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Getting Back Down to Earth

The first ascent of the Matterhorn

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage adoption of the idea of continual planning (SEAL theme: Motivation).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and two readers.
  • Find an image of the Matterhorn and have the means to display it during the assembly (check copyright).
  • Have available the song ‘Reach’ by Gloria Estefan and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader: Some 150 years ago, on 13 July 1865, seven climbers set out from Zermatt in Switzerland. They were attempting to ascend the Matterhorn (show image), which then was the last great Alpine peak still to be climbed.

Reader 1: The party of seven – four Englishmen, led by Edward Whymper, an artist and newspaper illustrator, and three local guides – was in a race with another. Whymper’s former climbing partner, Jean-Antoine Carrel, and his party had set out from the Italian side of the mountain with the same objective in mind. As a native Italian, Carrel wanted the first ascent of the Matterhorn to be from his home valley rather than from the Swiss side of the mountain.

Reader 2: Whymper’s party made rapid progress and bivouacked high on the ridge that afternoon, allowing time to recce the slopes above, which appeared to pose little difficulty.

At dawn on 14 July, the men set out again and were soon on the final snow shoulder. Douglas Hadow, the least experienced member of the party, was the only one who had any difficulty with the route.

Reader 1: Soon all seven climbers stood on the summit. Looking down, they could see their Italian rivals still 200 metres below them. Rather unsportingly, Whymper and his companions began to throw rocks down at them, causing Carrel and his team to retreat down the mountain.

Reader 2: The objective had been achieved. After an hour spent enjoying the view, it was time for the seven to begin a relaxed descent.

Leader: It’s a good feeling to achieve an ambition we’ve been working towards for some time. All the stress and the effort slip from our shoulders and we bask in the glory of what we’ve accomplished. I assume that’s what Edward Whymper and his companions felt as they began the descent of the gentle snow shoulder. Things soon took a turn for the worse, however.

Reader 1: Hadow found the descent no easier than he’d found parts of the ascent. Indeed, he struggled so much that, at one point, one of the guides had to put down his ice axe and place Hadow’s feet into the footholds one by one.

Reader 2: Suddenly, Hadow slipped and cannoned into the guide, who was swept off his feet and, of course, he had no ice axe to arrest his fall. The weight of the two falling climbers pulled two further members of the group off their feet, as they were all roped together, and the four hurtled off the ridge. Whymper and the two remaining guides grabbed hold of the rock and attempted to hold the weight of the four falling climbers, but the rope joining the two groups snapped.

Reader 1: Whymper looked on in horror as his four companions were swept away out of sight, then down over a thousand metres of rock and ice to their deaths.

Leader: What can we say about Whymper’s achievement? There’s no doubt that he was the leader of the first party to climb the Matterhorn, but how much value is there in his success? At least Carrel’s party lived to climb another day.

Let’s go back for a moment to the feelings we were considering earlier when the climbers had reached the summit. Success is wonderful, but it’s always transitory. We can’t remain forever on the mountaintop. It’s the same when our team wins a trophy, when we pass a test, when we share our first kiss, when competitors win a gold medal, when we finish a sponsored walk. Next season there’ll be another trophy. In a few weeks there’ll be a new test. There might be a new relationship that needs much care and attention. There’s always a new challenger who wants to be the champion and, when the blisters have healed, our feet will be itching to be on the go again.

Whymper’s failure to bring the whole of his party down safely is reckoned to have been down to two factors. First, there was the weak member who was included in the team. It was on the recommendation of one of his friends that Hadow was invited on the climb. Second, the piece of rope linking the two groups of climbers was an inferior-quality rope that could never have taken the strain it was put under that day. It should never have been used. If Hadow hadn’t been on the climb and only the strongest rope had been used, then Whymper would forever have been the hero of the Matterhorn. Instead, he and the two surviving guides were criticized, even prosecuted, in the years that followed.

Time for reflection

Leader: So, what does this suggest to us?

Reader 1: I think that we should be very careful about whose advice we take. There are lots of people – friends, family, teachers and coaches – who are more than willing to take over our lives. Maybe we should listen carefully and politely, but, in the end, make sure we each make our own decisions.

Reader 2: I also think we should plan ahead. What do we want to do beyond our present ambitions? What will equip us best to achieve that? Are some subjects more relevant than others? Are some relationships healthier than others? Is the way we spend our time going to benefit us in the future?

Leader: Let’s consider these ideas as we pray.


Dear Lord,
Thank you for the experience of successes great and small.
May we build on each success and never allow ourselves to slip backwards.
May we take wise advice and make good plans for the future.


‘Reach’ by Gloria Estefan

Publication date: July 2015   (Vol.17 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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