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Brits in Zermatt

The highest mountain in the Swiss Alps, at 14,690 feet, is the Matterhorn. It was first successfully climbed by illustrator Edward Whymper in 1865. He had made eight previous attempts. Whymper was accompanied by three other Brits and two Swiss guides. They made it to the summit, but four members of the party died during the descent.

The rope between the four and Wymper and the two guides snapped when one man slipped, and they plunged to their deaths.

Whymper was always haunted by the accident -

"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. . ."

Whymper went on to publish Scrambles Amongst the Alps. He explored Greenland to collect fossils - a feat made possible because he had figured out how to build suitable sledges. And he made the first ascent of half a dozen great peaks in Ecuador to figure out the reasons for altitude sickness.

Whymper concluded that altitude sickness "was caused by a reduction in atmospheric pressure, which lessens the value of inhaled air, and by expansion of the air or gas within the body, causing pressure upon the internal organs" (WIKI), and was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Patron's medal. Convinced there were serious errors in the readings of aneroid barometers at high altitudes, he improved their construction. This was not a man who sat around. He has a peak in the Canadian Rockies named after him and he published two guide books to Zermatt and Chamonix.

I have just been skiing in Zermatt for a week and visited the extraordinarily quaint St Peter’s Church where one of the party's remains are buried along with many other British climbers who have died in attempts on the Matterhorn and the surrounding peaks. At one time deaths were so frequent that Queen Victoria considered banning mountain climbing by Brits in Switzerland.

British mountaineers, scientists, and botanists first explored the alpine regions, according to the current edition of the Spectator, and Brits remain a definite presence in Zermatt. My observations suggest that English is the most widely spoken language on the streets both among visitors and residents.

I visited St Peter’s and heard a visiting Oxford vicar describe its early history. (A history of the church has a foreword by the late Lord Hunt, the leader of the first successful climb of Everest in 1953.) With a thriving English-speaking community in Zermatt, there were flowers left from a recent wedding and reports of Sunday services being full. Perhaps skiing inspires church-going? The church is part of the European diocese of the Church of England and is funded and staffed by the Intercontinental Church Society.