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The great challenge to the Matterhorn

150 years ago, the hardest peak of all Alps was climbed by an Englishman, Edward Whymper, just a few days before the Italian Antoine Carrel. Several are the events to remember this feat

Francesco Monti

The great challenge to the Matterhorn

The 14th of July 2015 will be celebrated the 150th anniversary of the first ascent of the Cervino Mount (Matterhorn). It’s the story of a dramatic adventure, realized by the roped party led by the Englishman Edward Whymper, at the price of four human lives.

The Matterhorn Mount is located at the border between Italy and Switzerland and it’s one of the hardest Alpine peak, because it’s 4.478 high.

But this is especially the story of a true challenge between Whymper and another famous climber, Jean Antoine Carrel from Aosta Valley.

The 23rd of July 1862 they tried together to climb the Cervino Mount but the enterprise failed because of the weather. After that, the lives of the two men took different directions: a challenge in the sign of mutual respect between climbers who like to live dangerously.

Carrel takes on his shoulders the weight of a Country: in 1865, four years after the Italy Unification, president Quintino Sella wants an Italian man to conquer the summit of the mountain that the Swiss call Matterhorn.

But was Whymper to climb the Cervino Mount for first.

During that summer day (14 of July), the 25 years old man started this adventure together with the guides Michel Croz, Peter Taugwalder and his son, in addition with other occasional people like Charles Hudson, lord Francis Douglas and Mr. Douglas Robert Hadow. Along the Swiss ridge of Hörnli, the group ascends until the so-called “shoulder” of the Mount, and then turns on the northern wall.     

Whymper was the first person to arrive on top of the mountain, followed by Taughwalder and then all the rest of the group.

But it was during the descent that the tragedy happened. The first four people of the roped party (Croz, Hadow, Hudson and Douglas) felt down above the “shoulder” (maybe because a defective rope). Three bodies were recovered few days later on the Cervino glacier, while the body of Lord Francis Douglas will never be found again.

On the 17th of July, Carrel conquers the top of the mount from the Italian side: a burst of Italian pride for the soldier, that partly mitigates the disappointment of finishing second.


A century and a half after that, Cervino-Matterhorn is one of the most appreciated tourist destination of the whole Alpine arch. And the celebration of the anniversary is the occasion for initiatives of great impact, on both the sides.

In Switzerland, in the town of Zermatt - from where Whymper’s challenge started - a “countdown” is taking place from the 14th of July of last year. The countdown will end on the next 14th of July at 13:40, exactly 150 years after Whymper and his companions put their feet on the top.

On the natural stage of Riffelberg, from the beginning of July until September, the open-space performance “The Matterhorn story” will take place (in the German valley dialect, German and English, with translations in French and Japanese).


On the Italian side, Breuil-Cervinia Valtournenche will be the beating heart of a program of activities related to the discovery of the territory, its art, food and wine tradition, in addition, of course, to ski attractions (a huge international ski area entirely available with a unique skipass).

Initiatives will include the theatre performance “The conquest of Cervino” and photography expositions about the history of mountaineering and Alpine tourism, a concert with the music of Leone Sinigaglia (composer and mountaineer saved by Carrel on the Cervino), and a spectacular appointment at 4.478 meters with the Alpine guides of Valtournenche and Zermatt, exactly on the 17th of July.

And, finally, the “Fanfara” of the Italian soldiers, the night lights on the mountain and a challenge for true sportmen on the 26th of July: the “Cervino Marathon”, a skyrunning race at the feet of “Gran Becca”.

History tells us that exactly one hundred years after that deathly challenge, another mountain hero, Walter Bonatti, was the first man to reach the Cervino’s top during the winter season.

He who, together with Lacedelli and Compagnoni, had tamed the K2 - in the most discussed alpine challenge ever - decides in 1965 to face the north side, without telling anyone except two friends waiting for him at the feet of the mountain.

He resists for three nights in the cruel cold, forced to get rid of the food supplies. He reaches the summit and back home, as a winner. Just like Whymper.