WHEN he stood atop a narrow snow-peaked ridge looking down over the tributaries of the Aosta Valley 150 years ago today, Lord Francis Douglas could have been forgiven for foreseeing the hero’s welcome that await his return to Scotland. Aged 18, he was best known for his spry exertions at home, such as scaling the walls of Edinburgh Castle. But as he surveyed the world from the summit of the Matterhorn, all that had gone before must have seemed mere child’s play.
In the pantheon of Scottish sporting heroes, Douglas’ name barely receives a footnote, remembered if at all as the younger sibling of the Marquess of Queensberry. In part, that may be due to his chosen discipline, mountaineering, an activity many regard as the perfect expression of masochism. So too it could be down to the fact his legacy is a calamitous one. Even so, a century and a half after he defied every expectation to ascend a peak thought unconquerable, the anniversary of 14 July 1865 seems an apposite time to laud and lament a lost pioneer.
A gnarled angular husk of rock and ice rising 14,690 feet, the Matterhorn was long viewed as the pinnacle of a wilderness in the heart of Europe. No cartographer could chart it and the mountain’s mystery invited wild superstition: as late as the 18th century, the eminent scholar and naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer claimed dragons resided in its snow-skirted firmament, a theory which found many adherents among those willing to trust a learned man.
Come the Victorian era and its insatiable appetite for derring-do, the Dumfries-born Douglas formed part of a team intent on shattering the old lores, only to forge a few of their own. The pursuit was led by Edward Whymper, a 25-year-old engraver and illustrator by trade who had ventured to the Alps on a drawing assignment. On arrival, he resolved not to sketch the Matterhorn, but to scale it. “It attracted me simply by its grandeur,” the unlikely alpinist later recalled. “It was considered to be the most thoroughly inaccessible of all mountains, even by those who ought to have known better.”
Whymper’s mania spread across a seven-strong entourage comprising Douglas, veteran French climber Michael Croz, the Reverend Charles Hudson, a budding mountaineer cum vicar, his protege Douglas Hadow, Peter Taugwalder, a Swiss guide, and his son, also called Peter. The troupe set off from Zermatt’s Hotel Mount Rosa at 5:30am on the 13th, encountering little to curb their enthusiasm. Whymper and Hudson led, hacking steps in the ice as they quickly clambered beyond the Hörnli ridge to set up camp at 11,000 feet.
Dawn brought steeper challenges, but slowly and surely, the men eked their way upwards, doubling back on ridges until only a few hundred feet of snow separated them from glory. At 1:40pm, some 27 hours after they left Zermatt, they had defeated the Matterhorn. After fixing Croz’s shirt to a tentpole to mark their territory, the men stayed at the apex for, Whymper mused, “one crowded hour of glorious life.”
The precise circumstances of what happened next has given rise to countless conspiracy theories over the years. As they descended, Hadow is thought to have lost his footing, in doing so knocking Croz over. The two men next on the rope, Hudson and Douglas, also fell. Above, Whymper and the Taugwalders dug in and pulled on the line in vain. It snapped, sending the four men beneath them cartwheeling over a precipice to the glacier 4,000 feet below.
The crags left their bodies mutilated and semi-naked. Half of Cruz’s skull was missing, a rosary cross jammed into his jawbone. It had to be cut out with a penknife before identification took place. Hudson’s watch had stopped at 3:45pm. All that was salvaged of Douglas was his shoe, a coat sleeve and his gloves.
An official inquiry recorded verdicts of accidental death but never sought to ask why a rope no thicker than a washing line had been used. One Vienna newspaper claimed Whymper had cut the rope to ensure his infamy, while the Englishman himself railed against the Taugwalders, accusing them of a “heartlessness that was perfectly revolting.”
At home, The Times bemoaned the needless loss of an aristocratic scion. “Is it common sense?” the paper asked of such mountaineering. “Is it allowable? Is it not wrong?” Even Dickens ruled that the ascent of the Matterhorn “contributed about as much to the advancement of science as would a club of young gentlemen who should undertake to bestride all the weathercocks of all the cathedral spires of the United Kingdom.”
On his return to Britain, Whymper packed out lecture halls and went on to climb in Greenland, Ecuador and the Rockies. But the tragedy shaped the rest of his sleepless days. “Every night,” he wrote,” I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched.”
Despite many predictions over the years as the glacier creeps closer towards Zermatt, the Matterhorn has yet to give up Douglas’ body. The shreds of his garments are on display in the town’s museum along with the frayed rope.
His death repulsed the establishment yet enthralled the public, inspiring generations of climbers to follow in his tracks. Around 3,500 people try to reach the same summit every year, but the mountain takes its quota of the uninitiated and the unlucky; more than 500 have perished there since Douglas’ day.
Today, the Taugwalders’ descendants and other natives of Zermatt will stage an open air theatre production telling the story of 150 years ago, while a newly refurbished hut at Hörnli – the mountain’s base camp – will open its doors. It will be a time to pay tribute to the dead and acknowledge their triumph and tragedy.
Scotland, too, should remember Douglas, a forgotten son the Matterhorn long ago claimed as its own.