‘The Ascent of Woman’ – Celebrating Early Women Mountaineers – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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‘The Ascent of Woman’ – Celebrating Early Women Mountaineers

In the early nineteenth century, Frenchwoman Mademoiselle d’Augeville became the ‘pioneer of women climbers‘ (The Sketch, 6 September 1911) as she made her ascent of Mont Blanc at the age of 44.

And by the end of the century, she had paved the way for a generation of women mountaineers, who were astonishing the world with their climbing feats. From the Andes to the Himalayas, and all along the Alps, women were truly in ascendance, overcoming prejudice as they climbed and proved themselves no longer to be ‘the weaker sex.’

The Sphere | 13 August 1910

So in this special blog we will explore ‘The Ascent of Women,’ from the exploits of Mademoiselle d’Augeville, to those of the ‘doyenne’ of British female climbers, Lucy Walker, to how mountaineering became a popular outdoor pursuit amongst women and represented a radical shift in the gender status quo, all using newspapers from our Archive.

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‘Mountain Climbing is No Woman’s Work’

One of the earliest mentions of women mountaineers in our Archive comes from an article in the Nuneaton Observer, entitled ‘Alpine Ascents.’ It was published in September 1879 and tells of the tragic ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, where four of mountaineer Edward Whymper’s party lost their lives during the subsequent descent.

The same article details how:

A lady, Miss Walker, ascended the Matterhorn with her father in July, 1871.

The Matterhorn | The Sphere | 5 April 1930

The Nuneaton Observer is scathing, however; this is not an ‘example to be followed,’ for ‘Mountain-climbing is no woman’s work.’

But who was this Miss Walker? The Evening Star in a June 1898 article labels her ‘The doyenne of English lady mountaineers,’ Lucy Walker being the ‘very first lady to climb the Matterhorn,’ one of the highest summits of the Alps.

The Evening Star goes on to describe how:

With a modesty which distinguishes comparatively few mountaineers, Miss Walker denies that she has ever imperilled her life among the mountains, but declares that climbing completely cured her of rheumatism, from which she has suffered since her childhood.

Evening Star | 30 June 1898

Lucy Walker was not the only early woman mountaineer, however. We have already mentioned Mademoiselle d’Augeville, whom the Cannock Chase Courier in October 1898 labels ‘the first of all lady mountaineers:’

Her first ascent, that of Mont Blanc, was accomplished at the age of 44: her 21st, and last, that of the Oldenhorn, at the age of 69. Then, and not till then, she concluded that ‘it is time to abandon the alpenstock before it abandons me.’

Then there were the ‘two lady mountaineers whose performances Alpine Club men would deem to be remarkable,’ as reports the Nuneaton Observer in 1892:

There was Mrs. Jackson, who, in conjunction with a German climber, discovered a new route up Dent Blanche, which is one of the most awkward ascents in Switzerland; and Mrs. Main, formerly Mrs. Burnaby, who traversed the summit of the Jungfrau in mid-winter, and whose published accounts of her adventures in high altitudes are far stranger than fiction.

Nuneaton Observer | 22 July 1892

And perhaps the most famous of all early women mountaineers was none other than Queen Victoria herself, as the Monmouthshire Beacon relates in June 1898. It reports on an article in the Strand Magazine, which reveals that ‘In her younger days…the Queen was an enthusiastic mountaineer.’

Queen Victoria’s mountaineering career began with the purchase of Balmoral Castle, as the Monmouthshire Beacon recounts:

Her Majesty’s first ascent of Lochnagar, as well as her first hill climb, was made on September 8, 1848, eight days after the Court’s first arrival at Balmoral Castle. 

Meanwhile, in September 1850 Queen Victoria ‘ascended Beinn a’Bhuird, in the Cairngorm Mountains,’ and nine years later she ‘visited the summit of Ben Muich Dhui, the highest in that range.’

Illustrated London News | 19 June 1886

So with none other than the Queen herself participating in mountain climbing, would the craze spread amongst her female subjects?

‘Many a Skirted Climber’

In 1890 women’s interest magazine The Queen reported how ‘every year more ladies are taking to climbing.’ It was not alone in its observation of the growth in popularity of this pursuit amongst women.

