Monday, January 10, 2022

Pioneers at the Pinnacle of Peaks

Dressed in a flannel skirt with trousers underneath, on July 22, 1871, British mountaineer Lucy Walker (1836-1916) reached the top of the Matterhorn (4,478 m/14,692 ft). She was the first woman to do so. Before that exploit, in 1870, Walker made the first female ascent of the Aiguille Verte (4,122 m/13,524 ft) in the Mont Blanc massif. Her other firsts in the Alps included climbing the Piz Bernina in 1869, the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps (4,049 m/13,284 ft) in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, and the Lyskamm (4,533 m/14,872 ft) in 1868, a peak in the Pennine Alps between Switzerland and Italy. She was also famous for having been the first to reach the summit of the Eiger (3,967 m/13,015 ft) in 1864.

In all, Walker is known for having been the first women on 16 summits, including the Monte Rosa (4,634 m/15,203 ft), the Strahlhorn (4,190 m/13,747 ft) and the Grand Combin (4,314 m/14,153 ft). On July 21, 1864, she was the first (of either sex) to climb the Balmhorn (3,698 m/12,132 ft).

Lucy Walker © Alpine Journal Nr. 31

Walker was a pioneer in defying the gender norms of 19th-century Europe by climbing in the Alps. Despite the prevailing general opinion that strenuous exercise and too much education were bad for women, improper and indecent, she completed 98 expeditions, including 28 successful attempts on 4,000 m (13,123 ft) peaks. This helped to lead the way for other women mountaineers to become alpinists, including Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed (Mrs Aubrey Le Blond), known to occasionally climb without a guide; Marguerite “Meta” Claudia Brevoort, the first American woman to climb the Matterhorn, and the first to summit the Pic Central of La Meije (3,973 m/13,035 ft) in 1870; and sisters Anna and Ellen Pigeon, who were the first women to climb the Ober Gabelhorn (4,063 m/13,330 ft) in 1874. Then came people such as Margaret Jackson, Emily Hornby, Mary Isabella Straton, Emmeline Lewis Lloyd, Katharine Richardson, among others, many of whom remain anonymous.

In 1913, Walker became President of the Ladies’ Alpine Club in London, established in 1907 to counter the ban on women joining the British Alpine Club.

Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed Le Blond (Creative Commons public domain)



“The chief reason why women so seldom climbed fifty years ago was that unless they had the companionship of a father, brother or sister, it was looked at as most shocking for a ‘female’ to sleep at a hut or a bivouac.” – Lizzie Le Blond, 1932

Featured image: East and North side of the Matterhorn, photo by Marcel Wiesweg (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

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