We are implementing the project about women and mountains. We feel responsible to tell the incredible story of their relationships. Hanna Aleksandronets has decided to undertake this mission. We have collected three parts of different materials. Please, do not go far away from your screen!
Part 1. “Voices for Women”
By Hanna Aleksandronets
I’ve been mountaineering for 7 years. However, if someone had asked me what famous female climbers’, or female alpinists’ names I could mention, I would probably have remembered only Lynn Hill, Sasha DiGiulian, and Ashima Shiraishi. Oh, yeah! Also, you might imagine ladies in long sandwich dresses hiking in the mountains in black-and-white pictures.
Not quite enough… That’s why I decided to fill a gap in my own knowledge. Now I would like to share my research results.
When Did a Woman Climb a Mountain For the First Time?
The beginning of female mountaineering is generally dated to the ascent in 1799, when the mysterious Miss Parminter climbed “on” Le Buet (10,157 feet/3000 metres) in the Alps of Savoy. After that, in 1808 the 18-year-old Frenchwoman Marie Paradis became one of the first women to climb Mont Blanc.
Thirty years later, French aristocrat Henriette D’Angeville, outfitted with six porters, and six guides, also summited Mont Blanc. She did this with flare, releasing a carrier pigeon and popping open champagne on the summit. It is widely thought, that D’Angeville was the first woman, who summited the highest point in Europe by her own forces. Though, Marie Paradis said that her final stretch of road had been extremely complicated, her guide Jacques Balmatn had helped her a lot, because she had become enervated.
Miriam O’Brien is the mountaineer, best known for the concept of “manless climbing”. In 1929 together with her partner Alice Damesme she organized the all-women’s ascent of challenging climb, and summited Aiguille du Grépon.
Lucy Walker, due to her energy and persistence, became the first woman to summit the Matterhorn, in 1871. She was the doubt, that her American competitress Meta Brevoort, rumored to come to Europe and to summit the Matterhorn together with her expedition, could defeat her plans.
Meta Brevoort was the first well-known woman, who suggested, that pants were more comfortable to climb mountains. She made a revolution in mountaineering fashion, she refused impractical skirts and dresses.
The Ladies’ Alpine Club was founded in London in 1907 and was the first mountaineering club for women, similar to the long-established elite “male” Alpine Club, which at the time did not accept women members.
Women vs Men. Struggle for Rights Has Unfolded in the Mountains
During the late 1800s, when women were getting their start in their struggle for rights, men began rock climbing in the Elbsandstein of Saxony, and the Dolomites. As a result, politics and alpinism intersected… In 1906, the 47-year-aged Fanny Bullock Workman trekked to the Himalayas to climb Pinnacle Peak in Kashmir (22,735 feet/ almost 7000 m), establishing a new female altitude record. During the expedition, she took an important picture for women, who were thinking of the right to vote. She was photographed with a “Votes for Women” sign atop of the snow-capped, and ice-covered mountain.
When Annie Peck reached the top of Peru’s Mount Coropuna (21,083 feet/6425 m) in 1911, she planted a “Votes for Women” pennant on its summit. The brave woman was 58 years old! Also, she invented the anorak on the base of the “Eskimo costume” at the Museum of Natural History.
In the mid 1920s, Miriam O’Brien Underhill made the traverse from Aiguilles du Diable to Mont Blanc du Tacul, tagging five 4,000-meter summits. She is best known for the concept of “manless climbing”. In 1929 together with her partner Alice Damesme she organized the all-women’s ascent of challenging climb, and summited Aiguille du Grépon.
Shortly after the ascent went public, the French mountaineer Étienne Bruhl infamously shook his head and stated, “The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.” (Moreover, a few other routes mastered by women lost their luster for men. — Ed. note)
The Bruhl’s reaction demonstrated the negative sentiment toward women’s courage throughout the history in climbing. For instance, in 1939, in America, a group of women, Margaret Smith Craighead, Margaret Bedell, Ann Sharples, and Mary Whittemore, was afraid of ridicule, so they awoke earlier than other climbers, and made the first female ascent of Owen-Spalding (II 5.4) on the Grand Teton. After their milestone, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported, “Another successful invasion of the field of sport by the weaker sex.”
Nevertheless, the criticism only strengthened women’s determinateness to mountaineer! For example, Marj Farquhar, an active member of the Sierra Club, belonged to a small group of climbers who learned modern rock-climbing techniques from Robert Underhill, who imported them from Europe. Marj and her husband, Francis, were leading environmental activists in the mid 1900s, and remained at the epicenter of Yosemite’s early climbing years. “If people were mountains,” wrote Nicholas B. Clinch in his article, published in the 2000 American Alpine Journal, “Marj Farquhar would be Lhotse… strong, impressive, and rising far above most other mountains.”
