20 September 2010

Women Did It Better: Mountain Climbing

By Zoe Archer

Mountains have been luring men for centuries, if not millennia. A man sees a giant, intimidating mountain, and he longs to climb it and prove his mastery over nature. But the need to conquer mountains does not belong to men alone. As the sport of mountaineering developed during the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, women looked up at these massive natural structures and thought, "Why not me, too?"

Even though mountains provided these female climbers with plenty of obstacles, the greater risks often came on a social and societal level. Climbing mountains was not "respectable," requiring physical and emotional strength, immodest clothing, and a desire to prove that women were just as capable as men.

Henriette d'Angeville (1794-1871) was the first woman to ever climb Mont Blanc. She was given the nickname "La Fiancée du Mont Blanc," and was meanly said to love the mountain because, as a spinster, she had no one else to love. She scaled Mont Blanc for the first time in 1838 after undergoing rigorous comprehensive training. There was no ascribed mountaineering clothing for women, so d'Angeville work red flannel underwear, woolen stockings on top of silk stockings, tweed, flannel-lined knickerbockers, a fur hat, a straw hat, a velvet mask, a veil, a fur-lined pelisse and green spectacles. When d'Angeville reached the summit, she drank a toast to the Comte de Paris and then released a carrier pigeon to announce her victory.

Another celebrated female climber was Isabella Bird (1831-1904). Bird did not begin her career as an adventurer until she was forty one years old, when persistent illness took her from Britain to Australia in search of a better climate. Australia didn't improve her health, but she next voyaged to the Sandwich Islands (later known as Hawai'i). Here, Bird's health underwent a dramatic improvement, and she climbed Mauna Loa, the world's largest volcano at 13,650 feet.

Newly invigorated, Bird traveled to the Rocky Mountains in 1873. She lived for several years in the wilderness of Estes Park and had a (possibly romantic) relationship with a trapper called Rocky Mountain Jim. During her time in the Rockies, Bird wrote many letters to her sister, which were published in 1879. These detailed her hardy mountain life and her numerous climbing expeditions. She climbed the 14,255 feet high Long's Peak, and then went on to travel to and write about such far-flung places as Japan, the Malay Peninsula, Persia, Tibet, Korea, Sinai, China and Morocco. Clearly, bad heath never regained its hold on her.

The dashing Elizabeth Le Blond, née Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed (1861-1934), was the daughter of a baronet. Her upper class background made her an even less likely candidate for becoming a mountaineer, and her family heartily disapproved of her unconventional climbing mania. Like Bird, Le Blond first traveled to the mountains for heath reasons, and insisted that, at the time, she knew nothing about mountaineering, nor did the sport interest her at all.

That lack of interest did not last long, and she made many ascents of the Alps, wearing breeches under her skirt. As she neared the higher parts of the mountains, she would remove the skirt, but always put it back on before returning from her expeditions. Le Blond founded the Ladies' Alpine Club in 1907 and became their first president. She also made numerous films of life in the Alps and was one of the first female filmmakers to garner attention for her work.

There were American female mountaineers, such as Fanny Bullock Workman (18-59-1925), who made ascents of the Himalayas, and Annie Peck (1850-1935) climbed in Peru and Bolivia. Miriam O'Brien Underhill (1898-1976; pictured) was considered for years to be the best American female climber, and she organized and led "manless" climbs: all-women mountain climbing expeditions. The Australian Freda du Faur (1882-1935) was the first female mountaineer to climb Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was not only a known adventurer and explorer, but a mountaineer, as well, and Miriam Underhill replicated many of Bell's climbs in the Alps.

These women braved natural threats and social scorn. They did it because they loved the mountains. They loved freedom, and the liberty to push themselves to the very edge of their physical and emotional capacity, rather than sit safely, decorously, in a parlor.

Perhaps the best symbol of why women climbed mountains--and why they continue to do so today--can be seen in this photo of Fanny Bullock Workman. In it, she stands atop a mountain in the Karakorum range, brandishing a sign that reads: VOTES FOR WOMEN.