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Edward Whymper

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

Edward Whymper (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 party were killed during the descent.[1][2] Whymper also made important first ascents on the Mont Blanc massif and in the Pennine Alps, 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.


  • Early life 1
  • The Matterhorn 2
  • Exploration in Greenland 3
  • South American exploration 4
  • Canadian Rockies 5
  • Illustrator 6
  • Final years 7
  • Works 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Edward Whymper was born in London, England on 27 April 1840 to the artist and wood engraver Josiah Wood Whymper and Elizabeth 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.

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.

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,

The Matterhorn

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.

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.

A controversy ensued as to whether the rope had actually been cut, but a formal investigation could not find any proof. The account of his 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

Whymper next organized 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), also claiming the first ascent. He spent a night on the summit of Cotopaxi and made first ascents of half a dozen other great peaks. 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 recognized 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 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".[4] 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).[4][5]

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 himself and his four guides. In 1901, Whymper and his four guides ( J. Bossoney, C. Kaufmann, C. Klucker, J. Pollinger) made the first ascents of Mount Whymper and Stanley Peak in the Vermilion Pass area of the Canadian Rockies.[6][7][8]

Confusingly, 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.[9][10][11][12]


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)[13] Whymper also illustrated and engraved John Tyndall's "Hours of Exercise in The Alps" (1871). He illustrated books for Isabella L. Bird[14] and was noted as being 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.[15]

Final years

Whymper's Grave in Chamonix

On 25 April 1906, Whymper married Edith Mary Lewin at Emmanuel Church in Forest Gate, London.[16] The service was presided over by Canon J. M'Cormick, who had assisted the mountaineer after the Matterhorn accident.[16] The marriage produced one daughter, Ethel. The couple were separated in 1910, and Edith died soon after.[16]

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.[17] Whymper died alone on 16 September 1911, at the age of 71.[17][18] A funeral was held four days later. He is buried in the English cemetery in Chamonix, France.[17]


  • Scrambles Amongst the Alps: In the Years 1860–69. London: John Murray, 1871. ISBN 978-0898150438.
  • Winter Pictures: By Poet and Artist. London: Religious Tract Society, 1875.
  • The Ascent of the Matterhorn. London: John Murray, 1880. ISBN 978-0862993474.
  • How to Use the Aneroid Barometer. London: John Murray, 1881.
  • Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator. London: John Murray, 1891. ISBN 978-0879052812.
  • Chamonix and the Range of Mont Blanc: A Guide. London: John Murray, 1896.
  • The Valley of Zermatt and the Matterhorn: A Guide. London: John Murray, 1897.
  • The Apprenticeship of a Mountaineer: Edward Whymper's London Diary, 1855-1859. Ed. Ian Smith. London: London Record Society, 2008. ISBN 978-0900952432.
  • by Isabella L. BirdAmong the Tibetans (1894, as illustrator)


  1. ^ Fleming, Fergus (3 Nov 2000). "Cliffhanger at the top of the world". The Guardian. 
  2. ^ "Blueplaque commemorates Matterhorn climber Edward Whymper". The Guardian. 15 Sep 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. ^ a b 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. 
  5. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2013). The Eponym Dictionary of Amphibians. Pelagic Publishing.  
  6. ^ "Mount Whymper (Edward)".  
  7. ^ "Mount Whymper", Peakware World Mountain Encyclopedia (, retrieved 2 June 2012 
  8. ^ "Mount Whymper British Columbia #1562". Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  9. ^ "Whymper, Frederick". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto/Université Laval. 2000. Retrieved 19 May 2012. 
  10. ^ "Mount Whymper (Frederick)".  
  11. ^ "Brown, Robert". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. University of Toronto/Université Laval. 2000. Retrieved 2 June 2012. 
  12. ^ Hayman (ed), John (1989), Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition, Vancouver:  
  13. ^ Grove, Florence Crauford, The Frosty Caucasus: an account of a walk through part of the Range and of an ascent of Elbruz in the summer of 1874 (London, Longmans, Green & Co, 1875, 341 pp.)
  14. ^ "Among the Tibetans". Project Gutenberg. 
  16. ^ a b c "Marriage to Edith Mary Lewin". Retrieved 12 November 2013. 
  17. ^ a b c "Death of Edward Whymper". Retrieved 12 November 2013. 
  18. ^ "Whymper Expected End". The New York Times: 4. 18 September 1911. 
  • Gos, Charles (1948). "The Matterhorn Catastrophe". Alpine Tragedy. Trans. Malcolm Barnes.  
  • Lyall, Alan (1997). The First Descent of the Matterhorn. (Privately).  
  • Smith, Ian M. (2011). Shadow of the Matterhorn: the life of Edward Whymper. Carreg.  
  • Smythe, Frank S (1940). Edward Whymper.  

External links

  • Works by Edward Whymper at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Edward Whymper at Internet Archive
  • Works by Edward Whymper at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Edward Whymper on Peakfinder
  • Peter H. Hansen, ‘Whymper, Edward (1840–1911)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  • Edward Whymper (1892). Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator. 
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