The Stanford Alpine Club made their debut in 1947, with a nontraditional stance, welcoming women and celebrating “manless” climbing.
Shortly after the ascent went public, the French mountaineer Étienne Bruhl infamously shook his head and stated, “The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.”
The 1960s also introduced Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, which inspired thousands of women to find fulfillment beyond the role of housewife. Until its release, women spent 55 hours per week on chores and child-rearing, and less than 10 percent of all doctors, lawyers, and engineers were women. There were only a few women who pursued climbing. They were on the fringe of the society, because they rejected cultural and social norms.
Women’s Boom! BigWall Female Climbers
The 1960s ushered in the Golden Age of Yosemite Valley. Athletes tried to master tricky route, and big walls. In 1967, Liz Robbins, along with her husband, Royal, ticked the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, becoming the first woman to climb a VI big wall. Liz also attempted the “Nose” (El Capitan route) in 1967 with Royal, but the couple rappelled due to heat and insufficient water.
In 1970, Johanna Marte became the first woman to scale El Capitan as a non-leading client of Royal Robbins, and Egon Marte. She mastered the route “In Cold Blood” (V 5.11b A3).
“If people were mountains,” wrote Nicholas B. Clinch in his article, published in the 2000 American Alpine Journal, “Marj Farquhar would be Lhotse… strong, impressive, and rising far above most other mountains.”
In 1972, in the USA, Title IX became a law, making sports, and education equal opportunity for men and women.
After the passage of the federal civil rights act, in 1973, one of the ascents marked a turning point for female climbers. Beverly Johnson and Sibylle Hechtel made the first all-female ascent of El Capitan via the “Triple Direct” (VI 5.13b А2-). While ladies were learning how to haul bags that weighed more than both of them, and were throwing themselves into a sea of granite, Valley climbers wagered for and against them.
Soon after, Johnson soloed the “Dihedral Wall” (VI 5.8 A3, El Capitan route), while Ellie Hawkins soloed “Never, Never Land” (VI 5.9 A3+, El Capitan route). Ellie put herself on record. Now you are able to find her route “Dyslexia” (Ribbon Falls, VI 5.10d A4) in the local guidebook, so named to bring awareness to a condition she had battled her whole life.
While american women were conquering El Capitan, in the USSR Lyudmila Agranovskaya became the first woman, who had summited the highest peak in the country, the Communism Peak. After that, she got the “snow leopard” title.
What About the USSR? Incredible Ascents and Awful Tragedy
While in the USA women were conquering El Capitan peaks, in the USSR, in 1970, Lyudmila Agranovskaya became the first woman, who conquered the highest peak in the country, the peak of Communism. Besides, she was the first woman awarded with the medal “The USSR Highest Mountains Conqueror”, and became a so-called “snow leopard” (№ 16). By the way, according to the official data (September, 2019), only 673 alpinists became “snow leopards”, among them there were 30 women.
The lady climber with most “snow leopard” titles, with three titles, to be more exact, is Elvira Nasonova (in 1973, in 1988 after she recovered from a serious injury, in 1991). The successful female mountaineer reached the USSR master of sports norm seven times, and made plenty of ascents!
In 1973, a women’s team led by Elvira Shatayeva made a traverse of the legendary Ushba. Elvira Shatayeva was a female mountaineering star, however, unfortunately, she faded away, as she unsuccessfully attempted to traverse the Lenin Peak in the Soviet Pamirs.
The Soviet athlete mountaineered with female teams. Shatayeva was the first women’s group member (together with Galina Rozhalskaya, Ilsyar Mukhamedova, Antonina Son), that made the ascent on the Korzhenevskaya peak (7105 m) in 1972. The girls were awarded with the medal “For Outstanding Sports Achievement”.
The awful tragedy in 1974, when climbers died as they unsuccessfully attempted to traverse the Lenin Peak, was the event, that divided the USSR women’s mountaineering into before and after. The group of eight women (Ilsiyar Mukhamedova, Valentina Fateyeva, Nina Vasilieva, Irina Lyubimtseva, Tatyana Bardasheva, Lyudmila Manzharova, Galina Perekyuk and Elvira Shatayeva) had set out to cross the seven thousander roughly from east to west when it was hit by a fierce storm. They did not survive.
14 years had passed, before women’s ascents in the USSR were rehabilitated. However, not completely. For historical reasons, the term “women’s mountaineering” in the USSR was introduced due to lots of barriers, and prohibitions. Female teams were forbidden to climb, furthermore, according to the official “Rules of Mountaineering” more than two women should not be involved in the expedition.
The awful tragedy in 1974 was the event, that divided the USSR women’s mountaineering into before and after.
What about our early modern history?
To be continued… you will be able to read about female climbers who are finally recognized, and who are not animadverted!