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The Matterhorn 150 Years | George Fisher

Written by George Fisher

Image for article THE MATTERHORN – 150 YEARS

The Matterhorn is exactly as a mountain should look; triangular and Toblerone! Whenever people first gaze upon it, they have difficulty in drawing their eyes away. Unsurprisingly, this perfectly sculptured mountain has become one of the most photographed and iconic of all our planet’s peaks.

During the ‘Golden Age of Alpinism’ in the 1800s, the Matterhorn proved to be the most elusive for pioneer alpinists to conquer. With its sheer faces and intimidating ridges, it was deemed unclimbable. That is, until a certain Edward Whymper from Britain came onto the scene! His passion and, indeed, obsession for the mountain eventually led to its first ascent on 14th July 1865.

The successful climbing party included three mountain guides and four British amateur alpinists, spurred on by the ever-enthusiastic Whymper. Unfortunately, on their descent, four of the group were killed. This ascent became a defining moment of mountaineering history in a story of jubilation, tragedy, rivalry, controversy and betrayal.

It came as little surprise that the mountain folk of Zermatt, living in the Matterhorn’s shadow, decided to make great play of this 150th anniversary. Summer 2015 became an opportunity to both celebrate and commemorate this momentous occasion.

On 13th July, lights were illuminated up the Matterhorn displaying the route of the seven climbers in 1865. A grand total of 49 solar powered white lights were used, with an additional fiftieth red light marking the location where the tragedy occurred. It provided a surreal impression upon this huge mountain of rock piercing the night skyline.

During the actual anniversary day on 14th July, the Matterhorn was closed for climbing. It was a time to remember more than 500 climbers who had lost their lives in accidents during those 150 years. On the same day a newly refurbished Hornli Hut, used by climbers at the base of the mountain, was re-opened. Also, commemorative plaques for those initial pioneers were unveiled in Zermatt, beginning a Hollywood style ‘Walk of Fame’ for mountaineers.

’Ceremony of Friendship' on the summit of the Matterhorn, Photo: Dominic SteinmannOn 17th July, forty invited climbers ascended the Matterhorn from both sides of the mountain. As the climbers met on the summit a ceremony of mountaineering friendship was held. Alpinists from Switzerland, Italy, France and the UK recognised the camaraderie that had been established from those early days.

As is often the case in Zermatt during important occasions, several evenings were taken up with street parties, live music and a great deal of revelry! This anniversary even had its own specially written song simply entitled ‘1865’, co-written by Frida Lyngstad (ex-ABBA member now living in Zermatt). There was also an open-air performance of ‘The Matterhorn Story’ re-telling the tale of that first ascent. It was acted out at an elevation of 2,582m with the Matterhorn itself providing a breathtaking backdrop.

Finally, the Swiss Alpine Museum ran an exhibition of Matterhorn ‘doppelgangers’. Displayed were 22 images of look-alike ‘Matterhorns‘ from various corners of the globe. For Britain’s doppelganger, Roseberry Topping in Yorkshire had been selected. 

Great thanks must be given to those Golden Age pioneers, to Zermatt for organising a unique celebration and of course, to that perfect pyramid, the Matterhorn!

Cover photo: The illuminated Matterhorn, Photo: Mammut/Robert Boesch

Above photo: ’Ceremony of Friendship' on the summit of the Matterhorn, Photo: Dominic Steinmann