The year was 1854 and the Englishman Alfred Wills was on honeymoon in the Alps. With his wife and the Chamonix guide Auguste Balmat he made excursions in the Mont Blanc region. Towards the end of the holiday the twenty six year old Wills decided to make a first ascent. For some reason, the choice fell on the beautiful mountain Wetterhorn that literally hangs over the glacier village Grindelwald in the Bernese Oberland. On August 27, a group of five people started from Grindelwald. "Try to come back alive!" was the inn keeper’s admonition. In addition to Wills and Balmat there were three other mountain guides; Auguste Simonds from Chamonix and the Oberland men Ulrich Lauener and Peter Bohren. The Wetterhorn is 3701 meters high, which meant that the ascent covered an impressive 2700 vertical meters, in other words two full days work. The first night they pitched the camp at a place called Gleckstein (Big block). Two large stones leaning against each other gave a little protection from the wind. Under the cloudless sky they had supper consisting of a cup of coffee, a piece of veal and some sour bread slices. With the blankets full of fleas they spent an unpleasant night.
"The golden age of mountaineering" lasted for eleven years. It began with Wills’ ascent of the Wetterhorn and ended with Whymper’s triumph and disaster on the Matterhorn in 1865. This is certainly what the British think. In fact, the Swiss, French and Germans ascended many peaks between 1820 and 1850. The Wetterhorn, or the Hasle Jungfrau as the old name is, was probably climbed for the first time in 1844 by one or possibly two local guides. It is somewhat unclear which summit they reached since the Wetterhorn actually has two additional summits, the Mittelhorn (3704m) and the Rose Horn (3689m). Considering Wills’ ascent as the first and as the introduction to "The Golden Age" is probably due to his fine description in his book “Wanderings Among the High Alps”.
View from near the Gleckstein hut. The hut path is visible on the near side.
The year was 1994 and we were driving along the narrow road leading up to Grindelwald. Just before the village the valley opens up and the famous mountains are standing in line; the Wetterhorn, the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau. The plan this time was to climb the Wetterhorn and full of anticipation we started with the Gleckstein hut as goal for the day. The trail, which winds its way above the upper Grindelwald glacier, is offering views that can compete with most places in this world. We repeatedly passed in close proximity to precipices hundreds of meters tall. On the other side of the glacier a beautiful narrow ridge towers over 4000 meters. The highest peak being the Schreckhorn was also ascended for the first time during "The golden age". Of course, it was an Englishman who stood for achievement, Leslie Stephen who also wrote the cult book “The Playground of Europe”. We walked further up and could just as well have found ourselves a century earlier. In the evening we restored our fluid balance and had a hearty dinner in the modern Gleckstein hut. The wind howled all night. We had no problems with fleas.
They started towards the summit at half past four. The sunrise revealed a multitude of peaks against a clear sky this 1854 August morning. The five men were crossing the Chrinnengletcher without mishap and continued up the long ridge, now named Willsgrät after Wills, leading up to the plateau called the Wetter saddle. Wills said about climbing the ridge, "the worst piece of scrambling I ever did." Well up on the plateau, they spied two small figures lower down who apparently also were going up. Wills and his group had a serious concern, was another team also trying to climb the Wetterhorn? When the men came closer Wills saw that they were carrying a small fir tree. One of the newcomers was Christian Almer, who would later become one of the most famous mountain guides in the Alps. The second was Almer’s brother in law. They had heard of Wills’ plan and decided to challenge him for the summit. Time had not been sufficient to prepare a proper summit flag but a fir tree was good enough. After some discussions, the two groups decided to join forces.
Cutting through the fearsome blue overhang. Note the fir tree.
The equipment in Wills days was far from what we have today. The shoes that they used were the usual winter footwear, at best, with drilled in pins. The dress differed hardly from what they wore during a normal winter walk. The modern ice axe was unknown, instead they had a long stick with a nail in one end. They often dragged ladders with them to overcome difficulties. Ropes were used but the principles of belaying were largely unknown. The last three hundred meters up to the summit consisted of ice and the slope increased gradually up to 70 degrees. A fearsome blue overhang of frozen snow prevented the move higher up. Lauener went first and chopped steps in the ice. Simonds followed and made the steps wider. After one hour Lauener told the others to follow while he cut his way through the overhang. "I only see blue sky!" he shouted. After a while, the clock showing half past eleven, they all sat on the summit that turned out to be a razor sharp edge. "I've never been on horse with such a narrow back" said Wills. To the north there was nothing apart from the green meadows 3000 meters further down. Almer planted his fir and Wills put up their flagpole. These landmarks were reported later, visible from the observatory in Bern 60 kilometres to the north. The victory was celebrated with a sip of brandy mixed with snow.
