Whymper, Edward (DNB12)

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WHYMPER, EDWARD (1840–1911), wood-engraver and mountain climber, born at Lambeth Terrace, Kennington Road, on 27 April 1840, was the second son of Josiah Wood Whymper by his first wife, Elizabeth Whitworth Claridge. He was privately educated. While still a youth he entered his father's business in Lambeth as a wood-engraver and in time succeeded to its control. For many years he maintained its reputation for the production of the highest class of book illustration, until towards the close of the last century the improvement in cheap photographic processes destroyed the demand for such work. His woodcuts may be found in his own works, the ‘Alpine Journal,’ and many books of travel between 1865 and 1895; among his more important productions were Josef Wolf's ‘Wild Animals’ (1874) and Cassell's ‘Picturesque Europe’ (1876–1879).

Edward, though he seldom exhibited, was, like his father, a water-colour artist of considerable ability, and it was to this gift that he owed a commission that proved a turning-point in his life. In 1860 William Longman, of the firm of publishers, an early president of the Alpine Club, needed illustrations of the then little known mountains of Dauphiné for the second series of ‘Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers’ (1862) and young Whymper was sent out to make the sketches. He states (Alpine Journal, v. 161) that he saw in the chance of going to the Alps a step towards training himself for employment in Arctic exploration, an object of his early ambition. In the following year he showed his ability as a mountaineer by climbing Mont Pelvoux (Peaks, Passes, and Glaciers, 2nd series). In the seasons of 1862–5, by a series of brilliant climbs on peaks and passes, he made himself one of the leading figures in the conquest of the Alps. In 1864 he took part in the first ascent of the highest mountain in Dauphiné, the Pointe des Écrins, and of several peaks in the chain of Mont Blanc. In 1865 he climbed the western peak of the Grandes Jorasses and the Aiguille Verte.

Whymper's fixed ambition, however, during this period was to conquer the reputedly inaccessible Matterhorn. In this he had formidable rivals in Prof. Tyndall and the famous Italian guides, the Carrels of Val Tournanche. He made no fewer than seven attempts on the mountain from the Italian side, which were all foiled by the continuous difficulties of the climb or by bad weather. In one of them, while climbing alone, he met with a serious accident. At last, in July 1865, the plan of trying the Zermatt ridge was adopted, and success was gained at the first attempt. But the sequel was a tragedy rarely paralleled in the history of mountaineering. The party, from no fault of Whymper's, was too large and was ill constituted for such an adventure. It consisted of seven persons, Lord Francis Douglas, Charles Hudson, vicar of Skillington, Lincolnshire, his young friend D. Hadow, and Whymper, with the experienced guides Michel Croz of Chamonix and Peter Taugwalder of Zermatt, with the latter's son as porter. Hadow, the youngest member of the party, a lad inexperienced in rock-climbing, fell on the descent, and dragged down with him Douglas, Hudson, and the guide Croz. The rope broke, and Whymper was left, with the Zermatt men, clinging to the mountain side, while his companions disappeared over the precipice. Investigation showed that the rope that broke was a spare piece of inferior quality, which had been improperly used.

This terrible catastrophe gave Whymper a European reputation in connection with the Matterhorn, which was extended and maintained by the volume ‘Scrambles amongst the Alps’ (1871; 2nd edit. same year; 3rd edit. condensed as ‘Ascent of the Matterhorn,’ 1879; 4th edit. 1893, reissued in Nelson's shilling library, 1905), in which he told the story with dramatic skill and emphasis. The Matterhorn disaster terminated Whymper's active career as an Alpine climber, though he often subsequently visited the Alps, and for literary purposes repeated his ascent of the Matterhorn. In 1867 he turned his attention to Greenland with the idea of ascertaining the nature of the interior, and if possible of crossing it. But a second preliminary trip in 1872 convinced him that the task was too great for his private re{{smaller block|[. The literary and scientific results of these journeys were recorded in three entertaining papers in the ‘Alpine Journal’ (vols. v. and vi.), a lecture to the British Association (39th Report, 1869), and a paper by Prof. Heer (Philosophical Transactions, 1869, p. 445) on the fossils, trees, and shrubs collected. The chief practical result was to show that the interior of Greenland was a snowy plateau which could be traversed by sledges, provided the start was made sufficiently early in the year, and thus to pave the way for Nansen's success in 1888.

