"If the rope on the Matterhorn didn’t break, I wouldn’t exist."
Matthias Taugwalder talks matter-of-factly about a famous climbing accident exactly 150 years ago that easily could have erased his own existence. Crouched inside a dilapidated mountain cabin below Zermatt, the Swiss photographer surveys the ancient and musty stove, beds and writing table that once were his great-great-grandfather’s.
It was here that Peter Taugwalder Jnr., after a half-century of rumination, collected his thoughts to finally set down a first-hand account of the tragic first ascent of the 4,478-metre Matterhorn. For Peter Jnr’s descendant and Zermatt native, 34-year-old Matthias, the past year has been consumed by a quest to shed more light on the enduring mystery of a broken rope. Anticipating the 150th anniversary of the historic climb on July 14, 1865, Taugwalder converted his passion for panoramic photography and multimedia storytelling to something more akin to detective work.
He scoured the public records and everything else he could lay his hands on to determine more precisely the sequence of events by which father-son Zermatt mountain guides Peter Taugwalder Snr. and Jnr. and British alpinist Edward Whymper, became the sole survivors of the climb. When the broken rope saved them, the younger Taugwalder was in his early 20s – not yet a father. “If the rope on the Matterhorn didn’t break, I wouldn’t exist,” Taugwalder says.
Growing up a Taugwalder
The route taken on the first ascent
Growing up in Zermatt, he absorbed the family history and sensed from an early age the pride and anguish of his ancestors over the tragic first ascent; the anguish over the tragedy on the descent was a burden passed among generations. There was a sense of injustice, shared more broadly in the community, that the Taugwalders’ version of events were overlooked. But no one was too eager to speak out, either, for fear of upsetting the fledgling tourist industry the historic climb unleashed.
As a child, he sold commemorative pins during previous celebrations of the climb that indelibly branded an iconic mountain, a village and their family name. He didn’t know how to respond when a journalist with Swiss public radio, SRF, once asked him what he thought about it. Now, he has far more to say. “The public only knows the Whymper version of the story, which is kind of the official version of the first ascent of the Matterhorn,” says Taugwalder, referring to Whymper’s popular accounts of the climb in books like Scrambles Amongst the Alps and his remarks to the English press, which conflicted and grew over time. “And I ask myself if really my ancestors didn’t have the chance to tell their story.”
Peter Taugwalder Jnr., left, and Peter Taugwalder Snr., right with clients before climbing the Mont Blanc in 1866
In part, Taugwalder’s aim has been to rehabilitate the reputation of his family which long suffered under the public fascination, press speculation and finger-pointing. His efforts reflect a sense in Zermatt that the time has come to more fully honour the Taugwalders’ achievements.
A foot slips
To this day no one has found Douglas’ body.
It’s long been established that the most inexperienced climber, Douglas Hadow, slipped and fell, pulling the Reverend Charles Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas, and Chamonix guide Michel Croz, the last man on the rope, to their deaths. To this day no one has found Douglas’ body. What’s less clear is exactly how the thin climbing cord made of manila snapped between Douglas and his guide, Taugwalder Snr., who managed to brace himself using a bit of the rope and the rock.
But even the thicker rope would have broken, according to the latest tests. Above him was Whymper, tied between the Taugwalders; the younger Taugwalder was at the top of the rope. “They saved Whymper’s life,” said Matthias. A cousin, Josef Taugwalder, 50, and his son, David, 23, are also helping to resurrect the past. Roughly the same ages as the father-son guides were on the first ascent, they are playing their famous ancestors in an open air theatre production this summer in Zermatt.
Though his versions of the events kept changing, Whymper was the lone English-speaker among the survivors. The Taugwalders’ accounts in German have remained obscured even to this day. The accident shattered lives and reputations.
History has not been kind to the Taugwalders, despite formal inquiries that cleared the guides. The notoriety virtually ruined the elder Taugwalder’s life and threatened his son’s guiding career. Whymper emerged the hero - though a haunted one, helped by self-serving accounts.
"I need not trouble you with details of our descent, it is enough to say that for more than two hours afterwards, I thought every moment would be my last; the two Taugwalders, utterly unnerved, cried like infants, and trembled in such a manner as to threaten us with the fate of the others,” Whymper wrote to Swiss geologist and mountaineer Edmund von Fellenberg two weeks later, refusing to accept any responsibility for the tragedy.
“A single slip, or a single false step, has been the cause of all this misery.” Yet Whymper at first held the Taugwalders blameless, and more than a half century later the younger Taugwalder finally provided a written account of the accident in which he said it was Whymper who was emotionally overwrought by the events.
"Our feelings can be imagined. For a while we could not move for fright. Eventually we tried to proceed. But Whymper was trembling and could scarcely take another safe step. My father climbed in front, forever turning round and placing Whymper's legs on the rock ledges. Time and again we had to stop and rest, as we did not feel well,” the younger Taugwalder wrote, according to a new translation arranged by Matthias Taugwalder.
What goes into a rope?
Climbing ropes from that era initially were made from natural fibres like manila, hemp or silk. They were mainly used to bring up a second climber. Falling on them was strongly discouraged. Today, climbing ropes are made from nylon and built using a kernmantle construction – kern meaning core, mantle meaning sheath.
