In the early days of mountaineering, women shunned skirts and social norms to reach some of the highest peaks.
Monday 26 March 2012
|Mountains offered solitude, danger and freedom ... a |
female mountaineer climbs a rock face in the 1930s.
Photograph: Getty Images
Mountains pass through three different phases, according to Victorian mountaineer AF Mummery: "inaccessible peak", "the most difficult ascent in the Alps" or "an easy day for a lady". In other words, once a great peak had been climbed and was no longer deemed out of reach, any ordinary person might have a go – even a woman – and the mountain's greatness was gone.
It was not that people thought women couldn't climb. Mummery made the comments on Lily Bristow's ascent of the Grepon in 1893. Lucy Walker had climbed the Matterhorn in 1871, just six years after Edward Whymper led the first ascent. Mummery's own wife, Mary, was also a talented climber and their ascent of the Teufelsgrat in a thunderstorm was one of the great mountaineering feats of the day. Mummery's remark acknowledged the sentiment that once a woman has achieved some physical feat it's, well, no longer much of a feat. She's rather gone and spoiled things for the chaps.
The golden age of Alpine mountaineering in the 19th century made heroes of climbers such as Edward Whymper and Leslie Stephen. Their successes and disasters thrilled and outraged the British public. Lily Bristow and Lucy Walker were among the many Victorian and Edwardian women who also took to the rope for some Alpine adventure. Albeit in smaller numbers than the men, they reached some of the toughest Alpine peaks and passes. Lily Bristow scandalised acquaintances by sharing a tent with men. Gertrude Bell was praised by her guide and members of the Alpine Club for her courage and was credited with saving men's lives on a failed attempt at the Finsteraarhorn.
At the turn of the 20th century, life for an ordinary young middle-class woman in Britain was often a stultifying wait at home for a husband, or perhaps caring for elderly parents or relatives. Suffragettes showed their antipathy to sport by digging up golf courses – obvious bastions of male power even if women played golf too – and protesting at the Epsom Derby. Yet women and girls, suffragists and suffragettes among them, took part in sport from hockey and tennis to fly-fishing, fox-hunting and rock-climbing. Sport flourished at women's colleges where exercise was deemed important for study. A small number of women competed in the 1908 London Olympics.
Meanwhile, in the world of explorers, Scott and Shackleton were back and forth to Antarctica and there were plans for a first British attempt on Everest. It was exciting, inspiring stuff and there's no doubt that women were inspired too. Schoolgirls wrote to Shackleton asking to be allowed to join his team. Marie Stopes wanted to go to Antarctica with Scott to find fossils of seed ferns for her paleobotanical research. As we know, these continued to be men-only affairs, but women with enough good fortune and money – or in some cases an illness that required a spell of recovery in fresh mountain air – could head for the Alps, or further, and climb. Some were sisters or friends, unmarried and not needed for caring duties at home.
Many were in their 30s or 40s when they began climbing. There were several husband-and-wife teams like the Mummerys. American explorer and mountaineer Fanny Bullock Workman climbed and cycled through the Alps and the Himalayas with her husband Dr William Hunter Workman just behind, in this case more a wife-and-husband team.
The mountains offered solitude, danger and freedom. There was etiquette too, of course, some of which lasted all the way to the summit and some didn't. Attitudes to women's dress were varied. Walker is said to have worn a white frock on all her climbs whereas Workman wore breeches and thought skirts ludicrous.
For those who chose to wear dresses, there was a range of possible skirt-related incidents and disasters to bear in mind. The Matterhorn's Col Felicité, for example, was named after Felicité Carrel whose 1867 attempt at the summit with her father was thwarted when her skirts ballooned in the wind and it was too dangerous to go on. A common compromise was to wear a skirt or dress as one left the hotel, then rip it off at the base of the mountain and climb in more sensible bifurcated garments. Mrs Aubrey Le Blond set off on a traverse of the Rothorn with her guide and porter, came down the other side and realised that her skirt was still on the summit. There was no choice but to re-ascend and return to their starting point.
Some were feminists and suffragists. Some were not bothered about politics and just climbed. Many left little record of themselves or their views. The Alpine Club, formed in 1857, did not admit women as members, so, in 1907, women founded the Ladies Alpine Club. It had rooms at the Grand Central Hotel, Marylebone. The matriarch of Edwardian mountaineering, Le Blond was its first president and Walker one of its first members.
There's a photograph of Fanny Bullock Workman taken in the Himalayas in 1912. She stands on the Siachen glacier at an altitude of about 6,400m. She's holding a newspaper with the words "Votes for Women" clearly visible. Whether waving a banner in the Himalayas was likely to have made much difference to the cause of universal suffrage in the US or Britain is open to question, but a hundred years on, it reminds us, at least, that she was there.