Edward Whymper

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Edward Whymper
Edward Whymper.jpg
Edward Whymper, engraving, 1881
Personal information
Born(1840-04-27)27 April 1840
London, England
Died16 September 1911(1911-09-16) (aged 71)
Chamonix, France
OccupationMountaineer, illustrator, author
Climbing career
Known for Matterhorn first ascent
First ascents

Edward Whymper FRSE (27 April 1840 – 16 September 1911) was an English mountaineer, explorer, illustrator, and author best known for the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Four members of his climbing party were killed during the descent. [1] [2] Whymper also made important first ascents on the Mont Blanc massif and in the Pennine Alps, Chimborazo in South America, and the Canadian Rockies. His exploration of Greenland contributed an important advance to Arctic exploration. Whymper wrote several books on mountaineering, including Scrambles Amongst the Alps .

Mountaineering sport of mountain climbing

Mountaineering is the set of activities that involves ascending mountains. Mountaineering-related activities include traditional outdoor climbing, hiking, skiing, and traversing via ferratas. Indoor climbing, sport climbing and bouldering are also considered mountaineering by some.

First ascent first successful, documented attainment of the top of a mountain, or specific route

In mountaineering, a first ascent is the first successful, documented attainment of the top of a mountain, or the first to follow a particular climbing route. First mountain ascents are notable because they entail genuine exploration, with greater risks, challenges, and recognition than climbing a route pioneered by others. The person who performs the first ascent is called the first ascensionist.

Matterhorn Mountain in the Pennine Alps on the border between Switzerland and Italy

The Matterhorn is a mountain of the Alps, straddling the main watershed and border between Switzerland and Italy. It is a large, near-symmetrical pyramidal peak in the extended Monte Rosa area of the Pennine Alps, whose summit is 4,478 metres (14,692 ft) high, making it one of the highest summits in the Alps and Europe. The four steep faces, rising above the surrounding glaciers, face the four compass points and are split by the Hörnli, Furggen, Leone/Lion, and Zmutt ridges. The mountain overlooks the Swiss town of Zermatt, in the canton of Valais, to the north-east and the Italian town of Breuil-Cervinia in the Aosta Valley to the south. Just east of the Matterhorn is Theodul Pass, the main passage between the two valleys on its north and south sides, and a trade route since the Roman Era.


Early life

Painting by Lance Calkin Edward Whymper Calkin.jpg
Painting by Lance Calkin

Edward Whymper was born at Lambeth Terrace on Kennington Road in London on 27 April 1840 to the artist and wood engraver Josiah Wood Whymper and Elizabeth Whitworth Claridge. He was the second of eleven children, his older brother being the artist and explorer Frederick Whymper. 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 commissioned alpine scenery drawings. 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 Dauphiné Alps.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital of and largest city in England and the United Kingdom, and the largest city in the European Union. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Wood engraving technique in printmaking and letterpress printing

Wood engraving is a printmaking and letterpress printing technique, in which an artist works an image or matrix of images into a block of wood. Functionally a variety of woodcut, it uses relief printing, where the artist applies ink to the face of the block and prints using relatively low pressure. By contrast, ordinary engraving, like etching, uses a metal plate for the matrix, and is printed by the intaglio method, where the ink fills the valleys, the removed areas. As a result, wood engravings deteriorate less quickly than copper-plate engravings, and have a distinctive white-on-black character.

Josiah Wood Whymper English artist

Josiah Wood Whymper was a British wood-engraver, book illustrator and watercolourist.

In 1861, Whymper successfully completed the ascent of Mont Pelvoux, the first of a series of expeditions that threw much light on the topography of an area at that time very imperfectly mapped. From the summit of Mont Pelvoux, Whymper discovered that it was overtopped by a neighbouring peak, subsequently named the Barre des Écrins, which, before the annexation of Savoy added Mont Blanc to the possessions of France, was the highest point in the French Alps. Whymper climbed the Barre des Écrins in 1864 with Horace Walker, A. W. Moore and guides Christian Almer senior and junior.

Barre des Écrins mountain in the French Alps

The Barre des Écrins is a mountain in the French Alps with a peak at 4102m altitude. It is the highest peak of the Massif des Écrins and the Dauphiné Alps and the most southerly alpine peak in Europe that is higher than 4,000 m. It is the only 4,000 m mountain in France that lies outside the Mont Blanc Massif. Before the annexation of Savoy in 1860 it was the highest mountain in France.

Savoy Cultural-historical region between Western and Central Europe

Savoy is a cultural-historical region between Western and Central Europe. It comprises roughly the territory of the Western Alps between Lake Geneva in the north and Dauphiné in the south.

