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Edward Whymper

Edward Whymper (18401911), was a British climber and explorer best known for the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. However, on the descent four members of the party were killed. Whymper later become an alcoholic and speculation was that the Matterhorn accident haunted Whymper for the rest of his life.

Whymper was born in London on April 27 1840, the son of an artist. He was trained to be a wood-engraver at an early age. In 1860, he made extensive forays into the central and western Alps to produce a series of alpine scenery sketches for which he had been commissioned. Among the objects of this tour was the illustration of an unsuccessful attempt made by Professor Bonney's party, to ascend Mont Pelvoux, at that time believed to be the highest peak of the Dauphin Alps. Whymper successfully completed the ascent of Mont Pelvoux in 1861 ~ the first of a series of expeditions that threw much light on the topography of a area at a time very imperfectly mapped. From the summit of Mont Pelvoux Whymper discovered that it was overtopped by a neighboring peak, subsequently named the Pointe des Ecrins, which, before the annexation of Savoy added Mont Blanc to the possessions of France, was the highest point in the French Alps. Its ascent by Whymper's party in 1864 was perhaps the most remarkable feat of mountaineering up to that date. The years 1861 to 1865 are filled with a number of new expeditions in the Mont Blanc group and the Pennine Alps, among them the ascent of the Aiguille Verte and the crossing of the Morning Pass.

Professor Tyndall and Whymper emulated each other in fruitless attempts to reach the summit of the Matterhorn by the south-western or Italian ridge. Whymper, who had failed six times already, was determined to try the eastern face, convinced that its precipitous appearance when viewed from Zermatt was an optical illusion, and that the dip of the strata, which on the Italian side formed a continuous series of overhangs, should make the opposite side a natural staircase. His attempt by what is now the normal route met with success on July 14 1865. However, on the descent four members of the party slipped and were killed, and only the breaking of the rope saved Whymper and the two remaining guides from the same fate. A controversy ensued as to whether the rope had actually been cut but a formal investigation could not find any proof of this alleged action. The account of his attempts on the Matterhorn occupies the greater part of his Scrambles among the Alps book (1871), in which the illustrations are engraved by Whymper himself. One of his responses on the accident:

"Every night, do you understand, I see my comrades of the Matterhorn slipping on their backs, their arms outstretched, one after the other, in perfect order at equal distances – Croz the guide, first, then Hadow, then Hudson, and lastly Douglas. Yes, I shall always see them…"

Whymper's 1865 campaign had been planned to test his route finding skills in preparation for an expedition to Greenland in 1867. The exploration in Greenland resulted in an important collection of fossil plants, which were described by Professor Heer and deposited in the British Museum. Whymper's report was published in the Report of the British Association of 1869. Though hampered by a lack of supplies and the prevalence of an epidemic among the local people, he proved that the interior could be explored by the use of suitably constructed sledges, and thus contributed an important advance to Arctic exploration. Another expedition in 1872 was devoted to a survey of the coast-line.

Whymper next organized an expedition to Ecuador, designed primarily to collect data for the study of altitude sickness and the effect of reduced pressure on the human body. He took along Jean-Antoine Carrel as his chief guide, whose subsequent death from exhaustion on the Matterhorn after bringing his employers into safety through a snowstorm forms one of the noblest pages in the history of mountaineering. During 1880 Whymper made two ascents of Mount Chimborazo (6,310m), also claiming the first ascent. He spent a night on the summit of Cotopaxi, and made first ascents of half-a-dozen other great peaks. In 1892 he published the results of his journey in a volume entitled Travels amongst the Great Andes of the Equator. His observations on altitude sickness led him to conclude that it was caused by a reduction in atmospheric pressure, which operates in at least two ways namely

(a) by lessening the value of the air that can be inspired in any given time, and
(b) by causing the air or gas within the body to expand, and to press upon the internal organs;
and that the effects produced by (b) may be temporary and dissipate when equilibrium has been restored between the internal and external pressure. The publication of his work was recognized on the part of the Royal Geographical Society by the award of the Patrons medal. His experiences in South America having convinced him of certain serious errors in the readings of aneroid barometers at high altitudes, he published a work entitled How to Use the Aneroid Barometer, and succeeded in introducing important improvements in their construction. He afterwards published two guide-books to Zermatt and Chamonix.

In the early 1900's, Wympher visited the Canadian Rockies several times and made arrangements with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to promote the Canadian Rockies and the railway in his talks in Europe and Asia. In exchange, the CPR agreed to pay transportation costs for himself and his four guides. In 1901, Whymper and his four guides made the first ascents of Mount Whymper and Stanley Peak in the Vermillion Pass area of the Canadian Rockies.

On September 16 1911, Whymper died at the age of 71, shortly after another climb in the alps. He is buried in Chamonix, France.


This article incorporates original text from the 1911 Encyclopedia.