Monday, July 25, 2022

South side story (1)

Translation: Abbé Amé Gorret's first-hand account of the Matterhorn's second ascent

The taste for travelling and climbing doesn’t go far back in my country, for, although surrounded by magnificent mountains, we hardly knew them. Only crystal hunters knew their way over the passes, and tourists were gawped at as if they were fabulous beasts. The Matterhorn, this proud and beautiful mountain that stood in our sight all day, striking all visitors dumb with admiration, this Matterhorn said nothing to us. We knew so little about it that I remember hearing on various occasions that what we now call the Col du Lion (between the Tête du Lion and the pyramidal body of the mountain) was a pass over to the Val d’Hérens or somewhere like that.

The Tete du Lion on the Matterhorn
(Image by Vittorio Sella, courtesy of Andrew Smith Gallery)

During the summer of 1857, when travellers were starting to come up to Valtournenche in greater numbers than before, somebody said something about climbing the Matterhorn. I was then in the vacation allowed to me as a seminarian and, although everyone else smiled pityingly and considered it lunacy, this idea appealed to me and to both the Carrels, Jean-Antoine, "the Bersagliere", and Jean-Jacques, too. 

Without daring to tell anybody of the nature of our business, we set out one day from the Chalet d'Avouil, taking a small axe to cut steps in the ice, and with a slab of brown bread in our pockets and a flask of brandy. We scrambled up through the Cou du Monthabert and reached the Tête du Lion. The “Val d’Hérens” turned out to be just the Zmutt valley, and the “pass” an impassable couloir that was almost overhangingly steep. We amused ourselves for some hours by trundling stones into the voids that surrounded us and, without even touching the main pyramid of the Matterhorn, we went down by the same way, which since has become the regular ascent route.

From that day onwards, the ascent of the Matterhorn became an obsession. Carrel had the Matterhorn on the brain, and I too thought of nothing else all day, dreamed of him all night so that the Matterhorn became my nightmare. Every year, we attempted him anew, every attempt ended in a new defeat, and every defeat laid down a fresh challenge. Money was lacking, and instead of encouragement we met only with scorn. For several years I could not take part in these attempts, as my time was not my own.

In 1862, Tyndall and Whymper brought new vigour to the challenge of the ascent, justifying these attempts in the eyes of the people insofar as there was now some money and credit to be won by them. Tyndall conferred his name on the mountain’s shoulder, planting his flag there as if to signify the limits of the possible. As for Whymper, he put his life in play, yet kept his nerve, and his bold and persistent attempts eventually brought him a well-deserved success.

At last, in 1865, I was allowed to take the month of July as my vacation and I at once hastened over to Valtournenche. There, I spoke with the Carrels to organise another attempt; in the meantime, I went to visit my father, who was on the Theodul Pass. When I came down from the pass, the Carrels had just signed up with Whymper to climb the Matterhorn on July 9 and 10, weather permitting. The attempt was to be made from the Swiss side.

The previous day, on July 8, Engineer Giordano arrived from Turin, having engaged Carrel, the Bersagliere, during the past year. This was a great embarrassment for Carrel, as Giordano would never have wanted Carrel to renege on his obligations to Whymper. Carrel, however, could not and would not leave Giordano, to whom he was committed. Finally, the weather solved this conundrum – it turned bad.

Giordano had come to Valtournenche to undertake a thorough and decisive investigation of the Matterhorn. By studying the mountain and tackling the ascent, he would either confirm it as impossible, or rob the peak of its aura of invincibility. Up to now, the probabilities of possible and impossible had weighed equally in the balance. Also, the engineer had equipped himself with all the gear needed for the goal he had set for himself: ropes, irons, crampons, tents and so on. Immediately an expedition got itself together: a group of group of guides led by Carrel the Bersagliere, would seek out the route and report back to Giordano.

Every day, two men were to carry the necessary supplies up from the alpine huts to the tent, which was to be pitched as high as possible at the pyramid’s base. Four guides, with the Bersagliere at their head, would work out the route. Since the guides were the same ones who had accompanied me on the earlier attempts, I introduced myself to Mr Giordano, who received me kindly and wanted to keep me around until his assault team reported back.

The group set off on the morning of the 11th, full of verve and courage, with everything pointing to success. Meanwhile, Mr Giordano undertook with me the ascent of the Theodulhorn to get an overall view of the Matterhorn’s majestic pyramid. We were looking for the guides along the ridge with our binoculars, when on the afternoon of the 14th, at about 2 o'clock, we suddenly saw people on the highest peak. What jubilation ensued. Quickly, preparations were made for their reception. We descended, we meant to raise the flag. The Matterhorn is vanquished, it is ours!

(To be continued)


Translated from a German version of Abbé Amé Gorret's original account in French, entitled "Victory of the Italians" in Matterhorn-Geschichten: Bergsteigerelebnisse am Traumberg, compiled by Fritz Schmitt, Bruckmann, 1991

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