Whymper's ropes

Guides usually provided ropes for their clients' use but Whymper always provided his own ropes. Why did he do that? He never wrote to say why. If he had given his reasons it may have helped in judging or explaining what others did in response. An independent source, Whymper's friend, the Reverend Richard Glover gives his reasons, though Whymper never once acknowledges Glover. Glover says Whymper would not use guides' ropes but only ever used his own, because he believed guides' ropes weren't strong enough.

Whymper never wrote anything about guides' ropes, their strength or otherwise. Perhaps something he likely said at the time might explain what went through Old Peter's mind when he picked the braid rope. Assume Whymper, when refusing to accept the ropes Old Peter had brought along, gave his reason. Assume he said something like "All of my ropes are strong but I would never trust my life to guides' ropes because they are weak and are often rotten at the core." If something like that had been said, Old Peter would automatically consider all of Whymper's ropes to be strong, including the braid one, and have no hesitation in selecting it.

Whymper's 3 ropes

Whymper had 3 ropes, 2 Manilla ropes – one for use, one of 250 feet for spare. What type of rope was the third? He never said, but the picture shows it was thinner, and was braided.

What can be said of such ropes? Both Manilla ropes, the twisted ones, were thicker than the braided one. However, twisted ropes look bigger than they actually are – the cross-sectional area of a 3-strand twisted rope being 75% of the area of its apparent diameter. Also Manilla ropes had a bad reputation for rotting at the core of each strand and so a large diameter implying strength may well be illusory.

Braided ropes, that showed the braid on the outside, sometimes have an inner core of twisted rope and sometimes an inner core of a tightly woven braid. They were strong despite their smaller size. Also, because of their very construction, the braid had good shock-absorbing characteristics.

Michel Croz – Whymper's ropes

Croz had been Whymper's guide for all of the 1864 season, and almost all of the 1865 season, and had handled Whymper's ropes and would have known their strengths, possibly better than Whymper. Croz would have been aware that Glover had been tied with the braid rope and would have approved. Likely, when he saw that same rope available for use on the Matterhorn descent, he also approved.

Old Peter – selecting the braid rope

I was one hundred feet or more from the others whilst they were being tied up. Croz and Old Peter no doubt tied up the others. Those who had fallen had been tied with the Manilla, or with the second and equally strong rope. There had been only one link where the weaker rope had been used.
Old Peter was told his ropes were not needed and that Whymper intended using his own ropes because they were stronger than guides' ropes. He would assume, therefore, that any of Whymper's ropes, even if thinner, would be strong and unlikely to break.

Obviously, Old Peter has nothing to do with the ropes supplied by Whymper. Nor did he have anything to do with the ropes that were laid out for selection preparatory to roping up for the descent. Presumably, Croz approved of the strength and quality of the ropes as he was the only one who knew them. If Whymper's ropes had all been strong ones, how could Old Peter have then protected himself by selecting a weak one? That the braid rope just happened to be lying there was mere random chance. Would its surprise appearance instantly trigger in Old Peter's mind that it must be weak and therefore an opportunistic way of saving himself if there were an accident? It is not something a reasonable person could believe anyone could think up in a few seconds. It is ridiculous, but that's Whymper's idea!
There remains, however, the suspicious fact that the rope which broke was the thinnest and weakest one that we had. It is suspicious, because it is unlikely that any of the four men in front would have selected an old and weak rope when there was an abundance of new, and much stronger, rope to spare; and, on the other hand, because if Taugwalder thought that an accident was likely to happen, it was in his interest to have the weaker rope where it was placed.
Whymper says it is unlikely that any of the four men in front would have selected an old and weak rope. In fact, all SIX men were to be in front initially, including Old Peter's son, Young Peter (see A in diagram). They saw the braid rope, said nothing, and tied on to it. Consider each of the climbers – (Manilla=black, Braid=red):

  • Lord Francis Douglas: saw he had the Braid rope tied around his waist.
  • Young Peter: was on the Manilla rope tied to the Braid rope. He untied the Manilla from the Braid, so as to accompany Whymper to the summit, where he tied onto Whymper.
  • Hudson: Whymper: "they had finished, and were waiting for me to be tied IN line," but left to put a bottle of names on the summit, so Hudson tied his Manilla to the Braid attached to Douglas.
  • Hadow: May or may not have noticed the Braid rope, but probably watched Hudson tying onto Douglas.
  • Croz: had known the Braid rope for many months and did not reject it.
  • Whymper: saw the Braid rope while he was talking to Douglas, and handled the Braid rope when he tied his Manilla rope to it.

Roping up

When Whymper arrived to tie in line, the rest of the climbers were already roped in their allotted positions and ready to start the descent. But Whymper did not tie in. Instead he left to put their names in a bottle to leave on the summit. Young Peter untied himself from Douglas so as to accompany Whymper. With those two not on the rope, Hudson tied onto Lord Francis Douglas's braid rope and the descent began.

If Old Peter was concerned for his own safety and picked what appeared to be the weakest rope, he would realise that any rope of Whymper's, despite its smaller cross-section, would be strong and possibly not break. He would be in danger of being dragged down with the rest if the rope failed to break. To avoid this fate, he would need to loop the braid rope securely around a belay between himself and Douglas. But he didn't do so.

