Thursday, October 07, 2010

Ladies on High; Victorian Women Mountaineers

Meta Brevoort, the aunt of W. A. B.Coolidge who himself made over 1,700 ascents and systematically explored the Alps, was a redoubtable climber in her own right and one of a small band of women who blazed a trail for women in the Alps. On the whole, while women were accepted, if not welcomed, by the best climbers, who recognised in them kindred spirits, albeit in skirts, there remained, through the Victorian Age much prejudice against them. One guide book disposed of the whole question in a short acerbic note. “Touching the much vexed question as to whether ladies should climb, we do not hesitate to say, ‘no’.” Yet when this was written, in the 1880s, not only had women been climbing actively for more than two decades, they had made some notable first ascents.

Among the most outstanding of the early Englishwomen in the Alps was Lucy Walker. A natural climber, she was on the nineteenth ascent of the Matterhorn with her father and a friend of the family, Frederick Gardiner, and was the first woman to climb the peak. Yet she made the climb only a month before Meta Brevoort, with her nephew, made the fourth traverse from Zermatt to Breuil, and the first by a woman. In fact, had the great guide, Melchior Anderegg, not told the Walkers of the plans for Miss Brevoort’s attempt, the honour of being the first woman to reach the peak of the Matterhorn might well have been Meta’s.

In a climbing career which included most of the principal Alpine peaks, Lucy Walker failed to reach the summit only three times in ninety-eight ascents. Yet she was, in many respects, a typical mid-Victorian, middle-class woman. Whymper’s engraving of The Club Room at Zermatt in 1864 shows her, bespectacled, arms folded into her long-sleeved dress, standing somewhat apart from the men in the doorway of the Monte Rosa hotel. Since the plate was not done from life, her inclusion is indicative of he high esteem in which she was already held by her fellow Alpinists.

For climbing, Lucy wore an ankle-length dress which could hardly have assisted her in some of the more dangerous ascents. After a climb, she would carefully smooth down the white print dress before returning to the inn. That such clothing could be dangerous is evident in the case of Kathleen Richardson who was nearly killed when her climbing companion’s skirts dislodged a rock which crashed down of Richardson’s head.
When she was not climbing, Lucy took little exercise more strenuous than croquet. She entertained, embroidered, or engaged in socially acceptable and useful work. Yet she, with her brother and father, made the fourth ascent of the Eiger and, with them in 1864, made the ascent of the Balmhorn, becoming he first woman to take part in a major first climb.

Long after she retired from active climbing, she would return to the Alps to visit friends and to take long walks among the peaks with her friend, the great guide, Melchior Anderegg. She was the second President of the Ladies’ Alpine Club, succeeding to that office in 1912 after Elizabeth Le Blond, a remarkable climber in the 1880s and ‘90s. Le Blond scandalised society by climbing in trousers although she wore a skirt over them, removing it only on the higher slopes.

Lucy never lost her interest in climbing and in 1913, although an invalid, she travelled to London from Liverpool for the general meeting and dinner of the Ladies’ Alpine Club where she gave a spirited and racy after dinner speech. She died in 1916, at the age of eighty-one, having seen women take their place on the slopes with men; a victory in no small part due to her efforts.

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.

Bristow 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 for ever.

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 Bristow lost all incentive to climb and faded from the list of notable Alpinists.

There are several interesting references to Lily Bristow in Mummery's book, My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus which can be downloaded by clicking here.  Additionally, there are pictures of these women at the photolibrary of the Alpine Club. The article, "A Real Snorker" which is in David Mazel's Mountaineering Women includes copies of letters written by Lily Bristow which give a wonderful insight into this delightful woman.  The pages can be viewed at Google Books by clicking here. The article will be found on pages 78-83.


Hermes said...

Considering they were fighting the culture and voluminous dresses their achievements are simply amazing.

Unknown said...

Does anyone know where the Alpine Climber Lily Bristow was born?

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Sorry, I can find very little about Lily Bristow. If you have any information, I'd be very grateful if you would consider sharing it.

Unknown said...

Willdo Bruce, Lily sure is a difficult person to find information on. She was obviously a very well educated and wealthy Lady. If I find anything I will let you have it.