I have some facts I’d like you to know before we get into this and these are those facts:
- The Matterhorn is the 6th highest mountain in the alps with undoubtedly the best name of any mountain ever
- Known for its appearance – it looks like a giant angry horn, basically the Grinch’s house
- It has 2390 reviews on trip advisor – so, V Popular tourist destination
- About 3,000 people summit the Matterhorn annually
- It was first ascended on 14 July 1865 by a party of seven, three of which lived
- As such, it’s an obvious Death Trap
When you look at the list of highest peaks in the alps a bunch as I did you start to notice that all of them were summited in the 1800s. As you read the years so close to one another, it becomes like reading a race. You can see the enthusiasm in the dates. Climbing was all the rage in the 1800s and there was generous competition – and the last peak to be climbed on that list of mountains in the Alps was The Matterhorn.
You get drawn in by what it looks like. It is truly a prodigious horn, a rising monster in the distance. I needed to know more about it. But once you find out it’s not even the highest mountain in the alps let alone close to the world’s top 10 highest peaks perhaps that initial interest may fade – I know it did momentarily for me.
But thankfully due to the human spirit being morbidly curious as to the soup that death makes, this curled and mangled creature held on to my interest. The Matterhorn is one of the deadliest peaks in the world – over five hundred climbers have died trying to conquer this rock including four of the seven that made up the climbing party first to ascend, an incident that ostensibly ended recreational climbing for a generation.
This mountain is also tied to famous poet and author Oscar Wilde’s downfall in a truly intimate way that is fascinating. The moment you begin to climb the mountain that is The Matterhorn it instantly becomes many stories all rolled into one. This is the story of Oscar Wilde’s trial, an awful man named John Douglas, and the first ascent of The Matterhorn.
John Douglas, The Man That No One Liked
The golden age of alpinism was the decade in mountaineering between Alfred Wills’s ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854 and Edward Whymper’s ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.
So, let’s start at the beginning. 1854 – and Alfred Willis.
Sir Alfred Wills was a judge of the High Court of England and Wales (like the supreme court in America but with better wigs) and a well-known mountaineer. He was also the third President of the Alpine Club – a place where rich white men met in London who really liked chilling in the alps.
Mr. Justice Alfred Willis was a gay bashing troglodyte who wrote a legal document called “An essay on the principles of circumstantial evidence: illustrated by numerous cases” that still gets referenced often in academic settings today.
But, as interesting as that document both sounds and reads, he is even better known as the judge who gave the maximum punishment at the end of Oscar Wilde’s sodomy trial. Said punishment was 2 years hard labor/prison to which Judge Willis described the sentence, the maximum allowed by the way, as “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and that the case was “the worst case I have ever tried.” Wilde’s response “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” was drowned out in cries of “Shame” in the courtroom.
The reason Oscar Wilde was within this court case to begin with was that he was engaged in a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas whose fathers name is John Douglas, an infamously secular and opinionated brute plus the main character of our story.
John’s divorces, brutality, atheism, and association with the boxing world (he published the rules for modern boxing that someone else wrote and he got all the credit for) made Mr. Douglas an unpopular figure in London high society.
In 1893 his eldest son Francis was made a baron, thus giving him an automatic seat in the House of Lords. John resented his son sitting in a chamber that had refused to admit him previously, leading to a bitter dispute between himself and both his son and the Earl of Rosebery, who had promoted Francis’ ennoblement and who shortly thereafter became Prime Minister.
Francis Douglas would go on to allegedly kill himself. It was called a hunting accident which was a commonly used term at the time for suicide and or murder. He did so after the rumor got out that he was shtucking his boss, the recent Earl of Rosebery and the now Prime Minister, whom Francis was both a secretary and a lover. This all occurred only 8 months after the Prime Minister came into power. John Douglas said his son post death as “he died unmarried and without issue.” John would later say of the Prime Minister, whom he so lovingly referred to as a “Snob Queer,” that he had corrupted both his sons and held him responsible for his sons apparent suicide.
John’s other son, Lord Alfred, was also gay but instead of Prime Ministers he was more into poets, or at least one in particular which was Oscar Wilde. John Douglas didn’t like that two of his three sons were gay and blamed the Prime Minister once more for this egregious coincidence.
This is a man – John Douglas – whose father also killed himself in a “hunting accident.” A very clumsy family indeed.
Add to that John’s wife Sibel, whom after 4 sons and a daughter successfully sued for divorce in 1887 on the grounds of his adultery, which was not a thing at the time. The fact that she won in a time where women’s rights were all but not is insanity and shows the amount of people both in the public and within the court who had a distaste for the man. This is a man whose second marriage was annulled a year into it, another rare occurrence. Literally no one liked him.
John had an awful relationship will all three of his sons – the second one we have yet to discuss name was Percy – John called him “that so-called skunk of a son of mine” and disowned him for marrying a clergyman’s daughter. A scandal, indeed.
