150 years on, Matterhorn guides’ family stake claim in history

The majority of actors in the play are ordinary people from the village of Zermatt | hannes zaugg-graf

150 years ago, a father and son from the village of Zermatt set off to guide an expedition to climb the Matterhorn mountain. The ascent made history but ended in tragedy. In 2015, a new generation of Taugwalders are embarking on a different kind of adventure. They’re playing their ancestors in a high-profile, open air theatre production of the story that defined a mountain, a village and their name.

This content was published on July 9, 2015 - 11:00
Jo Fahy, in Zermatt and Bern,

“Barbara, please!”

A man in his 20s strides across the floor of a luxury hotel in the Swiss alpine village of Zermatt. Grabbing a young woman by the shoulders, he begs her to answer his question.

“Do it for me, Barbara.” 

The young man is David Taugwalder. He’s rehearsing one of his character’s key scenes for what might be the tenth time in the best part of an hour. A direct descendant of the guides who took part in the first ascent of Switzerland’s iconic mountain, he’s now in the unusual position of playing his ancestor, Taugwalder junior, in an ambitious play, while his father will take on the role of Taugwalder senior.

Taugwalder Jnr. has been cast opposite Romaine Müller, who plays his fiancé, Barbara Salzgeber. 

“My father is 50-years-old and I’m 23, so this is [almost] the same age as the Taugwalders were [at the time of the climb],” Taugwalder Jnr. told me after his rehearsal for the day.

“And we know the history; we’ve spoken about it often in our family, so it’s cool for us to do this.” Father and son work together at the family’s trust company in Zermatt. David Taugwalder’s father, Josef, is a somewhat more reserved character than his son. I met him at a press read-through of scenes from the play a few months earlier.

“My son and I were a good fit for the roles,” he said. “We’re the same age, we’re both Taugwalders and the director somehow seemed to naturally end up with us.”

The story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn is now inseparable from the story of those who died in the attempt and the controversy over whether their deaths were caused by a rope fraying accidentally or intentionally cut.

Shedding new light on an old story

Have the Taugwalders been written out of the English version of events? Is there more to be told that includes their point of view? It’s something some people on the cast want to address, and the script explores this.

David Taugwalder and Romaine Müller in rehearsals Jo Fahy/

“In 1865 and the years afterwards there were different theories,” said Taugwalder Jnr. “That the rope broke naturally, that Taugwalder Snr. cut the rope on the descent or – what we think is the most likely – that Whymper wanted to be the first to the top of the Matterhorn so he cut the rope on the ascent and then Taugwalder Snr. didn’t have enough of the right kind of rope for the descent.”

150 years later, does the truth of these events really matter all that much to people today? Opinions differ. Another Taugwalder, Matthias, Josef Taugwalder’s cousin, has taken it upon himself to extensively research the different possibilities. And even Swiss Public Television, SRF ran a Crime Scene Investigation-style External linktwo-part programme to delve into the unsolved mystery.

“Whymper was the man who could speak about it [what happened] because he spoke English – the Taugwalders couldn’t,” explained Taugwalder Jnr. “For us the play is important as it’s a little bit of rehabilitation for them [their reputation],” he added, reflecting on the other side of the story he hopes people will see.

The play’s director, Livia Anne Richard, described the setting for the story as a time when “different cultures collided”. The residents of Zermatt who had “a lot of respect for the mountain” came into direct contact with the English visitors who came to climb it.

Richard is yet another person who wants to know the truth of what happened when the rope broke, the play will “explain the variations”.

Director, Livia Anne Richard Jo Fahy/

For the Taugwalders, it’s something quite personal. “This is our chance to tell our story,” said Taugwalder Snr. “You can’t read anything about the Taugwalders, but you can read about Whymper everywhere.”

A peoples’ play

Richard has brought together a cast of 35 for this production. Five are professional actors, the rest are ordinary people from Zermatt. Some have never stepped foot on the stage before. Yet, in July, they’ll be performing to thousands of peopleExternal link from all over the world on a huge open-air stage. The performance will even involve animals, such as cows and donkeys.

“You would never be able to finance a production with 35 professional actors,” she laughed. “But it’s also very fresh to not only have professionals. Especially the two Taugwalders. That’s a level of authenticity that you would not have with a professional.”

One truly Swiss aspect to the performance is the multiple languages the play will be spoken in – a constant blend of German, English and the local dialect spoken in Valais, the canton in which Zermatt is located.

“I didn’t have to change anything about the languages, I just wrote it down how I imagined people would have spoken to each other,” Richard explained.

As the people of Zermatt would not have known much English at the time, save for a few words dotted here and there, when they address the English people in the play they speak in German.

Those English visitors would then translate what they understood to the others in their group, very possibly including some guess-work.

“It’s also a theme in the play that there were misunderstandings. That’s one of the things that led to this catastrophe,” said Richard. 

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