Mont Blanc Highest mountain in the Alps (4,809 m)

Mont Blanc, meaning "White Mountain") is the highest mountain in the Alps and the highest in Europe west of the Caucasus peaks of Russia and Georgia. It rises 4,808 m (15,774 ft) above sea level and is ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. The mountain stands in a range called the Graian Alps, between the regions of Aosta Valley, Italy, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie, France. The location of the summit is on the watershed line between the valleys of Ferret and Veny in Italy and the valleys of Montjoie, and Arve in France, in the middle of what is generally considered to be the border between the two countries.

The years 1861 to 1865 were filled with a number of new expeditions in the Mont Blanc massif and the Pennine Alps, among them the first ascents of the Aiguille d'Argentière and Mont Dolent in 1864, and the Aiguille Verte, the Grand Cornier and Pointe Whymper on the Grandes Jorasses in 1865. That year he also made the first crossing of the Moming Pass. According to his own words, his only failure was on the west ridge of the Dent d'Hérens in 1863. [3] As a result of his Alpine experience, he designed a tent that came to be known as the "Whymper tent" and tents based on his design were still being manufactured 100 years later.

Mont Blanc massif Mountain range in the Alps

The Mont Blanc massif is a mountain range in the Alps, located mostly in France and Italy, but also straddling Switzerland at its northeastern end. It contains eleven major independent summits, each over 4,000 metres (13,123 ft) in height. It is named after Mont Blanc, the highest point in western Europe and the European Union. Because of its considerable overall altitude, a large proportion of the massif is covered by glaciers, which include the Mer de Glace and the Miage Glacier – the longest glaciers in France and Italy, respectively.

Pennine Alps mountain range in the Western part of the Alps

The Pennine Alps, also known as the Valais Alps, are a mountain range in the western part of the Alps. They are located in Switzerland (Valais) and Italy.

Aiguille dArgentière mountain in Switzerland

The Aiguille d'Argentière is a mountain in the Mont Blanc massif on the border between France and Switzerland.

The Matterhorn

Title page of 6th edition (1936) of Scrambles amongst the Alps Scrambles amongst the Alps.jpg
Title page of 6th edition (1936) of Scrambles amongst the Alps

Professor John Tyndall and Whymper emulated each other in determined attempts to reach the summit of the Matterhorn by the south-western, or Italian, ridge. In 1865, Whymper, who had failed eight times already, attempted unsuccessfully to climb a couloir on the south-east face with Michel Croz. After Croz left for a prior engagement with Charles Hudson, Whymper was unable to secure the services of Val Tournanche guide Jean Antoine Carrel, and instead planned to try the eastern face with Lord Francis Douglas and the two Zermatt guides, Peter Taugwalder father and son.

John Tyndall British scientist

John Tyndall FRS was a prominent 19th-century Irish physicist. His initial scientific fame arose in the 1850s from his study of diamagnetism. Later he made discoveries in the realms of infrared radiation and the physical properties of air. Tyndall also published more than a dozen science books which brought state-of-the-art 19th century experimental physics to a wide audience. From 1853 to 1887 he was professor of physics at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London.

Michel Croz French mountain climber and guide

Michel Auguste Croz was a French mountain guide and the first ascentionist of many mountains in the western Alps during the golden age of alpinism. He is chiefly remembered for his death on the first ascent of the Matterhorn and for his climbing partnership with Edward Whymper.

Charles Hudson (climber) Anglican chaplain, British mountain climber

Charles Hudson was an Anglican chaplain and mountain climber from Skillington, Lincolnshire, England.

Whymper was convinced that the Matterhorn's 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. This party of four was joined by Hudson and Croz, and the inexperienced Douglas Hadow. Their attempt by what is now the normal route, the Hörnli ridge, met with success on 14 July 1865, only days before an Italian party. On the descent, Hadow slipped and fell onto Croz, dislodging him and dragging Douglas and Hudson to their deaths; the rope parted, saving the other three.

Douglas Robert Hadow British novice mountain climber

Douglas Robert Hadow was a British novice mountaineer who died on the descent after the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

A controversy ensued as to whether the rope had actually been cut, but a formal investigation could not find any proof, and Peter Taugwalder was acquitted. The rope had snapped between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas. Whymper asked Taugwalder to show him the rope. To his surprise, he saw that it was the oldest and weakest of the ropes they brought, and one which had been intended only as a reserve. All those who had fallen had been tied with a Manila rope, or with a second and equally strong one, and consequently it had been only between the survivors and those who had fallen where the weaker rope had been used. Whymper also had suggested to Hudson that they should have attached a rope to the rocks on the most difficult place, and held it as they descended, as an additional protection. Hudson approved the idea, but it was never done. [4] It can be deduced that Taugwalder had no other choice but to use a weaker rope, as the stronger rope was not long enough to connect Taugwalder to Douglas. The account of Whymper's attempts on the Matterhorn occupies the greater part of his book, Scrambles amongst the Alps (1871), in which the illustrations are engraved by Whymper himself. The accident haunted Whymper:

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 ...