In July 1892 the Nuneaton Observer reports how:

Of late years…lady climbers have multiplied. Last summer a lady raced two other parties – one of which included the redoubtable Mr. Harold Topham – up Mount Rosa, in a gale of wind, and reached the Hochaste Spitz first; and similarly stirring achievements of the fair are recorded each year.

These women, and their startling achievements, were fast overcoming prejudices which had long held them to be the ‘weaker sex.’ Indeed, in an article for The Graphic in August 1898 about the Scottish Alps, author Lockhart Bogle makes a point of featuring ‘An Accomplished Lady Climber,’ noting how ‘Ladies take a particular pride in ascending the most perilous pinnacles.’

‘An Accomplished Lady Climber’ | The Graphic | 13 August 1898

By the turn of the century The Queen in October 1903 relates how ‘many a skirted climber’ had reached the Needle, which juts out from Lake District peak the Great Gable. But several obstacles faced these pioneering women: the difficulty of obtaining proper clothing for their task, and the lack of a mountaineering organisation that would allow them to join.

But The Queen was on hand to provide advice to women on how to dress for mountaineering. The main taboo when it came to dressing for climbing centred on the skirt: practicality and safety dictated that it should be abandoned, but the moral code of the day meant that it should be retained. The Queen in 1890 writes how:

Some ladies dispense with skirts altogether, and lay them aside with the other impedimenta when climbing really begins. But this requires some little courage, and by carefully arranging the length of the skirt, it may be worn without inconvenience. It must, however, be capable of being shortened so as to cover the knees; anything longer than this is certainly inconvenient, if not actually dangerous.

‘Some little courage’ was needed to get rid of the skirt, a remarkable consideration given that these pioneering women mountaineers were already exhibiting some great courage in their climbing feats! The same article goes on to suggest how a thick cloth or serge skirt could be shortened, and accessorised with a Norfolk jacket to provide the optimal climbing outfit. Knickerbockers too ought to be worn, ‘gathered in below the knee with an elastic band,’ accessorised with a ‘felt hat,’ which would provide protection from the sun and wind.

The Queen | 19 July 1890

The Queen goes on to proclaim how ‘veils are pratically useless’ as protection from the sun and snow, for ‘the only safe precaution against sunburn is to wear a mask of slight flannel, with holes for the eyes, nose and mouth.’ This addition of a mask, The Queen admits, is ‘unfortunate,’ but a woman is able to ‘display her taste and skill in dress by being provided with a thoroughly suitable and becoming costume.’

And as for an organisation for women climbers, a ‘A Ladies’ Alpine Club’ was started by Irish climber Mrs Aubrey Le Blond (Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed) in 1907. The Daily Telegraph & Courier (London) features this interview with Mrs Aubrey Le Blond, in which she states:

‘Many men…are not enthusiastic about women climbers at all; and, perhaps, would rather be without us. If we were admitted we should be prepared to submit to the qualification. Only eight or ten women climbers would be qualified at present, however. Our club is now to be formed, if we can get fifteen members for a start, and I have no fear that we shall fail in this. Members will only be admitted on similar qualifications to those of the Alpine Club. Women climbers have had no place at which to meet and discuss mountaineering.’

The Bystander | 13 June 1928

This was changing, with the inception of the Ladies’ Alpine Club. However, this new society faced backlash from the original Alpine Club, demonstrating that despite their achievements in the sphere of climbing, women still faced prejudice, even from their fellow climbers. Speaking on the necessary qualifications to join their society, a representative from the Alpine Club stated:

‘The qualification…is rather a stiff one but if that were lowered or abolished there would be no distinction in membership, and the club would simply become a place for selling railway tickets for Switzerland.’

‘Progress of Women’

In the new century, the early 1900s, women continued to exceed expectations of their climbing abilities. Generally considered to be ‘first among lady mountaineers‘ was American Fanny Bullock Workman, whose ‘courage, physical activity, and endurance’ was lauded by the Illustrated London News in 1900.

The Westminster Gazette in June 1907, in an article entitled ‘Feats of Lady Mountaineers,’ describes her achievements:

About nine years ago Mrs. Workman made an ascent of 21,000ft in the Kara-Koram mountains; in 1903 she camped two nights at the height of over 21,000ft.