In 1888 Whymper turned his attention to the Andes of Ecuador. At that date the still unsettled problem of the power of resistance, or adaptation, of the human frame to the atmosphere of high altitudes was being vigorously discussed. Whymper proposed as his main object to make experiments at heights about and over 20,000 feet. The results he obtained, if they did not settle a question complicated by many physical, local, and personal variations, served to advance our knowledge, and have been in important respects confirmed by the experiences of Dr. Longstaff, the Duke of the Abruzzi, and others at still higher elevations between 20,000 and 25,000 feet. For example, it is now admitted that long sojourn under low pressures diminishes the climbers' physical powers rather than trains them, and it is also agreed that Whymper was right in contesting the conclusion of Paul Bert that inhalation of oxygen would prove a convenient remedy, or palliative, in cases of ‘mountain sickness.’ From a climber's point of view the expedition was completely successful. The summits of Chimborazo (20,498 feet) and six other mountains of between 15,000 and 20,000 feet were reached for the first time. A night was spent on the top of Cotopaxi (19,613 feet), and the features of that great volcano were thoroughly studied. From the wider points of view of the geographer, the geologist and the general traveller, Whymper brought home much valuable material, which was carefully condensed and embodied in the volume ‘Travels among the Great Andes of the Equator’ (1892). Its value was recognised by the council of the Royal Geographical Society, which in 1892 conferred on Whymper one of their Royal Medals in recognition of the fact that, apart from his mountaineering exploits, ‘he had largely corrected and added to our geographical and physical knowledge of the mountain systems of Ecuador, fixed the position of all the great Ecuadorian mountains, produced a map constructed from original theodolite observations extending over 250 miles, and ascertained seventy altitudes by means of three mercurial barometers.’ The Society also made a grant to the family of his leading guide, J. A. Carrel of Val Tournanche. The collection of rock specimens and volcanic dusts brought home by Whymper from this journey was described by Dr. Bonney in five papers in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society’ (Nos. 229–234). He also collected many natural history specimens, which were described in the supplementary volume of his ‘Travels’ (1892). For these explorations Whymper devised a form of tent which bears his name and is still in general use with mountain explorers. He also suggested improvements in aneroid barometers.

In 1901 and several subsequent summers Whymper visited the Canadian Rocky Mountains, but did not publish any account of his wanderings.

Finding his craft of wood engraving practically brought to an end, Whymper employed his leisure in his later years mainly in compiling and keeping up to date two local handbooks to Chamonix (1896) and Zermatt (1897). Well illustrated, and not devoid of personal and picturesque touches, these attained high popularity and passed in his lifetime through fifteen editions.

He died at Chamonix on 16 Sept. 1911 while on a visit to the Alps, and was buried in the churchyard of the English church at Chamonix.

With strangers Whymper's manner was apt to be reserved and at times self-assertive. But amongst acquaintances and persons interested in the same topics with himself his talk was shrewd, instructive, and entertaining. He was by instinct both a craftsman and an artist. With these gifts he coupled great physical endurance and intellectual patience and perseverance, qualities which he displayed both on the mountains and in his business. In everything he aimed at thoroughness. He would never if he could help it put up with inferior material or indifferent workmanship. To his own volumes he devoted years of careful preparation. ‘Whymper,’ writes Dr. Bonney, ‘always laid hold of what was characteristic and useful, and his remarks upon what he had seen were shrewd and suggestive.’ ‘All his life long he was a modest, steady, and efficient worker in the things he undertook to do. He enjoyed the reputation of a serious writer, explorer, and a man of iron will and nerve, who has worthily accomplished not merely feats of valour, but explorations and studies which have yielded valuable additions to human knowledge’ (Sir Martin Conway in Fry's Mag. June 1910).

Whymper served from 1872 to 1874 as a vice-president of the Alpine Club. In 1872 he was created a knight of the Italian order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus. He was an honorary member of the French Geographical Society and of most of the principal mountaineering clubs of Europe and North America. He married in 1906 Edith Mary Lewin, and left by her one daughter, Ethel Rose. Photographs of him taken in 1865 and 1910 are given in the ‘Alpine Journal’ (vol. xxvi. pp. 55 and 58), Feb. 1912.

Besides the works cited Whymper published ‘How to Use the Aneroid Barometer’ (1891).

A portrait in oils by Lance Calkin was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894.

[Personal knowledge; family information; own works; Alpine Journal, Feb. 1912, art. by Dr. T. G. Bonney; Fry's Mag., June 1910, art. by Sir M. Conway; Strand Mag., June 1912, art. by Coulson Kernahan; Scribner's Mag., June 1903; Dr. H. Dübi, ‘Zur Erinnerung an Edward Whymper’ in Jahrbuch des Schweizer Alpen Club, 1911–12 (portrait).]

D. W. F.