Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lily Bristow ~ Mountaineer

"Non Mademoiselle, pas possible!" ~ 19th Century Hotel Staff to Lily Barstow
(after being told that she just climbed the Rothorn without guides)

In the 1870s, several women’s names appear among the Alpinists, but it was not until the 1890s that a climber to equal, and possibly surpass, Lucy Walker was seen in the Alps. Lily Bristow was a close friend of A.F. Mummery and his wife, Mary. Mummery was considered by many to be the greatest climber of the Victorian Age. In 1892, along with Mummery and three other men and a Miss Pasteur, Lily climbed the Charmoz and, in the next several years, participated in a number of major climbs including the first descent of the Zmutt Ridge of the Matterhorn. This was to be her last great climb.

Lily was a woman of strength and conviction, and it was she who taught Mummery “that in mountaineering, as in all the other varied affairs of life, ‘l’homme propose mais femme dispose’.” When she decided to climb the Zinal Rothorn, considered a difficult climb, Mummery went with her despite the long walk to the mountain. Although a superb climber, he hated walking and tried, all the way to the peak, to get Lily to turn back. Victorian social convention forbade his just saying no, or turning back without her, but he must have enjoyed it when, on their return to the hotel, the guests told Lily she was mistaken, she must have climbed some small hillock, it could not have been the Rothorn.

When she traversed the Grepon (it had only been done once, the previous year, and by Mummery) she managed to carry with her a heavy plate camera to photograph the expedition. Mummery’s description makes it clear that she was courageous, competent and willing to do her share and more. At one point the camera was lowered to a particularly precarious perch.

“Miss Bristow promptly followed, scorning the proffered rope. On this aerial perch we then proceeded to set up the camera, and the lady of the party, surrounded on three sides by nothing and blocked in front with the camera, made ready to seize the moment when an unfortunate climber should be in his least elegant attitude and transfix him forever.”

Her skill in rock climbing, on that same assault, was sufficient to lead Mummery to remark that she “showed the representatives of the Alpine Club the way in which steep rocks should be climbed,” and when the other members of the party stopped to recover their wind, Lily took photographs. It was hardly “an easy day for a lady,” in fact, Mummery ranked it amongst the hardest climbs he had made.

With the death of Mummery in the Himalayas in August of 1895, Lily lost all incentive to climb and faded from the list of notable Alpinists.

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