Croz had already been engaged by an expert mountaineer, the Rev. Charles Hudson, who was said to be the best amateur climber of the day. During dinner at the Monte Rosa that evening it became apparent that Hudson and Croz also planned to tackle the east face of the Matterhorn, leaving the very next morning. Whymper grew anguished and saw his hopes dashed afresh; he knew what a great team these two men would be. He had already persuaded Lord Francis to accompany him, in order to get the services of Taugwalder. Now he did his best to talk Hudson into joining his party, instead of competing with it. Whymper was not a likable man, but he was a most persuasive one, and he soon convinced Hudson it would be dangerous to have two rival parties on the same face of the mountain at once. Hudson agreed to join forces with Whymper, Douglas and Taugwalder. There was just one thing—Hudson had a young man with him, Douglas Hadow, a fresh-faced boy of 19 just out of school. Whymper looked anxious: had the lad climbed before? Hudson assured Whymper that Hadow could manage the climb, and such was Whymper's anxiety and haste that he took Hudson's word for it. In fact, young Hadow was almost totally inexperienced.
So the party was casually thrown together—Whymper, Lord Francis Douglas, Taugwalder, Hudson, Hadow and Croz: plus Taugwalder's son, "Young Peter," as porter. Seven was an unwieldy number; furthermore, there were only two professional climbers for four amateurs. The safe ratio should have been one guide to each amateur, but the self-confident Hudson and Whymper considered they were just as good as guides.
July 13 dawned sparklingly clear, and the party was in high spirits as they left the Monte Rosa at daybreak. To begin with all went well, and the group made excellent time, reaching 11,000 feet by midday at which time they decided to pitch camp.
The second day presented no real difficulties until, after a time, the northeast ridge became too steep. The party roped themselves together and made their way across on to the north face. This was covered with a film of treacherous ice where the snow had melted and refrozen. It was tough going, and the novice Hadow was soon in difficulties; he needed constant help and several times started to slip. It was a supremely dangerous spot, lying above a sheer drop of three-quarters of a mile down to the Matterhorn Glacier. But after an hour and a half of struggle they came up to pure snow, an easy run of 200 yards to the peak. Victory, so long and desperately sought, was at last in sight. Bursting with excitement, Whymper and Croz were so carried away that they did not wait to untie themselves. Rashly, Whymper took his knife and sliced through the stout rope which joined the two men, so that they were free to race up to the top.
At this great moment, Whymper—it is good to report—felt pangs of sadness, thinking of the bitter disappointment Carrel would feel. He wrote later, "He was the man, of all those who attempted the ascent of the Matterhorn, who most deserved to be the first upon its summit. For a time he had the game in his hands; he played it as he thought best; but he made a false move, and he lost it."
Croz made a flag from his blue smock to celebrate his own triumph and put it on a tent pole optimistically brought along for the purpose, but where were their rivals now? Looking down on the Italian side, they spied the tiny ant figures far below them. "We must make them hear us; they shall hear us!" Whymper exclaimed, and the party shouted themselves hoarse and tossed stones down until they were sure their triumph had been acknowledged.
They spent an hour on the summit after that, reveling in their victory and building a cairn of stones to mark their success before starting on the dangerous descent.
The haphazard order in which the descending party roped themselves together now seems inexplicable. It was a grave error of judgment caused by excitement and the spirits, negligence and lack of leadership. Croz, as the most experienced, should certainly have been last man, to support the others if they fell. Instead, he went first. The inexperienced Hadow came next, then Hudson, then Douglas—so that three amateur climbers were roped together without a guide in between them. Next came old Peter Taugwalder, then Whymper and last of all, in the key position, young Taugwalder, who had been brought along only as a porter.
Everything went smoothly until they approached the tricky ice-covered rock shoulder which lay above the three-quarter mile precipice. And then disaster struck. Croz was trying to place young Hadow's feet in the right positions. Hadow apparently slipped knocked Croz off balance, and the two men fell into space dragging Hudson and Douglas with them. The strong and wiry Peter Taugwalder clutched a big rock and braced himself, making a stupendous effort to hold all four men. For a moment it looked as though they would be saved. And then—the rope snapped.
Of all the Matterhorn mysteries this surely was the strangest. For the rope which had been used to make this crucial link between the three amateurs and the guide Taugwalder was not the stout Alpine Club-approved manila but the frail window cord which had been brought along as spare stuff for making handrails. Whymper claimed the guide had chosen this deliberately, in order to save his own neck if the others fell. Whymper's accusation cruelly clouded the rest of the old man's life.