“The worst piece of scrambling I ever did”
We are making an effort despite the wind somebody said at five o'clock in morning one hundred and forty years later. Headlamps on, we soon found a suitable rhythm, step after step took us up the glacier. The snow was so soft that we left our crampons in the backpack until further notice. In the dusk we started up the ridge. Wills words "the worst piece of scrambling ...", was on our minds when we worked our way upwards. The mountain was dry and with little snow, thus conditions may be said to be bearable if one excludes the headwind. After an eternity lasting a couple of hours we were up at the saddle. With a quick glance downwards we noted that we had no pursuers. The wind died and we looked up on the last steep snow, which ended in sheer ice. With crampons on, we reached the summit after a surprisingly short eternity. We were looking in vain for the horrible blue overhang and the narrow backed horse had grown considerably. To our disappointment no fir tree and no cognac were to be found.
Looking down from the summit to the saddle.
The men of the nineteenth century made the steep descent to the saddle without being tied together. Such an arrangement was considered too dangerous because if someone fell, he would take the others with him if they were tied together into a rope. Coming down to the village Balmat told how they broke through the overhang, "the worst experience I have had in the mountains". Furthermore, he believed that Mont Blanc was a “bagatelle” in comparison with the Wetterhorn - which made him popular with the locals. Wills was delighted with his achievement, although he did spend nearly ten pounds for the whole adventure.
The Almers after their 1896 Golden Wedding anniversary ascent of the Wetterhorn shown in the background.
Over the next thirty years the Wetterhorn had a special significance for Christian Almer. He climbed in all parts of the Alps, has the first ascent of the Eiger in 1858 to his name and became a favorite guide to both Whymper and Coolidge. It is said that Almer ascended the Wetterhorn least once each year, using both old and new routes. He had the idea that it would be a bad year if he had not been on the summit of the Wetterhorn. Sometimes he brought with him a small fir tree. Almer is often called the man of the Wetterhorn and one can not help but think of the Norwegian Arne Randers Heen and his Romsdalshorn which he climbed 223 times. In 1896 Almer was seventy when he celebrated his golden wedding anniversary by climbing the Wetterhorn together with his wife. This fact should not be taken as evidence that an ascent of the Wetterhorn is a simple undertaking. Rather, it shows the remarkable mountaineering qualities of the old Almers.
Christian Almer is considered one of the best guides during the Golden Age of mountaineering.
Our 1994 descent from the summit to the saddle was without drama. We were not ashamed of using the iron pins placed at strategic locations for abseiling. Three thousand meters lower down, and hours later we sat outside the Hotel Wetterhorn and had a well deserved beer. "I have almost nothing left in my legs," said one summiter looking very satisfied. Walking along the main village street, for some reason, we took a turn into the cemetery when we passed the church. It proved to be a peaceful place. To the right of the entrance stood an old white cross. The text read; "Christian Almer geb. 29 März 1826 gest. 17 Mai 1898". The wind blew, perhaps it was the same wind as blew a long time ago?
We strolled around for a while and discovered several memorials for people who have died on the Wetterhorn. One headstone read; “William Penhall and Andreas Maurer were killed by the fall of an avalanche on the Wetterhorn”. And another; "In memory of Robert Fearon and Henry Fearon who along with their two guides were killed on the summit of Wetterhorn".
Headstone of William Penhall and Andreas Maurer.
Young Englishman William Penhall, having made the first ascent of the west face of the Matterhorn in 1879, was killed at the age 24 together with the Oberland guide Andreas Maurer while ascending the Wetterhorn. On 3 August 1882 they left Grindelwald despite heavy snow having fallen the previous days. They were found dead a few days later from an avalanche high on the mountain.
Headstone of the Fearon brothers.
On the morning of August 20, 1902 a funeral procession with two coffins went from the church to the railway station. The Scotsman James Brown and the guide Solomon Knubel were out on their last journey. Both men had plunged to death on the Wetterhorn four days earlier. Scarcely had they been loaded on the train when a terrible storm broke out. The lightning struck in several places, also on the top of the Wetterhorn. This had been of no significance if there had been no people there. The two mountain guides Samuel Brawand and Fritz Bohren had with the two Irish brothers Robert and Henry Fearon reached the summit when they were surprised by the storm. When the four men did not return to the village that night, there was some concern but nobody wanted to believe the worst. Two days later revealed the awful truth. Robert Fearon and Samuel Brawand was found dead and blackened by lightning at the very summit. The steel in Brawand’s ice axe had melted and the shaft was gone. The other two could not be found despite intensive searching. A month later on September 22, the two corpses were discovered in a hidden glacial crevasse further down the mountain. The beautiful mountain had once again shown its worst side.
The Wetterhorn has many faces and if one would like to try something more challenging the route up the Scheideggwetterhorn is an option. This is a 1300 meter high wall similar to that of the Eiger. The guidebook says, "One of the most demanding climbs in the Bernese Alps." However, our 1994 mission was completed and we now belonged to the small minority, including Winston Churchill, who had climbed the beautiful Wetterhorn.
The men of 1994 climbing the Wetterhorn.
Wills, Alfred; Wanderings Among The High Alps, 1937
Clark, Ronald W; The Alps, 1973
Clark, Ronald W; Men, Myths & Mountains, 1976
Newby, Eric; Great Ascents, 1977
Rubi, Rudolph; Im Tal von Grindelwald, 1986
Thanks to desainme for comments on the original text.