Developed during the Second World War, the ropes are far stronger and more durable, come in different diameters and generally handle well. They have a slight stretch to cushion a fall, like a shock absorber. Static ropes are made for other activities. Swiss experts and officials have conducted various tests in recent years to determine what might have happened on the first ascent.
For the 140th anniversary of the climb, Swiss manufacturer Mammut tested a rope built to resemble the one that broke. It said the rope snapped at 300 kilograms, roughly the weight of four adult men. The test suggests an accident rather than a cut rope.
A section of rope that broke on the first ascent of the Matterhorn is displayed in the Zermatt museum. The full rope was supposed to be used only as a spare. It was about half the width and much weaker than the two other safety ropes used on the climb that the London-based Alpine Club developed.
Searching for the truth
With his tall, lanky frame and earnest demeanor, Matthias Taugwalder cuts a profile as a modern tech enthusiast. In the Zurich apartment that he shares with his wife, Taugwalder has an office with panels of computer screens and a massive hard drive to back up his digital creations.
However, in keeping with the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of his ancestors, he began a self-described “hero’s journey” in which he pushed to steadily transform himself from an overweight keyboard puncher with a penchant for virtual reality into a hard-working mountaineer who works alongside some of the top names in the outdoor industry to capture images of highly exposed places. He had to lose at least 15kg to pull it off.
Over the past several years his transformation has been made possible with the help and guidance of one of his cousins, Gianni Mazzone, 51, another direct descendant of the father-son Taugwalder guides. The Taugwalders reflect a mountain guiding culture that has become deeply rooted in Zermatt since the second half of the 19th century. Mazzone, a past president of the Zermatt Mountain Guides’ Association, is carrying on the family tradition and has now guided people up the Matterhorn about 300 times.
As part of his research, which took him to various places in Switzerland and Britain, and a number of international online archives, Taugwalder discovered that the original version of the letter his great-great-grandfather wrote has still never been seen publicly, at least until now. Only an English translation of the German letter, which belongs to the Alpine Club of London, had been published. A German translation was made from an English translation, but to this day no one seems to have re-checked the original German.
He also unearthed a previously unknown short description of the accident by a Zermatt priest and US immigration records that provide a new timeline for when Peter Taugwalder Snr. visited America with another of his sons, Friedrich, who eventually became a US citizen in 1899. The priest was concerned by “the brutality of alpinism”, but doesn’t assign blame.
For Matthias Taugwalder, it’s intriguing that the priest’s concerns about “the brutality of alpinism” were omitted from a later compendium of his writings. He also believes the US records confirm that the elder Taugwalder wanted to escape the notoriety of a climb that ruined his life, and perhaps give his young son Friedrich – who is said to have witnessed the four bodies hurtling down the mountain through a pocket telescope – a chance at a new life.
Despite being a direct descendant, and a sceptic about Whymper’s versions of the story, Taugwalder approached his work rather objectively for someone with such a personal stake in it. The storyteller in him knew he would have to step back to let others draw their own conclusions about how the rope severed after Hadow slipped.
For Taugwalder, the point wasn’t so much to uncover breaking news. In the end, he says, his fledgling attempt at journalism shows the dearth of original research about a climb where no ultimate truth can be found; only competing versions of it. But he is convinced that the Taugwalders probably saved Whymper’s life, and certainly didn’t deserve to be ridiculed or smeared.
A tainted legacy
“There’s a feeling among Taugwalder descendants that something’s wrong.”
And then there is the mountain itself, which keeps drawing Taugwalders to it. For his third ascent, Taugwalder has been training with Mazzone. This time, his aim is to create the first comprehensive photographic documentation of the accident site.
During his training climbs it was clear that Taugwalder and Mazzone have each spent countless hours contemplating their trail-blazing yet misunderstood ancestors – and the famous accident. Spending time with both of them shows the burden of the historic first ascent lives on. Each of them is driven in separate ways to overcome a tainted family legacy.
Watching Mazzone while out with clients, it became clear why his great-great-great grandfather would have threaded the rope around a rock just before the accident. It’s a guide's instinct to always have the climbing party secured.
Once the rope unexpectedly broke, it would have been a life-saving move. That’s what Mazzone and Taugwalder believe happened. So why aren’t the Taugwalders known to all Swiss schoolchildren as national heroes for making – and surviving – the first ascent of their nation’s modern-day symbol? That’s the question that continues to hang over the family and, indeed, many others in the valley.
“There’s a feeling among Taugwalder descendants that something’s wrong,” Taugwalder summed up halfway up to the Gornergrat on a training hike in mid-June. “And many people in Zermatt share the same view.”
Taugwalder and Mazzone each made special climbs of the Matterhorn ahead of the 150th anniversary. While Taugwalder went to photograph the accident site, Mazzone guided a swissinfo.ch reporter.
It was Mazzone’s 287th ascent, but he said what's important is the people he climbs it with and not the number. "I'm feeling very proud," he said atop the summit, on the last climbing day before the July 14 festivities honouring the achievement of his ancestors, a day marked by perfect blue skies and an unusual measure of solitude. “I did this ascent for them here today."
Take an interactive tour around the accident site.