Girdlestone's version of the 1865 Matterhorn accident

The Reverend Arthur Gilbert Girdlestone was in Italy when Whymper heard he was ill. Whymper visited and befriended him.
... owing to the kind offices of Mr. E. Whymper, I recovered pretty rapidly, and crossed to Zermatt with him and Lord F. Douglas, immediately before the fatal accident on the Matterhorn.
If he had recovered fully he would been in the first ascent party. He and Whymper discussed the accident. We would expect whatever Girdlestone wrote would have resulted from their detailed analysis of points appertaining to the moment of the accident. We would also expect this to resolve into a mutual agreement as to the cause and progress of the accident. Given Girdlestone's obvious gratitude to Whymper for the care and attention in his recent illness, one would expect his published account to agree 100% with what had he and Whymper had concluded. Yet Girdlestone's account disagrees completely with Whymper's account.

Whymper, in his account, says Hudson failed to keep the rope taut between himself and Hadow, and so was unable to hold Hadow when he fell. Hadow slid downward on his back until his feet struck Croz in the back, knocking him over head first.
Whymper's account implies he saw a rope lying carelesly loose on the surface. He said the rope linked Hudson to Hadow but did he get it right? Other possibilities for what he saw:
  • the inactive part of Hudson's perfectly correct belay lying on the surface.
  • the rope linking Hadow to Croz lying carelesly loose on the surface.
  • the inactive part of Hadow's perfectly correct belay lying on the surface.

Girdlestone in his book The high alps without guides wrote:
.... owing to the inexperience of one of the mountaineers, the rope could not be kept taut between him and his guide, and thus the rope was subjected to a sudden strain where the holding of some of the party was good. But mountaineering - not a bad rope - appears to have been the cause of the lamentable catastrophe.
There seems little doubt Girdlestone is saying it was Croz who fell. Because the climbers were only moving one at a time, clearly it was Croz who was descending, not Hadow, and that Hadow was standing in his stance belaying Croz. Girdlestone says the inexperienced Hadow failed to keep the rope taut and so was unable to arrest Croz falling or withstand the sudden strain when the rope went taut.
In summary, here are the two conflicting opinions:

 FellSlack ropeCroz + axe

But think how Croz and Hudson might have regarded Hadow. Either they think him incompetent or they think him competent!
  • If incompetent, they would not allow him to handle the rope.
  • If competent, they would allow him to handle the rope.
Both Hudson and Croz must have considered Hadow as competent to handle a rope in allowing him to belay Croz at the most difficult and dangerous stage of the climb. Girdlestone, though, fails to grasp this point and thinks Hadow was incompetent: the rope could not be kept taut between him and his guide.

It ought not be assumed that Hadow was incompetent in using a rope. Handling a rope is one of the first things a novice climber learns, particularly belaying and taking in slack rope.

Whymper says:
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…
From Whymper's dream, the pattern of perfect order at equal distances would suggest Croz has fallen first and while sliding has dragged the others down. However, that's not what Whymper believes! In his account he says Hadow fell, knocked down Croz and dragged the others down, but this sequence would not create the perfect pattern Whymper describes.
Because of Whymper vivid recollection of what he saw we need to come up with an accident sequence that will produce that perfect pattern. Girdlestone's version of the accident produces the pattern but, as argued above, his interpretation is very-likely wrong.

Imagine Whymper and Girdlestone arguing their opinions and getting nowhere:

(1) Whymper If Croz had his axe he would have stopped the fall, so he had no axe.
(2) Girdlestone If Croz laid his axe aside you would have found it, so he had his axe.
(3)   Go to (1)

Both arguments are sound in what they say but because they contradict each other, there must be something wrong with what they are arguing about. Their mistake is their assumption a fall caused the accident, ignoring other possible causes, such as an avalanche, even though an avalanche was likely and had been witnessed at the time and place.

Girdlestone's opinion that Hadow's inexperience led to the accident is doubtful. He has no evidence Hadow failed to keep the rope taut between himself and Croz. Hadow may well have belayed Croz in exactly the approved manner, but if Croz was engulfed in an avalanche it would beyond Hadow, or even the most skilful climber, to stop Croz being swept away.

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