The Matterhorn was climbed for the first time on 14 July 1865. Four of the seven men led by the Englishman Edward Whymper lost their lives in the attempt, and the story of Zermatt and the tragedy on the Matterhorn was soon on everyone’s lips. The rope connecting Edward Whymper and local guides Peter Taugwalder and his son to the rest of the unfortunate rope group, broke during the descent. It is now displayed in the Matterhorn Museum alongside other relics of this first ascent.
From 1857 onwards, several unsuccessful attempts had been made to climb the Matterhorn, mostly from the Italian side. When Edward Whymper arrived in Valtournenche in July 1865, it was already his sixth summer season in the area. During each of the previous five summers, Whymper had failed in his attempts to climb the mountain regarded here as the unconquerable King of the Alps.
Every unsuccessful attempt reinforced the superstition that the mountain was invincible, so that even experienced local mountain guides often turned down generous offers from the leaders of foreign expeditions.
But the Briton did not believe in mountain demons, and his project was based on rational thinking. He had studied the books of Horace Bénédict de Saussure and had come to the conclusion that the mountain could be conquered not from the Italian south-west side but via the north-eastern ridge on the Swiss side. It was not Breuil that would be his starting point, but Zermatt – where Mont Cervin was known as the Matterhorn. In 1862, John Tyndall became the first to climb the south-west shoulder, now known as Pic Tyndall, together with his guides J. J. Bennen, Anton Walter, Jean-Jacques and Jean-Antoine Carrel. But it did not appear possible to continue the ascent along the Liongrat ridge, and Whymper also regarded the Liongrat ridge as being unfeasible. He therefore attempted to persuade his friend Jean-Antoine Carrel to attempt an ascent from the Zermatt side, but Carrel insisted that he wanted to climb from the Italian side. In July 1865, Whymper happened to learn from a publican in Breuil that Carrel had set off for the Liongrat ridge again – without informing Whymper. Whymper felt he had been deceived, and hurried to Zermatt in order to assemble a group for an immediate attempt via the Hörnligrat ridge.