Fanny Bullock Workman with her husband on a ledge of Siegfriedhorn, Himalayas | Illustrated London News | 10 November 1900 

The Karakoram mountain range runs between the borders of China, Pakistan and India, and it was this ascent that saw Fanny Bullock Workman ‘surpass the achievement of all other lady mountaineers.’ She also made impressive ascents in the Himalayas, ascending the Nun Kun range, in doing so leaving her ‘sister-mountaineers hopelessly behind’ and meanwhile establishing ‘a record which few masculine climbers can hope to rival.’

In 1908 Fanny Bullock Workman was continuing to cement her place as the world’s premier woman climber, as relates the Westminster Gazette:

The Indian mail brings word that during the past summer Dr. and Mrs. Workman, the well-known American travellers, have been making fresh conquests among the peaks and glaciers of the high Himalayas.

Fanny Bullock Workman | Daily Mirror | 12 May 1913

But it was not just Fanny Bullock Workman making waves in the climbing world. The Sketch in September 1911 featured a spread called ‘The Ascent of Woman,’ which included all the top women mountaineers of the day, and explained:

There is no sphere of sport, in its more serious and perilous aspects, in which women have more distinguished themselves than in mountaineering. Woman, in fact, seems to have an aptitude for climbing.

It pictures the fifteen top women climbers, from Fanny Bullock Workman at the top, as she had achieved the ‘world’s record for women in altitude by her ascent of one of the Nun Kun peaks – 23,300 feet,’ downwards ‘in order of the heights they have severally achieved.’

‘The Ascent of Woman’ – from top downwards: 1. Mrs Bullock Workman 2. Miss Annie Peck 3. Mlle Rose Friedman 4. Mlle Vinita Mayer 5. Mlle Marvingt 6. Mlle Eleanor Hasenclever 7. Mrs Aubrey Le Blond 8. Miss Dora Keen | The Sketch | 6 September 1911

Sitting in second place was Annie Peck, ‘another American Alpinist.’ Her achievements included the ‘first ascent of Huarascán, a height of about 21,800 feet,’ in the Andes and the highest point in Peru. Her adventures were picked up by Pearson’s Weekly in the July of 1903:

Miss Annie Peck, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and several companions intended to make an attempt to ascend Mount Sorata, in the Andes, one of the highest peaks in the world, and are taking oxygen tanks for the purpose of overcoming respiratory difficulties in the higher parts of the mountain.

‘The Ascent of Woman’ continued – from top downwards – 9. Mlle Marguerite Grösse 10. Mlle Elizabeth Grösse 11. Mme Catherine Broske 12. Mme La Générale Von Repert 13. Mme Julien Grande 14. Mme Paul Frantz Namur 15. Mlle Leontine Richard | The Sketch | 6 September 1911

In 1908 Votes for Women covered Annie Peck’s ascent of Huarascán in a section entitled ‘Progress of Women.’ It relates how:

The summit of this formidable mountain has never before been reached, though on a previous occasion Miss Peck succeeded in scaling it to a height of 19,000 ft, thus establishing a record. Miss Peck was also the first woman to ascend Mount Orizaba.

Such climbs were not without their dangers, however. In January 1910 the Daily Mirror reported on a ‘Lady Climber’s Fate‘ in the Alps. 25 year-old Kate Eastman had arrived from London to Chesières, Switzerland, and had set out early one morning up the mountains in the hopes of seeing the sunrise. She never returned.

After three days, Kate’s body was found, her death ‘attributed to fall, due to the fact that she had no nails in her boots.’ Kate, however, was deemed to be ‘an expert mountain climber.’

Daily Mirror | 6 January 1910

But despite these dangers, women pressed on. More of their ‘stupendous feats’ are chronicled by the Westminster Gazette in 1907. The first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1907 was made by Mademoiselle Giordraux, ‘a Swiss girl of eighteen, and, a few months since, the eight-year-old daughter of a Japanese editor successfully scaled Fuji-Yama, 12,000 ft. high.’

Women, young and old, were climbing mountains across the globe, from Japan to Switzerland. One of the oldest women climbers of the time was an unnamed woman from Strasbourg. As the Cannock Chase Courier reports in 1898, she had ‘just accomplished a considerable mountain ascent at the age of 75.’

‘Skilled and Courageous’

So by the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century, thanks to the achievements of the remarkable women above and their contemporaries, climbing for women had become socially acceptable.

