One hundred and fifty years ago this month a Ripon-born man stood on the top of the hitherto-unconquered summit of the Matterhorn; less than 90 minutes later he and three of his climbing companions were dead.
Charles Hudson was born on 8 October 1828 in Park Street – the house has yet to be identified – and was the thirteenth child to be baptised at the recently-completed Holy Trinity Church. His father, Joshua Hudson, was listed as ‘Gentleman’, and Charles was sent to St Peter’s School in York, where he excelled in swimming, fencing and gymnastics. When he was 17 he took a walking tour in the Lake District, and averaged 27 miles each day. In 1847 he entered St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was one of the University’s best-ever rowers.
He decided to enter the Church, and was ordained in Ripon Cathedral in 1854, serving for some time at Kirklington before briefly serving as an army chaplain in the Crimea, then moving first to Bridgnorth in Shropshire and then to be vicar of Skillington near Grantham in Lincolnshire. He had already been a keen Alpine mountaineer and in 1865 decided that, having conquered other peaks, he would try the ‘unclimbable’ Matterhorn. In July that year he arrived in Zermatt with a former pupil, 19-year old Douglas Hadow. There, by coincidence, he met two other British climbers: Lord Francis Douglas, the brother of the young Marquess of Queensberry and, though a year younger than Hadow, already a skilled climber; and, the only name remembered today, Edward Whymper.
They agreed to join in an attempt on the mountain, along with three experienced guides, a father and son both called Peter Taugwalder, and Michel Croz. Whymper was doubtful about Hadow’s abilities, but Hudson said that despite his lack of experience he was ‘a sufficiently good man to go with us.’
Because it had been thrown together at the last minute it was not a well-organised party. No one was the designated leader; Hudson, at 36, should perhaps have taken the role, but his natural diffidence seems to have stopped him. Whymper, who had the force of character to take the lead, seems to have been reluctant to assert himself over the older Hudson.
They set off from in Zermatt at 5.30 am on Thursday 13 July 1865. By midday they had reached 11,000 feet, and pitched camp. At dawn the following day they set off again. The ascent, which had seemed impossible when viewed from Zermatt, proved to be what Whymper called ‘a huge natural staircase . . . we were not once brought to a halt by any serious impediment.’ By 6.20 they were at 12,800 feet; by 9.55 at 14,000 feet.
They then had to negotiate the trickiest part, an overhang below the summit. ‘The work became difficult and required caution’, wrote Whymper. Nevertheless, ‘it was a place over which any fair mountaineer might pass in safety, and Mr Hudson ascended this part, and, as far as I know, the entire mountain, without having the slightest assistance rendered to him on any occasion. Mr Hadow, however, was not accustomed to this kind of work, and required continual assistance.’
Beyond this difficult part, which took about an hour and a half to negotiate, was ‘nothing but 200 feet of easy snow.’ Whymper and Croz rushed up the slope to the summit, followed by the rest of the party, in great jubilation. It was 1.40 pm.
They stayed on the summit for an hour before beginning the descent. The order in which they were roped was, again, a matter of chance rather than of planning and leadership; Croz went first, at the end of the rope, and above him was Hadow; Hudson came next, then Lord Francis. Taugwalder senior followed, then Whymper and, finally, young Taugwalder at the top.
As they roped up they realised that one of their best ropes had been cut to help on the ascent, and was now too short to rope them all together. So Croz, Hadow, Hudson and Lord Francis were tied with the remaining long rope, and Young Peter, Whymper and Old Peter with the shortened rope. Between Young Peter and Lord Francis they used a weaker, braided rope, like sash cord, a type that had been deemed unsafe.
As the descent began it was clear that Hadow was exhausted. They reached the difficult overhang, with Croz helping Hadow by placing his feet in the correct places. Suddenly, Hadow slipped. He hit Croz in the back, flinging him off the mountain. This had the effect of dragging Hadow, Hudson and Lord Francis from their places. Old Peter Taugwalder reacted remarkably quickly. He looped the thin rope (now in Zermatt’s Matterhorn Museum) round a rock to try to secure the falling men. But the rope broke, and the four men below him – Croz, Hadow, Hudson and Lord Francis Douglas – plunged nearly 4,000 feet to their death on the Matterhorn glacier below.
The two Taugwalders, with Whymper between them, were left alone on the mountain. After half an hour they moved, and returned to the camp they had left that morning. After the night there they descended the mountain, reaching Zermatt at dawn.
A search was immediately instigated, and the bodies of Hudson, Croz and Hadow, naked and much mutilated, were discovered. Lord Francis Douglas’s body was never found. Using Hudson’s prayer book, found near his body, a friend read the burial service over the dead men; they were first buried where they were, but later removed to Zermatt.
A public enquiry concluded, rather obviously, that if the rope had not broken, the four men might have been saved. There were even rumours that Old Peter Taugwalder – or Whymper – had cut the rope in self-preservation. Curiously, though, the inquiry never asked why the thin rope had been used for the descent.
The ‘Golden Age’ of Alpinism ended with the deaths on the Matterhorn. Mountain safety began to exercise the minds of the greatest people – Queen Victoria asked if such foolhardy expeditions could be stopped and the Times thundered against the recklessness of the amateur mountaineers.
After Hudson’s death his widow Emily, left with two young children, stayed in Sharow with his sister, Mary, who was married to the vicar, Edmund Gray. There are memorials to Hudson in his church at Skillington, but nothing, as yet, in the city of his birth – perhaps it is time to remedy that and remember a man whom a friend called ‘the happiest man I ever met’, but who met a tragic end.
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