During the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895, John assaulted Percy on a London street leading to both men being arrested and charged with disturbing the peace to the tune of £500, and I’ll save you some time converting that to American dollars, it was a small fortune. In 1900 on his death bed John Douglas spat on Percy when he came to visit. So yeah, not a great relationship.
Three weeks following their father’s funeral, the new Lord Queensbury (Percy) and Lord Alfred visited Oscar Wilde in Paris. Wilde recalled that they were “in deep mourning and the highest spirits. The English are like this.”
John Douglas had two younger twin siblings. The brother committed suicide by slicing his own throat and the sister was Florence Dixie a famous feminist, war correspondent, traveler, and writer. Super interesting woman. Look her up later after you read this. Please don’t stop reading this.
John Douglas – Whose other younger brother was Reverend Lord Archibald Edward Douglas, known for his role in Home Children.
HAVE YOU HEARD OF THIS?! I HADN’T. It was the child migration scheme founded by Annie MacPherson in 1869 under which more than 100,000 children were sent from the United Kingdom to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. It’s not clear how much Lord Archibald knew of the whole slavery part of all of it, but still.
And then there was John’s other younger brother, Lord Francis Douglas for whom John’s eldest son and future hunting accident is named after – that died two years before his nephew with his namesake was born during the first ascent of The Matterhorn. And more specifically, on the first decent of the Matterhorn.
John is really in a pickle here after Lord Alfred turns out to be gay as well after his first son Lord Francis kills himself or is murdered because John is obviously intolerant but doesn’t want his younger son to die as well so he takes the fight to the man who didn’t deserve it – His younger son’s lover, Oscar Wilde. And so, the downfall begins.
The Golden Age of Climbing
The Alpine Club is why we know The Matterhorn to be the murder mountain that it is today. It was the first Alpine Club ever created in the UK or anywhere for that matter and was instrumental in the development of mountaineering during the golden age of alpinism which spanned from 1854 to 1865.
Said golden age was dominated by British alpinists and their Swiss and French guides. Or, well, you can call them guides if you wish but really they were Sherpa-esque people to help the Brits up the mountain while the English dinguses pretended to be adventurers to create stories in their heads for their aristocratic friends at future dinner parties.
The golden age started with Justice Willis, the judge from Oliver Wilde’s trial, summiting the Wetterhorn in 1854. He would then grow old before meeting Wilde, not sentencing the famous poet until 1895. Nonetheless, from 1854 on climbing mountains as sport became highly fashionable in the UK.
Despite several well-documented earlier ascents of the Wetterhorn and the fact that Justice Willis was guided to the top he still was so bold as to call himself the first. Even in his obituary it read “certainly the first who can be said with any confidence to have stood upon the real highest peak of the Wetterhorn proper.” Alright, dude.
Enter The Matterhorn
The First Ascent of The Matterhorn – the last mountain in the way of conquering the Swiss alps was led by Edward Whymper. He was in a race with a guy named Professor John Tyndall to reach the summit and had already failed eight times. Edward was to climb this time with a valued mountain man named Michael Croz who was then yoinked from him by Charles Hudson, another avid climber who also wanted to ascend the untamed beast. The night before both parties left they met to speak and decided to join each other as they had just learned an Italian party was also leaving in the morning.
Edwards crew in total was:
- Edward Whymper, a 20 years old athletic artist and leader slash guy who really wanted to finally get to the top of this mountain.
- Charles Hudson
- Michael Croz
- Douglas Hadow, Hudsons protégé
- 2 Local Guides: Peter Taugwalder and his son of the same name
- & Lord Francis Douglas (Only 18 at the time)
Before leaving Charles Hudson vouched for his partner Mr. Hadow saying that he had done Mont Blanc in less time than most men while exclaiming, “I consider he is a sufficiently good man to go with us!” This will be important later as Mr. Whymper will claim in retrospect the entire expedition going down hill was Mr. Hadows fault, whom history now considers a novice.
Whymper and party left Zermatt, the town beneath The Matterhorn, early in the morning of July 13, 1865. Meanwhile the Italian party began their ascent three hours earlier.
Even with Hadow needing “required continual assistance,” and starting hours after the Italians, the Whymper party summited successfully in two days time with Croz and Whymper reaching the top first.
Whymper writes: “The slope eased off, and Croz and I, dashing away, ran a neck-and-neck race, which ended in a dead heat. At 1.40 p.m. the world was at our feet, and the Matterhorn was conquered. Hurrah! Not a footstep could be seen.”
Precisely at this moment The Italian Party were approximately 400 meters below still dealing with the most difficult parts of the ridge. When seeing Whymper and crew on the summit said party gave up on their attempt and went back down.