So acceptable had it become, that The Sketch in September 1910 published a fashion piece depicting ‘The New Costume for Lady Mountaineers,’ featuring ‘convenient knickerbockers,’ a sleeved waistcoat and an Alpine hat embroidered with a ‘silver edelweiss.’

‘The New Costume for Lady Mountaineers’ | The Sketch | 14 September 1910

Meanwhile, one Mr. G.F.A. Cresswell was giving a lecture on mountaineering, as reports the Lynn Advertiser in November 1911. He says he would be a ‘bold man who ventured to give his advice’ to women climbers, but nevertheless he provides the below suggestions:

One is that all ladies wear strong, well-nailed boots, the other than when the rope is in use the skirt should be so looped up or otherwise disposed of so as not to come below the knee.

But a woman mountaineer was on hand to provide her own advice to prospective women climbers in December 1910. The Midland Counties Tribune published an article called ‘Mountaineering for the Preservation of Youth and Beauty‘ by Constance A. Barnicoat, ‘a daring woman climber’ from New Zealand. She and her Swiss Alpinist husband M. Julien Grande had ascended the Grand Schreckhorn together, the ‘pic du terreur [peak of terror] of the Bernese Oberland.’

Constance Barnicoat climbing the Great Schreckhorn | The Sphere | 11 March 1911

Barnicoat outlines the benefits of climbing for women:

Provided a woman be physically strong enough to begin with, there is no recreation more generally beneficial to her, both in mind and body, than the ascent of high peaks. In the opinion of lady climbers, generally, climbing is the best cure for nervousness. Moreover, a woman climber usually keeps slim and youthful looking at an age when other women are apt to have lost both figure and features.

Moreover mountaineering did not only provoke ‘health and happiness,’ it had an impact on the psyche. Barnicoat describes how it develops ‘self-reliance,’ and gives the opinion of a ‘well-known Alpinist’ on the personality of women climbers:

…he never met a woman climber who was either gossipy, hysterical, or mean. He also added that a lady Alpinist always makes a good wife and a good chum.

‘A Woman Climber of Great Gable,’ in the Lake District | The Sphere | 27 September 1919

But with all the benefits for women mountaineers, Barnicoat notes two of the obstacles they faced, clothing again being an issue, and the other being a socio-economic one:

One [handicap] is the difficulty of getting clothes which shall be thoroughly suitable and not hideous; the other is the fact that women, as a rule, have less money than men to spend on their holidays, and that climbing is unquestionably an expensive sport, one of the most expensive in fact.

‘The New Costume for Lady Mountaineers’ | The Sketch | 14 September 1910

Mountaineering perhaps had not yet come to the masses, and was the preserve of wealthier, middle and upper class women.

But by the 1930s things were beginning to change. An article appeared in the Aberdeen Press and Journal in June 1930, appealing to ‘Lady Climbers.’ It began:

Now…that members of the ‘weaker sex’ have proved themselves skilful and courageous climbers, and it is no longer unusual to hear that the Mattheron has been scaled by a woman, your mind may be set on higher things.

The pioneers of the past had gone some way to normalise the extraordinary, an achievement in itself. And fashions – that preoccupation of the past forty years for women climbers – had changed, to become more practical, borrowing from the masculine:

For long expeditions you will wear breeches and shirt, men’s golfing stockings, with a thinner pair underneath (the only way to prevent blisters) and boots. However warm it may be when you start out, take with you thick gloves, several jerseys, a scarf, and a woollen cap or beret, for you will need them when you reach snow level. Shetland woollies are the best, for they are warm and light at the same time, and roll up into almost nothing in your rucksack.

Aberdeen Press and Journal | 18 June 1930

But the feminine was not to be totally disengaged from, nor were the trappings of class. The article continues:

There is sure to be dancing at the hotel, so you will be well advised to take some evening frocks. Here it seems incredible that one should have the energy but to do anything but undress and go to bed, at the end of a long day’s climb. But there it is different. In that wonderful Alpine air, after an all-day expedition, probably involving an early start and a late return, you will be prepared to dance till midnight – and think nothing of it!

Climbing was still the preserve of the monied, and a woman might be able to dress like a man during the day but she would have to be returned to her dresses by midnight.

However, this must not necessarily detract form the achievements of the early women mountaineers, and their pioneering feats undertaken across the globe, some of which cost them their lives, and so we are delighted to celebrate them here, learning their storiesfrom the pages of our newspapers.

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