The rope broke and down they bounced four thousand feet: the heir-presumptive to the Queensberry marquessate, a Lincolnshire clergyman, a 19-year-old Harrovian and a Chamonix guide. They were the casualties of Edward Whymper's successful assault on the Matterhorn in 1865, lost during the descent; a tragedy supposedly honoured by nature with an enormous fog-bow, incorporating two crosses. Whymper survived with two Swiss guides, father and son. The English chaplain of Zermatt, who had hoped to take part in the climb, joined the search for the bodies. They never found Lord Francis Douglas. The chaplain decided to bury what there was of the other three in the snow and read over them the 90th Psalm, from a prayer-book found in the pocket of the dead divine, the Rev. Charles Hudson. Unsurprisingly, the Swiss authorities were displeased about corpses being committed to their snows by English clergymen - Switzerland was not yet an English colony, though beginning to look like one - and the bodies were reinterred at Zermatt. The Times, untainted by the spirit of 'Excelsior!', erupted over the follies of Alpinism. 'Why is the best blood of England to waste itself in scaling hitherto inaccessible peaks?' it demanded. No doubt such an ascent was magnificent. 'But is it life? Is it duty? Is it common sense? Is it allowable? Is it not wrong?' The sort of courage required of us in daily life was not to be acquired in a series of desperate adventures, by trying to emulate skylarks, apes, cats and squirrels; or, to put it another way, by trying to rival sailors, steeple-climbers, vane-cleaners, chimney-sweeps and lovers. What right had scholars and gentlemen to throw away the gift of life with its ten thousand opportunities?
LRB 14 December 2000 | PDF Download