascent made little direct contribution to the sum of knowledge. It did have the effect, however, of awakening a widespread interest in the Alps. Of course, the terrible accident contributed not a little to this result. The next few years witnessed the outburst of British energy, which brought the subjugation of all the higher Alps, until the ascent of the Meije in 1877. This was the last great Alpine peak to be conquered. From the pioneering of Whymper and his brethren came the widespread efforts which have left only a few great summits on the globe still unconquered.

These and other achievements of Mr. Whymper in the Alps are set forth in his famous book, "Scrambles among the Alps in the Years 1860-1869." The beautiful illustrations were engraved by the author himself, and they have been copied numerous times in books of travel. This absorbingly interesting little volume now commands a premium among collectors. It is at once a thrilling tale for children about the family fireside: a guide-book for the amateur; a style book for the writer of travels. Forty years have improved its flavor but have not dimmed its charm or usefulness.

Whymper returned to England to find himself grown famous in a night. The sad fatalities of his expedition did not shake his nerve. He was soon on the road again, this time visiting Greenland on an important expedition in 1867. The fine collection of fossil plants and Eskimo relics which he made on this occasion and upon a later visit in 1872, are now preserved in the British Museum. He also proved, by the discovery of magnolia cones, that Greenland was once covered by luxurious vegetation. His able review of this work was published in the Report of the British Association for the year 1869. Though the Greenland expedition was not the success that Whymper hoped it would be, for he was hampered by lack of financial backing and by the prevalence of an epidemic among the natives, yet he not only made important researches in the fauna and flora of Greenland, but he proved that the interior could be explored by the use of properly constructed sledges, and thus contributed to the advance of Arctic exploration and to the ultimate discovery of the pole. The expedition of 1872 was devoted to a survey of coast line. Although a busy artist, he found sufficient vacation every year to do some valuable climbing or exploration.

It was in 1879 that Whymper undertook his notable journey to the Ecuadorian Andes. He had contemplated going to the Himalayas, and in 1874 had projected a scheme which would have taken him to this, probably the most difficult mountaineering ground on the globe. He proposed to carry his exploration and research up to the highest attainable limits. Just at the time it was possible to start, the British Government entered upon the construction of a "scientific frontier" for India, and rendered that region unhealthy for any but soldiers. Whymper then turned to South America. Perhaps he would have preferred to go to Peru or Chile, but owing to unhappy local dissensions he turned to the Republic of Ecuador, the most lofty country which remained accessible.

Since his achievements in the Alps he had turned more and more toward the scientific side of mountaineering. The main objects of his South American journey were to observe the effects on the human body of low pressure and to attain the greatest possible height in order to experience it; to determine the relative altitudes and positions of the chief mountains of Ecuador; to make comparison of boiling-point observations and of the aneroid barometer against the mercurial barometer; and to make collections in botany, zoology and geology at great heights. He concerned himself neither with commerce nor politics, nor with the natives and their curious ways, except incidentally.

He had not the means to project a great scientific expedition; his staff was modest, consisting of his old Alpine guide, Jean-Antoine Carrel; a cousin, Louis Carrel, with a third man picked up in Ecuador. Landing at Guayaquil on December 9, 1879, he proceeded at once up the Guayas River to Bodegas, and thence to the plateaus of the great extinct volcano Chimborazo. After a careful examination of the mountain—referring to the accounts of Humboldt in 1802 and Boussingault in 1831, from which he did not, after all, receive much aid—he attacked the mountain on December 27. On December 28 he and his two European guides were stricken with mountain-sickness for the first time, with intense headache, feverishness and disturbance of respiration. Fighting this off and triumphing over constant delays due to inefficient help, he finally reached the top of Chimborazo on January 4, 1880. On this ascent he took constant readings of the barometer and thermometer, and of the variations of the weather. He fixed the height of the summit at 20,545 feet. This is all set forth in the most interesting fashion in his "Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator," New York, 1892.

Whymper met few of the greater perils of mountain-climbing in Ecuador that he had suffered in the Alps. He suffered more from annoyances, such as snow-blindness, frost-bites, inefficiency and thievery on the part of the natives, almost incredible sanitary conditions in the inns and tambos. All his party developed complaints of one kind and another.

