On Feb 18th, 1880, 39-year-old Briton Edward Whymper had Louis Carrel hold his legs as he hung over the crater rim and peered down into the mouth of 19,347-foot Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano. His face illuminated glowing orange, he saw, as he wrote in Travels amongst the Great Andes of the Equator:
“At the bottom, probably twelve hundred feet below us and towards the center, there was a rudely circular spot about one-tenth the diameter of the crater. … the pipe of the volcano [from its] lower regions, filled with incandescent if not molten lava glowing and burning, with flames traveling to and fro over its surface and scintillations scattering as from a wood-fire.”
Cotopaxi had erupted on June 25, 1877, less than three years before. Whymper and his companions, Italian mountain guides Louis and Jean-Antoine Carrel, spent 26 hours near the summit, camping in a tent whose rubberized floor slowly cooked on the side of the volcano, reaching temperatures of 110 degrees.
At that time, the journey to Ecuador from England was a massive undertaking in itself — it took the men almost five weeks, including a land crossing of Panama, which of course didn’t have a canal yet. Their trip to South America packed in a lifetime of mountaineering achievements, claiming the first ascent of 20,561-foot Chimborazo, as well as several other virgin peaks in the country halfway across the world. It was a visionary journey, atypical of Britain’s middle class at the time but not out of the ordinary for Whymper, born in 1840 and the second of 11 children of a wood-engraver father who kept his business alive through lean years to later flourish.
Whymper, however, is less remembered for his South American climbs than one fateful climb in the Alps 15 years earlier: The Matterhorn.
On July 14, 1865, after seven previous attempts, Whymper led a climbing party to the top of the Matterhorn via the Hornli Ridge, winning the race to the top against an Italian team and marking the end of the 11-year Golden Age of Alpinism, during which many of the Alps’ great mountains were climbed for the first time.
Whymper was one of only three people to live through the descent from the Matterhorn — Douglas Hadow, an inexperienced climber, slipped on the descent, falling down the mountain’s north face and taking three other climbers with him to their deaths. The accident marred the climb Whymper had been obsessed over and worked toward ever since being sent to the Alps in 1860 on a commission to make scenic drawings. Whymper would second-guess his decision to include Hadow on the climb and would skip the Alpine Club’s annual member-guest dinner that year. Emil Henry wrote in Triumph and Tragedy, his biography of Whymper: “…mention of the Matterhorn had become ‘hateful’ to him, its conquest ‘bitterness and ashes.’ Sadness at the death of his colleagues and vexation at fate’s cruelty had replaced the thrill of the Matterhorn ascent and the deeper satisfactions of an unparalleled climbing career.”
From 1867 to 1871, Whymper moved back in with his father and dedicated himself to writing and illustrating a book about his five years of adventures in the Alps, which included first ascents of other peaks including Mont Pelvoux, Barre des Ecrins, and Aiguille d’Argentière. Scrambles Among the Alps in the Years 1860-69 became an instant classic of mountaineering literature, bringing him fame and fortune, and is still in print today. His mountain drawings were respected — Professor John Tyndall, Whymper’s main rival in the quest for the Matterhorn, wrote his own book about climbing in the Alps and purchased several of Whymper’s illustrations for the book.
In 1867, he attempted an expedition to Greenland, which was more frustrating than productive but proved that the island’s interior could be explored by dogsled. He returned in 1871 to survey the coastline. He continued to be motivated by exploration and science, dreaming up his 1879-1880 South American expedition to study the effects of high altitude on the human body (Britain had closed off Himalayan travel to non-military persons at that time), returning with valuable samples, data, and observations.
He married in 1906 to a 21-year-old woman who bore him a daughter, but the marriage soon dissolved as he traveled to try to sell his guidebooks to Chamonix and Zermatt. He died alone in a room in the Hotel Couttet in September 1911, at age 71, and was buried in Chamonix. A plaque bearing Whymper’s likeness is mounted at the Hotel Monte Rosa in Zermatt, reading, “On July 14, 1865, he set forth from this hotel with his companions and guides and completed the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn.”