Fall of Heaven: Whymper’s Tragic Matterhorn Climb
Reinhold Messner Mountaineers Books
Before the dawn of the space age it was the conquest of geographic features of the Earth that captured the public imagination: the Northwest Passage, the North and South Poles, the Nile, Everest, and, about a hundred years prior, the Matterhorn. If you turn the pages of mountaineering history back to its origins you’ll read that Edward Whymper succeeded in climbing the unclimbable peak of the Alps in the summer of 1865, that a competing party climbing the opposite side of the mountain was a mere 200 metres down when his group summitted, and that four of his party of seven perished on the way down. Reinhold Messner wants us to relive and reassess these dramatic events. He wants us to imagine a world without paved roads or telephones. A world where local hunters and guides would take upper class Englishmen up the flanks of mountains whose icefields and dramatic faces captured their imaginations.
Fall of Heaven retraces the course of events that led to the ascent of the world’s most iconic peak. Messner’s narrative is largely framed in terms of Whymper the English adventurer and Jean-Antoine Carrel, the accomplished local who would lead the second ascent. Where Whymper was bold to the point of irresponsibility Carrell was talented and systematic to the point of being largely forgotten. Messner’s key message is that mountaineers should be judged in broader terms than specific firsts. In other words: style matters.
To his credit, Whymper put his energies into climbing the Matterhorn without peer or precedent. He figured out the viable route to the top having endured a multitude of failed attempts over many seasons. The moment he heard that Carrell was on his way to the top he hastily put together a group that included an utterly inexperience member. This ill-considered decision almost certainly set up the tragedy and it was one he never took responsibility for. Messner takes him to task for this.—Tom Valis