From Chimborazo he went on to the conquest of Corazon, Cotopaxi—where he spent the night on the cinder cone in the very edge of the crater—Illiniza, Sincholagua, Antisana, Cayambe, Sara-Urea and others. His description of the sojourn on Cotopaxi makes thrilling reading. His own beautiful engravings add great interest to this account.

Whymper enjoyed adventures when they came, but above all he tried to make this visit a scientific one. He secured extremely valuable collections of the earthworms, beetles, centipedes, dragon-flies, butterflies, ants, moths, scorpions, Crustacea and the ferns and lichens of the greatest altitudes. He was a man who knew just what was worth collecting, and brought back numerous totally new species. He was able also to collect quite a number of unusual ornaments, weapons and implements made by the tribes of prehistoric days, and choice specimens of volcanic rocks and dust. He had the good fortune to be on the top of a near-by mountain at the time of an eruption of Cotopaxi; he saw its very beginning and observed its progress; and has left us admirable notes of the phenomena.

His observations on mountain-sickness led him to conclude that it was caused by diminution in atmospheric pressure, operating in at least two ways: by lessening the value of the air that can be inspired in any given time, and by causing the air or gas within the body to expand and to press upon the internal organs. In the second case, the effects may be temporary and pass away when equilibrium has been restored between the internal and external pressure.

The publication of his work on Ecuador was recognized by the Eoyal Geographical Society, which made him a fellow, and gave him the "Patron's Medal." The Eoyal Society of Edinburgh made him a fellow and the Italian King made him a Knight of the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazare. Honorary memberships in geographical and mountain-climbing clubs of Europe and America were thrust upon him.

His experiences in South America convinced him that the aneroid barometer was unreliable at high altitudes, and he published a work on "How to Use the Aneroid Barometer," 1891, and succeeded in causing important improvements in the construction of this instrument.

His extensive observations of glaciers led him to attack those who claimed for glaciers great powers of erosion. He considered them of secondary importance to the great forces of expansion and contraction in the breaking-down of rock structures of the mountains. He conceded that glaciers carried down large quantities of material, but would not concede that they created much of this material. Everywhere he went he set down interesting geological observations.

Whymper's reputation as a mountaineer put him in demand for articles on the Alps. In 1896, at the instance of John Murray, the London publisher, he gathered a great quantity of information into a "Guide-book to Chamonix and Mont Blanc" (206 pp.). This book soon became the standard of its kind. It has had an immense sale, reaching its fifteenth edition in 1910. In 1897 Murray brought out Whymper's "Guide Book to Zermatt and the Matterhorn," which is, if anything, a still more ambitious work in two hundred and twenty-four pages, profusely illustrated, and filled with the most interesting and advantageous information. In 1911 this also attained its fifteenth edition. The same scientific spirit that made his earlier books so attractive and reliable is inevitably present even in a popular guide book.

The oncoming of old age did not retire Whymper to a chimney corner. In 1901 he made an exploring expedition in the Great Divide of the Canadian Rockies. He repeated this visit four times, also pushing on to the Selkirk Mountains.

We have no record that he ever undertook a voyage to the Himalayas after his disappointment in 1874. It is significant that his death took place at Chamonix. It may be that, feeling the approach of dissolution, and unwilling to die in his bed, he was about to undertake another ascent of Mont Blanc, "the great White Mountain" of which he never grew tired.

Edward Whymper was not a transcendentalist or an esoteric in mountain climbing. He employed his best descriptive talents and his charming humor of the best British variety in his descriptions; he knew the mountains in their secret moods; but he seldom broke out into poetry. There is no record of revelry by night, or of singing Alpine paeans before breakfast. He seems to have gone about mountain climbing seriously, yet pleasantly withal. No dangers affrighted him, but, on the other hand, he did not seek extraordinary gymnastic feats. It is safe to say that he had ingrained in him true love for the mountains, and a great delight in the views from above the clouds, but he was also imbued with the savage lust of exploration and pioneering.

We may live to see a school of climbers that may accomplish more things than his, but we shall not see one of more heroic spirit.

The world owes him something more than a reputation of an undaunted climber of mountains or a fame that can be assessed in worldly terms. Zermatt owes him a statue, no less than Chamonix owed to De Saussure and Balmat.