A mere second or so after the accident began, Old Peter's quick thinking assessed what was happening and triggered his instant action to slip the rope around a rock. If he had been concerned to protect his life why had he not already looped the rope around a rock bollard, or two, BEFORE the accident rather than slipping it over a rock AFTER the accident began?

If Old Peter had remained in the tail-end position as allocated by Whymper and Hudson, it means his son Peter would be tied somewhere in the middle of the rope. Assume Old Peter had selected a weak rope so that if it should break he could not be one of the accident victims, he would be consigning his own son to death. He would never do that but Whymper's appalling suggestion leads to no other conclusion.

After the accident, Whymper says Old Peter cried out: "We are lost! we are lost!" The father's fear was natural — he trembled for his son; This hardly equates with Old Peter selecting a weak rope, that if it broke, would save himself yet send Young Peter to his death.

Whymper ties onto Old Peter

Old Peter was not in the tail-end position at the time of the accident. Why not? It was all because of Whymper! Whymper had removed himself and Young Peter from their allocated positions on the rope. When they returned from the summit it seems it was no longer practical to tie into their correct positions. Douglas asked them to tie on behind Old Peter.

Old Peter was the last man on the rope and, as is the normal practice for the last man, had the rope tied completely around his waist. This was the braid rope. After Whymper was asked to tie on behind him, Old Peter became just another climber in line, so he untied the braid rope from around his waist and tied it onto Whymper's rope. He then attached himself to the braid rope using a middle-man's knot (or its equivalent).

Although the rope broke between Old Peter and Douglas, what is evident (as the diagrams illustrate) is the rope could just as easily have broken between Old Peter and Whymper, in which case Old Peter would have lost his life in the accident. That Old Peter allowed Whymper to tie on behind him, thus placing himself in a potentially dangerous spot on the braid rope, proves he had no ulterior motive when choosing the braid rope.

Whymper says nothing about Young Peter at the moment of the accident. Peter was last man on the rope and likely shared in absorbing the shock. In fact, he may have played the most important part of all three of them, typical of what is expected of the last man. Because he was the last man he did not need to be at full stretch of the rope behind the second-last man, i.e. Whymper. He could have stood somewhat closer to Whymper and given the rope a few turns around a bollard of rock and still kept the rope taut to Whymper. Such an action may have been what really saved Old Peter and Whymper rather than what Whymper says.

Whymper saw the braid rope before the accident

When Whymper descended from the summit he did not tie in line in his allocated position but began talking to Douglas. He likely would have seen the braid rope around Douglas's body joining him to Old Peter. Then Douglas asked Whymper to tie on to Old Peter, As Whymper climbed up to Old Peter he would have been alongside the braid rope all the way, would have seen it and maybe even held onto it. He would see the braid rope was around Old Peter's body and held it in his hand while tying his own rope to it.

Whymper also says that at the time of the accident the ropes were taut, which means he must have actually looked at the braid rope.
'... the rope was taught between us, and the jerk came on us both as on one man. We held; but the rope broke midway between Taugwalder and Lord Francis Douglas.'

The broken rope

... I asked for the rope that had given way, and found to my surprise - indeed, to my horror - that it was the weakest of the three ropes. It was not brought, and should not have been employed, for the purpose for which it was used. It was old rope, and, compared with the others, was feeble. It was intended as a reserve, in case we had to leave much rope behind, attached to rocks. I saw at once that a serious question was involved, and made him give me the end. It had broken in mid-air, and it did not appear to have sustained previous injury.

The broken rope – three weeks earlier

Let us be perfectly clear about this. Whymper knew full well the rope he now discredits had been used as a climbing rope with his full knowledge and approval only three weeks earlier on the 21st June.
Rev. Glover: The late lamented fatalities on the Matterhorn have a very painful interest to me from the fact that I was Mr. Whymper's companion on a similar occasion (that is, on a tour of inspection and survey of that mountain with a view to the ascent on Mr. Whymper's on the morrow) a few days previous to the accident, and from the fact that the very rope that broke was recently round my own body. Our chief guide, too, on that occasion was poor Michel Croz himself, together with Christian Almer of Grindelwald, and Franz Biener.

Then as to the ropes themselves. Mr. Whymper told me that he never trusts himself to the ropes provided by the guides, but always carries his own with him. And as I have no doubt that the same coil was used on the occasion of the accident as was used by ourselves, I can answer for it being an unusually strong one - much stronger than those used by the guides, as I myself compared it with them.
The Rev. Glover said that when crossing the glacier between Zermatt and Breuil [including some climbing], only three weeks prior to the accident, he was tied on with the braid rope. So, the rope that broke had recently been used for climbing. Michel Croz was Whymper's main guide at the time and would have been quite familiar with the braid rope.

One can imagine, at some future date, Glover would be puzzled as to why Whymper allowed him to be tied on with a rope Whymper claimed was was old and feeble and not to be used as a climbing rope. Presumably, at that time, just three weeks earlier, Whymper considered it to be ok. Would Glover have been in any danger of the rope breaking if he had fallen into a crevasse? No!

(a) If he were a middleman on the rope, he would be held by TWO ropes - by the thin braid rope to one companion and by another rope linking him to a second companion.

(b) If he were tail-end Charlie his weight alone would have been insufficient to break the braid rope.

Now consider what would happen if it were not he who fell into a crevasse but the rest of the party. Would the braid rope break or not break? The rope would not break. In fact the load on the rope is the same as in (b). Motion is relative; therefore, his inertia is the same, either way.

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