By Sasha Coles
There’s only one place where can you find folk Scandinavian yodeling, sharp turns, jolting stops, a fierce abominable snowman, an Alpine stream, and white resin made to look like snow—Disneyland’s Matterhorn. This attraction started out as a pile of dirt, excavated to create the moat around Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Now, this impressive Disney peak, 147 feet in height, towers over Fantasyland and thrills park visitors to no end. Walt Disney based this attraction on a mountain of the same name, located in the Swiss Alps. He got the idea after he traveled to Europe in the 1950s to shoot Switzerland (1955), a short documentary made for the “People and Places” film series, and Third Man on the Mountain (1959), filmed in the Swiss town of Zermatt. The real Matterhorn—named from the German words for “meadow” and “peak”—does not have a rollercoaster or an abominable snowman inside of it, but the long history of the mountain contains plenty of its own surprises.
The history of the Matterhorn begins between 90 and 20 million years ago, when the African and Eurasian continental tectonic plates slammed into one another and forced the ground upward into a peak. Geologists refer to this type of formation as a “glacial horn.” You can find the Matterhorn on the border between Switzerland and Italy. The Swiss resort town of Zermatt is the most common place to begin an ascent up the mountain. At 14,692 feet, the Matterhorn reaches higher than the tallest summit in the Lower 48 of the United States, but it is not the highest peak in the Alps. That title goes to Mount Blanc, which is more than 1,000 feet higher. Even so, writers, historians, and mountain climbers acknowledge the Matterhorn as one of the most striking, recognizable, and photographed peaks on the planet.
It is also one of the most perilous for climbers. Medieval peasants used to tell tales about the Matterhorn as a home for dangerous, territorial dragons and demons. They passed down legends that anyone who climbed the peak would suffer. These warnings carry some weight. Out of the approximately 3,000 people who summit the mountain annually, an average of three to four of them die. In total, almost 500 people have lost their lives on the Matterhorn. That’s more than Mount Everest, Mount Rainier, and Denali combined.
This count of 500 includes several members of the first party to successfully summit the Matterhorn. In 1860, an English wood engraver and illustrator named Edward Whymper traveled throughout Europe on a work assignment to sketch the great mountains of Switzerland, Italy, and France. He became enamored with the Matterhorn and made eight attempts to reach the top over the next few years, often with the help of a local guide named Jean-Antoine Carrel. Whymper decided to assemble a new climbing team and give it another go in July 1865. He recruited Lord Francis Douglas, an eighteen-year-old British aristocrat and novice climber; Charles Hudson, an Anglican chaplain from the English countryside, and his friend, Douglas Hadow; Michel Croz, an experienced French mountain guide; and two Swiss mountaineers, Peter Taugwalder and his fifteen-year-old son (also named Peter).
Whymper soon found out that his long-time partner, Carrel, decided to mount an independent expedition from the Italian side of the Matterhorn. Carrel firmly believed that a local climber, as opposed to a foreigner, should be the first to reach the top. When Whymper found out that Carrel was trying to race him to the summit, he felt “bamboozled.” At the same time, Whymper once wrote that Carrel “was the man, of all those who attempted the ascent of the Matterhorn, who most deserved to be the first upon its summit.”
The Whymper party set out on July 14, 1865. They enjoyed a successful and relatively pleasant ascent. During the climb, which took about four hours, they caught a view of Carrel and the rest of the Italian group 600 feet or so below. Whymper yelled and then launched a “torrent of stones” at them to get their attention (with the hopes of bragging a little bit, I suppose). Whymper and Croz reached the summit first. At the top, Whymper sketched a panorama, wrote down everyone’s names, and placed the list in a bottle that he left at the summit. The men did not have a flag, so they flew Croz’s shirt instead.
As they descended, tragedy struck. A rope linked all of the party members together. At one point, Hadow slipped and pulled Croz, Hudson, and Douglas down with him. Whymper and the two Taugwalders clung to the mountain and attempted to save their teammates, but the flimsy rope between Whymper and the fallen men snapped. Hadow, Croz, Hudson, and Douglas slid down the mountain and disappeared over the edge. Whymper and the Taugwalders remained in place for thirty minutes to recover from the shock. They successfully made their way down, and Whymper recounted the harrowing story in his book, Scrambles Amongst the Alps (1871). The book became a worldwide bestseller and encouraged people from all over the world to try their hand at mountaineering. Teddy Roosevelt, the eventual 26th President of the United States, climbed the Matterhorn in 1881.
Many historians credit Lucy Walker, a gentlewoman from England, with the title of the first woman to reach the top of the Matterhorn. On July 22, 1871, Walker ascended the mountain wearing a long flannel skirt. She often carried sponge cake and champagne during her mountain-climbing trips, although I can’t say for sure if she had those goodies with her that day. Walker decided to climb the Matterhorn after she heard that her climbing rival, Meta Brevoort (an American), was headed to Zermatt to begin her own ascent.
Some of you might know that a handful of people and Disney characters, Mickey and Minnie included, have climbed to the top of Disneyland’s Matterhorn. In the 1980s, Frank Nosalek, a native of West Germany, and seven other climbers regularly scaled the peak to entertain crowds. You can rest easy knowing that no tragedy has befallen any of these climbers, though! The next time you’re waiting in line to bolt through the icy caverns of the Matterhorn, direct your gaze toward the mountain summit. Do you think you could climb up to the top?
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Robert Deardorff, “They Did the Impossible, and Then—” New York Times, December 6, 1964.
Herbert J. Vida, “Weekend Treks Up Disneyland’s Matterhorn Keep His Life in Balance,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1989, p. 2.
“The Matterhorn, a Glacial Horn,” National Geographic.
Jennifer Nalewicki, “Seven Surprising Facts About the Matterhorn,” Smithsonian, March 9, 2016.
Dougald Macdonald, “10 Things You May Not Know About the Matterhorn,” Climbing, July 14, 2015.
Kelley McMillan, “Climbing the Matterhorn: Step by Step,” New York Times, October 13, 2015.
Adam Ruck, “The Story of the First Ascent of the Matterhorn,” Telegraph, July 14, 2015.
Christopher Klein, ”Remembering the Triumph and Tragedy Atop the Matterhorn,” History, July 14, 2015.
Mark Jenkins, “How the Matterhorn Created Modern Mountaineering 150 Years Ago,” National Geographic, July 14, 2015.
R. L. G. Irving, Ten Great Mountains (1940)
Mick Conefrey, How to Climb Mt. Blanc in a Skirt (2011)
Emil Henry, Triumph and Tragedy: The Life of Edward Whymper (2011)
Graeme Wallace, Matterhorn: The Quintessential Mountain (2015)
Hannah Kimberley, A Woman’s Place Is at the Top (2017)