In search of a grave
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
Johann Josef Benet (1824–64), who John Tyndall called ‘Bennen’, was Tyndall’s favourite Alpine guide. Edward Whymper, the first ascentionist of the Matterhorn, described him as ‘a good-looking man, with courteous, gentlemanly manners, skilful and bold’. Tyndall gave a rather more physical description: ‘a large man with round shoulders bent forward and a thick pedestal of a neck, bearing a massive head and earrings’. For Tyndall, Bennen the guide was ‘as a Wellington to an ordinary subaltern’. Yet his reputation among the famous guides is curiously mixed, a consequence of the manner of his death.
Gravestone of Joseph Bennen in Ernen (Roland Jackson)
Below: view from the churchyard
Tyndall’s first encounter with Bennen was in 1858, when Bennen was attached as a guide to the hotel on the Eggishorn above the Aletsch glacier in the Bernese Oberland. Tyndall asked Bennen to take him up the Finsteraarhorn (4274m), the highest peak in the Oberland, in the first ascent with a single guide. The first British ascent, the fifth overall, had been made the previous year, and was the occasion of a discussion initiated by William Mathews about the founding of the Alpine Club.
The following year, Bennen made the first ascent of the Aletschorn (4193m), with Peter Bohren, Victor Tairraz, and Francis Fox-Tuckett. It was a peak that Tyndall would later climb (including an ascent with his wife Louisa), though by this time Bennen was dead.
But it was the first ascent of the majestic Weisshorn (4505m) on 19 August 1861, with Tyndall and Ulrich Wenger, that stands as his major achievement. In the early 1860s, along with the Matterhorn, it was one of the ‘last great problems’. I describe this climb in the new biography, and Tyndall’s other mountaineering experiences, with and without Bennen.
The Matterhorn (4478m) itself eluded Bennen. Though in 1862, with Tyndall, Anton Walter, Jean-Jacques Carrel and Jean-Anthoine Carrel, he reached the point at 4241m now known as the Pic Tyndall, a subsidiary peak on the Italian side of the mountain. The summit of the Matterhorn was finally reached by Edward Whymper’s party in 1865, with tragic consequences.
Bennen was not alive to see that either. He died on 28 February 1864 during a winter ascent of the Haut de Cry (2969m). Against his better judgement he had followed the advice of local guides and crossed a dangerous slope. It avalanched, and though some of the party survived, Bennen was buried and killed.
I knew that Tyndall had gone to Fiesch, in the Rhône Valley, to pay homage at Bennen’s grave, and I determined to follow suit. So, arriving in Fiesch, I made for the obvious Catholic church. No graves were visible prior to about 1980. There were no older churches. I asked around. A local mountain guide, who knew well the reputation of his famous forerunner, told me that he was in fact buried at Ernen, just up the valley (I should have known, had I read in advance the chapter on Bennen in Charles Gos’s Alpine Tragedy).
I took the postbus up to Ernen and headed straight for the church. Again, no graves earlier than about 1980 that I could see. I walked into the church, to be met by the most beautiful baroque music. It was a rehearsal for Ernen’s internationally-renowned music festival, of which I knew nothing. Conversation after the rehearsal led to my introduction to Francesco Walter, director of the festival and long-standing resident. He explained that the tradition was for graves to be used for about 30 years, after which the remains were removed to a communal pit: the ‘trapdoor’ lay by the path outside the church. So Bennen’s remains might be there with the rest. But he suddenly remembered something, and took us to a corner of the graveyard I had not explored. There stood the only actual gravestone in the entire graveyard.
It was Bennen’s, restored by Louisa Tyndall in 1902.