The Thriller on the “Matterhorn”

The Matterhorn celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first ascent. There at that time: Father and Son Taugwalder. To mark the anniversary, the Zermatt open-air theatre tells the dramatic story. Centre stage this time: the fifth generation Father and Son Taugwalder.

Text by Aurelia Forrer and Pictures from David Birri
Published in the Schweizer Illustrierten, no. 11, 9 March 2015

It hangs by a hempen rope: The truth about what happened on the Matterhorn on 14 July 1865. The day on which a seven-man roped team reached the summit at 4,478 metres for the first time. Only three of them survived the descent as well: the Englishman Edward Whymper – he is officially the first person on the top – as well as the Zermatt mountain guides Peter Taugwalder, father, and Peter Taugwalder, son. With a torn hempen rope at the end of which the other four fell to their deaths, the three returned to Zermatt.

Descendants play the predecessors

150 years later, the Zermatt open-air theatre attempts to cast some light on the dark events: with the thriller about the first ascent of the “Hore” as the people of Zermatt call their “horn” or the Matterhorn. Josef Taugwalder, 50, and his son David, 23, have slipped into the roles of their ancestors in The Matterhorn Story. They are each the great-great-great-grandchild of those who they want to embody. “In a way, we are both acting out our family history, which is always present in our everyday lives.” For the play, they change roles together from their trust agency to the stage: “A rare opportunity to experience something extraordinary with my own son,” says father Josef, who reached the summit of the Hore for the first time two years ago. “We also feel a certain sense of pride for the courage of our predecessors.”

Whymper goes the whole hog

Today, around 3,000 people climb the Matterhorn every year. Very different from 150 years ago, since the citizens of Zermatt fear their “own” mountain. The priest warns: Climbing the mountain is blasphemy! The superstition that spirits throw rocks down the mountain induces even greater fear. The village residents have deep respect – as well as little time for climbing because of their existential needs. It is adventurous, rich English people, who want to get to the top of the Hore at any cost. Edward Whymper is considered an ambitious Alpinist among them, and he had already tried to climb it eight times from the Italian side before succeeding. When he heard in the village that there were some other Englishmen setting out, he joined their group. Father and Son Taugwalder, as locals, said they were willing to accompany the roped group as mountain guides. “They were poor farmers and needed money,” says Josef Taugwalder. For 80 Swiss francs – today a climb costs 1,200 Swiss francs – they ignored the warning of the priest and set out for the summit on the 13th of all days. “Incredibly courageous, because they did not know what awaited them. In the meantime, there are anchored fixed ropes, which now make the climb easier.”

The seven-man crew – today, a roped party is two people – succeeded in reaching the summit. The ambitious Edward Whymper reached the top first. “It is said that he had cut the rope during the climb so that he was the first to be on top.” Therefore, during the ascent, the mountain guide Taugwalder did not have enough rope to secure the preceding Lord Douglas. He takes a thinner one – after all, Douglas is his paying customer. But when one of the front four falls during the descent, the thin rope breaks. Lord Douglas falls with the others 1,400 metres into the deep – and until today is the only one to disappear somewhere on the mountain. Father and Son Taugwiler remain standing with Edward Whymper. “If the rope had ripped differently, we would not be here today,” says David Taugwalder.

No celebrated heroes

The torn rope at the allegedly right place nevertheless had terrible consequences. “For the mountain guide Taugwalder, the first ascent with four dead was a catastrophe. They were not celebrated heroes,” says Josef Taugwalder. Only Whymper was able to celebrate as the first one on the Hore. “He later said that Father Taugwalder intentionally used a weak rope or even cut through this one, and thus he was responsible for the death of the others.” The Zermatt native, who did not speak English, could not defend himself against Whymper’s statements.

This part of the story still affects the Taugwalders many generations later. “Whymper was a great Alpinist. No question about that. But what he did afterwards was character assassination and destroyed Father Taugwalder.”

The corpus delicti is on display in the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt today. A hempen rope, six millimetres thick, normal would be 1.7 centimetres. In the meantime, tests have shown that the strength limit of the torn rope was at 300 kilogrammes. The weight of four falling men is not something it could have held. “Still, Father Taugwalder tried to tie the rope around a rock. This was proved by his injuries to his breast and hands,” says Josef Taugwalder. “But to cut through the rope in fractions of a second is impossible.”

There was never a court decision against Taugwalder. In addition, the people of Zermatt have always believed the version of their colleague. The play, The Matterhorn Story, is long delayed gratification says Josef Taugwalder. “Therefore, we play the parts of our predecessors with great passion.” But the complete truth will never come to light. The tumult surrounding the world-renowned Valais mountain continues. Only on the day of the celebration, on 14 July 2014, will there be no climbing for once.

The Matterhorn Story

The mountain of all mountains celebrates. The Zermatt open-air theatre will perform The Matterhorn Story by the Bernese author and director Livia Anne Richard from 9 July to 29 August 2015. 

The open-air theatre takes place at Gornergrat on Riffelberg (2,582 m) and makes it possible for visitors to immerse themselves in the year 1865. Professional and amateur actors also play in front of a spectacular backdrop – namely the main performer of them all, the Matterhorn.

The play will be performed in Valais German, German and English. A written description of the scenes is available in French, Portuguese, Japanese and Korean.


PDF Schweizer Illustrierte, No. 11, 9 March 2015 (in german)

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