My opinion — Everything is normalNothing unusual, just a typical climb, where only one climber is moving at a time. As Hadow descended, he was belayed by Hudson who paid out his rope, while down below, Croz, who faced Hadow, took in his rope. Croz and Hudson, using all the skills we would expect of such expert mountaineers, brought Hadow down safely to Croz's stance, without Croz ever having placed Hadow's feet into holds. Hadow was secured in this stance, it having been prepared to best condition by Croz while he was standing there for half an hour awaiting his turn to move.
With Hadow firmly placed, Croz, with his ice-axe in his hand, turned and stepped down onto new ground to continue the descent. It was, of course, the same ground he had been passed over on the ascent, but that was hours earlier, and by now the surface had changed, effectively making it new ground.
Croz was the leading guide of Chamounix and used to the solid granite of the Mont Blanc range. The Matterhorn's sedimentary stratified schists were nothing like Chamounix granite. Croz had never been on the Matterhorn until this day, a mountain of which he knew nothing.
Croz's intention on reaching the bottom of the gap was to turn the corner to begin the traverse back to the east face. The moment he went to step around that corner he unwittingly put his foot onto the downward-dipping strata of rock that had been loosened by the frozen melt-water. It only needed the touch of his toe to avalanche! He was swept off his feet as if he were on a snowboard. He fell onto his back and was carried away.
Croz did not fall, the ground slipped from under him. Once that first rock moved it created a domino effect. Neighbouring rocks would have been dislodged and fallen away, following after Croz and engulfing him in a growing avalanche. The rope tying him to Hadow was taut and Croz would have been held momently by Hadow but be instantly overwhelmed and carried down by the sheer weight and force of the avalanche. It would have been beyond anyone's capacity to resist and Hadow would have been torn from his stance and likewise Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas.
At no time would Croz have been able to stop his fall, for if he could have plunged his ice-axe into the slope to try to arrest his fall, in the manner Whymper alludes to, it would only have scraped away more of the loose rocks and added to the avalanche. It will be noted the avalanche would have produced exactly the scene Whymper describes:
"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 "
North Face Temperature — reviewingAt the time the descent was begun the return route was in shadow, and therefore cold, and any water would have been turning to ice. At the time of the accident, approximately 3:30 pm, all water would have turned to ice, a condition only found on the south face after midnight, and on the south face from midnight onwards such rocks avalanche. During the half an hour, or so, that Croz had to wait for the rest of the party to come down, each one stance lower, the ground he would next have to tread upon had changed from what he had previously experienced when he had climbed those self-same rocks. The final trickles of water would have turned to ice and that ice would have reached its maximum expansion, resulting in the rock strata being forced apart and breaking. Those loosened rocks would be the equivalent of tiles lying unattached on the sloping roof of a house. They only needed to be stepped upon for an avalanche to be triggered.
What needs to be understood is that any avalanche, anywhere, big or small, may be started by the dislodgement of a single piece of rock of quite small size producing a domino effect.
Witness of the "accident" avalanche
A few minutes later, a sharp-eyed lad ran into the Monte Rosa hotel, to Seiler, saying that he'd seen an avalanche fall from the summit of the Matterhorn on to the Matterhorngletscher. The boy was reproved fore telling idle stories; he was right, nevertheless.The witness was Old Peter's youngest son, Friedrich, who was using a telescope. He instantly realised it was an avalanche. Possibly he had seen other avalanches but would he run and tell someone each time? Of course not! Something was different about this avalanche to cause him to run to the Monte Rosa hotel and tell Seiler. Seiler didn't believe what he said but we are never told what it was. Did Friedrich say he saw climbers caught up in the avalanche? When it was realised an accident had occurred at the time, there was a complete turnaround and Friedrich's story was believed. Not only was it conceded he had seen an avalanche but they now said what he saw – that the avalanche was of the ill-fated climbers only and nothing more! It was likely a normal avalanche of rock and ice, but nobody ever considered that possibility. The difference is that what set it going was anything but normal.
The accident site — Whymper and young Peter
[young Peter] On the descent he describes the rocks on the north face as being 'entirely free from snow' although Whymper refers to the 'snow-filled interstices of the rock face at times covered with a thin film of ice'.The avalanche that caused the accident swept the surface of snow. No surprise that both Young Peter and Whymper indicated it was snow-free when they descended to the avalanche site. Whymper's 'at times covered with a thin film of ice' indicates frozen melt-water and likely what caused the loosening of the rock strata leading to the avalanche. 'We were compelled to pass over the exact spot where the slip occurred, and we found - even with shaken nerves - that it was not a difficult place to pass.' The loose rocks that caused the avalanche had been swept away, so what the survivors passed over was the underlying solid surface. It was not only easy to pass over but could not now avalanche because it was the solid rock that had underlain the loose debris that formed the avalanche.
Each day's work, so to speak, is cleared away; the ridge [and the accident site] is swept clean; there is scarcely anything seen but firm rock.Top | Index