Exploration in Greenland

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 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 coastline.

South American exploration

Commemorative plaque in Zermatt Picswiss VS-01-16.jpg
Commemorative plaque in Zermatt

Whymper next organised 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. His chief guide was Jean-Antoine Carrel, who later died from exhaustion on the Matterhorn after bringing his employers into safety through a snowstorm.

During 1880, Whymper made two ascents of Chimborazo (6,267m), claiming the first ascent, though Alexander von Humboldt had ascended the volcano in 1802. [5] He spent a night on the summit of Cotopaxi and made first ascents of Sincholagua, Antisana, Cayambe, Sara Urco and Cotacachi. 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 lessens the value of inhaled air, and by expansion of the air or gas within the body, causing pressure upon the internal organs. The effects produced by gas expansion may be temporary and dissipate when equilibrium has been restored between the internal and external pressure. The publication of his work was recognised on the part of the Royal Geographical Society by the award of the Patron's 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.

While in Ecuador, Whymper made a collection of amphibians and reptiles that he handed over to George Albert Boulenger at the British Museum. The collection received some praise from Boulenger, who said that "though containing no striking novelties", the collection was "interesting on account of the care bestowed by its collector in recording the exact locality from which every specimen was obtained". [6] Boulenger described four new species from the materials, three of them named after Whymper: snake Coronella Whymperi (now a junior synonym of Saphenophis boursieri ) and frogs Prostherapis Whymperi , Phryniscus elegans , and Hylodes Whymperi (now a junior synonym of Pristimantis curtipes ). [6] [7]

Canadian Rockies

In the early 1900s, Whymper 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 him and his four guides. In 1901, Whymper and his four guides (Joseph Bossoney, Christian Kaufmann, Christian Klucker and Joseph Pollinger) made the first ascents of Mount Whymper and Stanley Peak in the Vermilion Pass area of the Canadian Rockies. [8] [9] [10]

His brother Frederick also has a mountain in British Columbia named after him, from his days as artist illustrator with the Robert Brown's Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition in 1864. [11] [12] [13] [14]


When not climbing, Whymper pursued his profession as an engraver of illustrations for books and periodicals. Among the books he illustrated was his fellow-mountaineer Florence Crauford Grove's The Frosty Caucasus (1875) [15] Whymper also illustrated and engraved John Tyndall's "Hours of Exercise in The Alps" (1871). He illustrated books for Isabella L. Bird [16] but his brother Charles Whymper was the designer of the Henrietta Amelia Bird memorial clock tower in Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Scotland. It was built in 1905, funded by Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bishop) in memory of her sister. [17] [18]

Final years

Whymper's Grave in Chamonix Whymper Grave.jpg
Whymper's Grave in Chamonix

On 25 April 1906, aged 65, Whymper married Edith Mary Lewin aged 23 (born 1883) at Emmanuel Church in Forest Gate, London. [19] The service was presided over by Canon J. M'Cormick, who had assisted the mountaineer after the Matterhorn accident. [19] The marriage produced one daughter, Ethel. The couple were separated in 1910. [19] Edith remarried in 1913 and died the following year from complications of pregnancy. [20]

Shortly after returning to Chamonix from another climb in the Alps, Whymper became ill, locked himself in his room at the Grand Hotel Couttet, and refused all medical treatment. [21] Whymper died alone on 16 September 1911, at the age of 71. [21] [22] A funeral was held four days later. He is buried in the English cemetery in Chamonix. [21]


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  1. Fleming, Fergus (3 November 2000). "Cliffhanger at the top of the world". The Guardian.
  2. "Blueplaque commemorates Matterhorn climber Edward Whymper". The Guardian. 15 September 2011.
  3. "This was the only mountain in the Alps that I have essayed to ascend, that has not, sooner or later, fallen to me. Our failure was mortifying ..." Quoted in Dumler, Helmut and Willi P. Burkhardt, The High Mountains of the Alps, London: Diadem, 1994, p. 157.
  4. Edward Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps, 1872.
  5. "Alexander von Humboldt: A Chronology from 1769 to 1859" in Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial regions of the New Continent by Alexander von Humboldt. London: Penguin Classics 1995, p. lxviii.
  6. 1 2 Boulenger, G. A. (1882). "Account of the reptiles and batrachians collected by Mr. Edward Whymper in Ecuador in 1879–80". Annals and Magazine of Natural History. Series 5. 9: 457–467.
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  16. "Among the Tibetans". Project Gutenberg.
  18. "DSA Architect Biography Report: Charles Whymper". scottisharchitects.org.uk. Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Archived from the original on 10 April 2017.
  19. 1 2 3 "Marriage to Edith Mary Lewin". Whymper.com. Archived from the original on 12 November 2013. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  20. Lewin, Greg. "Edith and the Mountaineer". Greg's Family History. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
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