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150 Years
  First Ascent

Matterhorn 2015

July 14th 1865

7 men on top of the Matterhorn
3 made it home

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Disentangle fact from fiction


Edward Whymper


Whymper was a wood-engraver by profession. He did well at school but left at 14 to take up his apprenticeship in what was the family business. The Whympers lived and worked in Lambeth, close to the River Thames in central London. Edward’s youthful journal shows him to be interested in the world about him, especially the politics and news stories of the day, keen on cricket and uneasy in social situations.

When a book needed Alpine illustrations in 1860, young Edward was sent to make the sketches and so began his fascination with the mountains. The next five years saw him exploring the Alps, joining the mountaineering fraternity, and undertaking increasingly ambitious climbs. It was a fascination that would grow to combine the will to climb with intellectual curiosity.

After the Matterhorn tragedy, his adventures in Greenland, Ecuador and Canada were driven by the Victorian aspiration to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and have papers published in the prestigious periodical Nature. Whymper achieved these goals, in spite of his lack of formal education. Towards the end of the century the wood engraving business suffered as technology moved on. Photographs could be used to illustrate books and magazines. But the stories of his adventures could earn money. So Whymper became a professional on the lecture tour circuit, a popular form of entertainment for Victorians. His talks were, of course, fully illustrated with impressive photography.

As he aged, Whymper’s unease with society grew into a general dislike for what he saw as stupidity. He could be caustic to the point of being rude. He had close friends, but many people annoyed him, and when they did, they knew about it. He was eccentric and reclusive, but his talks were popular and, so reports say, highly amusing. During the late 1890s, Whymper’s friendship with Charlotte Hanbury, ten years his senior, developed into a close relationship that ended when she was taken from him by cancer. A few years later, there was a brief and disastrous marriage to Edith Lewin, considerably younger, who bore him a daughter.

In 1911, Whymper was travelling in the Alps when he fell ill. Quickly and quietly, he died in his room in a Chamonix hotel.