“Not a footstep to be seen!” | Posted: 18 March 2015
Self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland
Self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland
Self-guided walking holidays in Switzerland

They were an intrepid breed, those well-to-do British Victorian adventurers, who decided to explore, climb, walk, seek and conquer the wonders of the natural world simply because they were there and no-one had done it before.

Competent, experienced climbers? Not a bit of it – this was the era of the ‘professional’ amateur, when boundless enthusiasm, unwavering confidence and good old ‘British bulldog’ spirit was all it took to set off ‘expeditioning’. (Oh, and money as well.)  

And so it was that almost 150 years ago, on 14 July 1865, man first stood on the summit of the Matterhorn, its recognisable peak piercing the blue Alpine sky at 14,692ft (4,478m). That man was Edward Whymper, a British climber, who led a successful party of seven to the top. (Sadly, they didn’t all make it back down.)

Whymper’s party consisted of mountain guide Michel Croz from Chamonix, Zermatt mountain guides Peter and Peter Taugwalder (father and son), the Reverend Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas, and Douglas Robert Hadowl from England. They climbed via the shoulder on the Hörnligrat and further up switched to the north wall.

Describing those final few feet to reach the summit, Whymper later recalled, “The slope eased off, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race, which ended in a dead heat. At 1.40pm, the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen!”

In truth, Whymper was more than just an eager amateur. He had trained as a wood-engraver from an early age and, by 1860, was taking long trips into the Alps on commissions to produce a series of Alpine scenes. It was while on these trips that he began to marvel at the lofty peaks – and the seed of an idea began to germinate.

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Towards the Matterhorn

Spend a week exploring the Val d'Anniviers, a beautiful high valley in the Swiss Alps. The distinctive Matterhorn is the iconic peak that provides the target of this walk through spectacular high-mountain scenery.

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Jemima Morrell's Victorian Adventure

Alternatively, follow in the footsteps of intrepid Victorian tourist, Jemima Morrell, who joined excursionist Thomas Cook on his very first conducted tour of Switzerland over 150 years ago.

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Mingling with pioneering Alpinistes, he soon got the bug and began climbing himself. In 1861, he reached the summit of Mont Pelvoux and then spent the next four years on a number of expeditions in the Mont Blanc massif and Pennine Alps. He made the first ascent of the Aiguille d'Argentière, Mont Dolent, the Aiguille Verte, the Grand Cornier and Pointe Whymper in the Grandes Jorasses in 1865.

But for Whymper, conquering the Matterhorn was always the pinnacle of his climbing ambitions and throughout the early 1860s he attempted to reach the summit eight times before his successful bid on 14 July 1865. His elation was short-lived, however, as four of his party – Croz, Hadow, Hudson and Douglas – fell to their deaths on the descent. Whymper and the Taugwalders were only saved because the rope broke.

This was only two years after Thomas Cook’s first conducted tour of the country which heralded in the beginning of tourism to Switzerland. Cook’s party were pioneers, too, and although they never scaled the heights that Whymper did, they certainly had an adventure or two, with the ladies, including the indomitable Jemima Morrell from Yorkshire, climbing the dramatic Gemmi Pass in their crinolines.

The Matterhorn (Monte Cervino in Italian) is easily one of the most recognisable mountains in Europe, if not the world. It is situated in the Alps in the Canton of Valais, if you are Swiss, or in the Val d’Aosta if you are Italian! Walk through the Val d’Anniviers in Switzerland and the mountain’s domineering presence is inescapable, though once it looms over its more lowly neighbours it seems to grow in height and stature all the more as you get closer and closer.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of its first ascent, a series of events and festivities will be held throughout 2015, culminating in early July with the opening of a renovated mountain hut on the Hörnli Ridge – it’s called a ‘hut’ but it’s the size of an hotel and sleeps 127 in comfort! It was here that Whymper began his final successful push for the top and so it is a fitting place for the celebrations to conclude – on the dramatic slopes of what has become the iconic emblem of the Swiss Alps and the Alps in general.

Other events include ‘Zermatt Unplugged’ (14-18 April), a music concert on the highest stage in Europe, starring James Blunt, Anastasia, Patricia Kaas and many others; plus ‘The Story of the Matterhorn’ being performed at the open-air theatre in Zermatt (9 July-29 August) with the Matterhorn as the set! As a mark of respect to the four who died in 1865, the Matterhorn will be ‘closed’ to climbers for the day.

Archive Photographs: © Zermatt Turismus

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