Fall of Heaven: Whym­per’s Tragic Mat­ter­horn Climb

Gripped - - REVIEWS -

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

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