- Mountaineering Accidents
“Is it life? Is it duty? Is it common sense? Is it allowable? Is it not wrong?” An editorial in The Times reflected the views of many Victorians in its reaction to the 1865 Matterhorn disaster (Editorial).
English mountaineer Edward Whymper, who had already tried several times to climb the 14,690-foot Matterhorn, finally reached the summit with six companions on 14 July 1865. As the party descended, one of the group slipped and fell, pulling down the other climbers attached to the same rope. The rope broke under the strain, and four of the party—Roger Hadow, mountain guide Michel Croz, Lord Francis Douglas, and the Reverend Charles Hudson—plunged to their deaths. Whymper and his two surviving guides, the elder and younger Peter Taugwalder, carried on down to Zermatt to break the news. The so-called Golden Age of alpine mountaineering, during which a series of peaks had been climbed for the first time, often by British climbers accompanied by local guides, had come to an abrupt and tragic end.1
The recriminations began almost immediately. People had died on the mountains of the European Alps before—indeed, another six climbers would lose their lives in other incidents that year—but the deaths on the Matterhorn struck many in Britain as uniquely wasteful and pointless. As well as the rhetorical questions asked by The Times, Charles Dickens denounced the “fool-hardihood” and “contempt for and waste of human life” involved in the risky and ultimately pointless ascent of Alpine peaks (86). Whymper became the subject of wild rumours, including allegations that he or someone else in the party had cut the rope. In reality, the Matterhorn disaster was a simple accident that took place before the quality and strength of climbing ropes had become standardized. If Whymper was at fault, it was in trying to climb the mountain with an excessively large group, and with at least one companion, Hadow, who was inexperienced.
Criticism of the unnecessary risk-taking involved in high-level mountaineering continued, and for a while, the small but growing community of [End Page 26] Victorian mountaineers felt the force of public disapproval. They “went about under a sort of dark shade, looked on with scarcely disguised contempt by the world of ordinary travellers. They, so to speak, climbed on sufferance, enjoying themselves much it is true, but keeping all expression of that joy to themselves in order not to excite derision,” recalled the historian of mountaineering W.A.B. Coolidge, writing in the early twentieth century (239). But the opprobrium was short-lived. The Golden Age soon gave way to another period of intense activity in the Alps, and later on British mountains.2 As climbers turned from first ascents toward climbing mountains by more challenging routes, and later graduated to climbing in winter and without local guides, the inevitable consequence was more casualties. Gradually, the wider British public “came to accept the inevitable death roll with a shrug” (Unsworth 89).
Within the growing but still small community of climbers, the risk of accidents was accepted not so much with a shrug as with a new confidence in the ability of mountaineers to counter danger with skill. From around the early 1870s, mountaineering shifted from what had been a rather desultory activity to one characterized by codification, tabulation, measurement, and classification. Increasingly, quantification—looking at the precise height, the exact distance, the specific location, the number of mountains above a certain height or in a particular range—came to be seen not just as a useful adjunct to mountaineering but as something central to the activity itself. This was part of a shift away both from Romantic-inspired approaches to mountain landscapes and from the relatively casual approach of the adventurous eccentrics who had pioneered mountaineering in the 1850s and 1860s toward the growth of a sporting, recreational approach in which mountains became the location for physical challenge and the testing of oneself. It was also symptomatic of a wider societal movement toward professionalism, the use of classificatory procedures, and rationalization. Late-Victorian mountaineers, with their interest in measurement, their thirst for facts and figures, and their...