Later historians would write of this moment, “In order to ensure his rivals knew they were beaten, Whymper rather unsportingly shouted at the Italian team from the top and hurled rocks to make a clatter. The Italians turned and fled.” I’ll take hubris for $1000, Alex.
After Whymper took his time to sketch the scene he built a tower of stones to commemorate the conquering of the Alps. The tired yet adrenaline filled group stayed an hour total on the summit then they began their descent of the treacherous Hörnli ridge.
The order on the rope during the descent was Croz going down first, followed by Hadow, then Hudson, Lord Douglas, old Peter Taugwalder, Whymper, with young Peter Taugwalder bringing up the rear.
The accident occurred due to Hadow slipping on the descent not far from the summit, pulling Croz, Hudson and Douglas down the north face of the mountain; the rope between these four and the other three members of the party, Whymper and the two Peter Taugwalders father and son, snapped, saving them from the same fate. Some have blamed Hudson for insisting on the presence of the inexperienced Hadow in the party and for not checking the quality of the rope or the boots Hadow was wearing. Some have blamed Hadow for his known incompetence. Some have blamed the father Peter Taugwalder for giving up the fight to save his fellow climbers.
Whymper later described the deaths as follows:
“Michael 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 the moment Mr. Hadow slipt, 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 Francis 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 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! For the space of half an hour we remained on the spot without moving a single step.”
Croz’s body together with those of Hudson and Hadow were recovered from the Matterhorn glacier. Croz was buried in the south side of Zermatt churchyard, on the other side from the graves of Hudson and Hadow. Lord Douglas, on the other hand, was never found.
The rival party of Italian alpinists reached the Matterhorn’s summit three days later and not one of them perished.
DID THE LOCAL GUIDE SAVE HIS SON AND WHYMPER BY CUTTING THE ROPE?!
Only father, son, and Whymper know.
A controversy ensued as to whether the rope had actually been cut, but a formal investigation could not find any proof. The accident haunted Whymper forever.
He writes, “Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances—Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them.”
Queen Victoria considered banning climbing to all British citizens but decided, after consultation, not to forbid mountaineering after this incident took place.
46 years later, shortly after returning home from another climb in the Alps, Whymper became ill, locked himself in his room, and refused all medical treatment. Whymper died sick and alone on at the age of 71.
Another Douglas Tragedy
The Matterhorn incident happened days before Lord Francis’ older brother John Douglas was to assume his majority as 9th Marquess of Queensberry. As guests gathered for a lavish celebration in his honor word came that Lord Francis Douglas had fallen to his death with three others after achieving the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn.
John Douglas traveled to Zermatt immediately with the intention of bringing home his brother’s body but came to find that nothing had been found of Lord Francis but some tattered shreds of his clothing. Upon hearing of his brothers fate John the Awful, without a guide and by moonlight, attacked the Matterhorn to find his younger brothers body. It was by only a matter of chance that two guides found and rescued him eventually before he died of the cold, unsuccessful.
John wrote apologetically to his sister Florence, “I thought and thought where he was, and called him, and wondered if I should ever see him again. I was half mad with misery, and I could not help it.”
Francis’ loss was deeply felt by his entire family. In 1876, Florence would accompany John on his return to Zermatt, and he would show her the slopes where Francis had died. Beyond the family, the tragedy was a long-running sensation, reported by newspapers all over the world.
To this day one of Hadow’s shoes can be seen in Zermatt’s Matterhorn Museum, together with the infamous snapped rope.
Whymper’s 1871 book “Scrambles Amongst the Alps,” which detailed his Matterhorn climb closed with famous words of warning for fellow mountaineers: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
In spite of Whymper’s words of caution, approximately five hundred mountaineers since 1865 have perished while scaling the Matterhorn, a death toll nearly double that of Mount Everest.
Oscar Wilde never wrote a poem about this brilliantly dangerous peak. It might have never entered his consciousness to care of the Swiss Alps at all. But the tangled web of this deadly mountain and his own personal grievances perhaps did deserve some prose.
While Thomas Hardy’s, another famous English novelist and poet, poem “Zermatt to the Matterhorn” has nothing to do with Wilde and his struggles against the norm, the words do ring true as to the mountains cruel nature and humanities inability to stray from a challenge. Thanks for reading.
Zermatt to the Matterhorn
by Thomas Hardy
Thirty-two years since, up against the sun,
Seven shapes, thin atomies to lower sight,
Labouringly leapt and gained thy gabled height,
And four lives paid for what the seven had won.
They were the first by whom the deed was done,
And when I look at thee, my mind takes flight
To that day’s tragic feat of manly might,
As though, till then, of history thou hadst none.
Yet ages ere men topped thee, late and soon
Thou watch’dst each night the planets lift and lower;
Thou gleam’dst to Joshua’s pausing sun and moon,
And brav’dst the tokening sky when Caesar’s power
Approached its bloody end: yea, saw’st that Noon
When darkness filled the earth till the ninth hour.