Wednesday, 19 May 2021 10:53

Switzerland Tourism, Mammut, Alpine Club and Swiss Alpine Club celebrate 150 years of women's alpinism

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In 1871, 150 years ago this year, the British mountaineer Lucy Walker became the first woman to reach the top of the iconic Matterhorn in Switzerland.

What marks a milestone not only in the history of British but global mountaineering, has also given women in mountain sports a face. This summer, in the light of this anniversary, Switzerland Tourism is working to motivate women to pursue and achieve their goals in mountain climbing.  

On 22 July 1871, only six years after her countryman Edward Whymper, Lucy Walker (1836-1916) became the first woman to reach the top of the Matterhorn, the most sought-after prize in mountaineering. She won the race over her rival Meta Brevoort from the USA. Climbing the peak while wearing a long flannel skirt - appropriate for a Victorian lady at that time - did not hinder Lucy Walker in achieving her goal and she became a pioneer in female alpinism. The ascent of the Matterhorn by the first woman was considered a milestone in Alpine history.

Lucy WalkerLucy Walker © Alpine Journal Nr. 31

In July 2021, Switzerland Tourism and Swiss outdoor brand Mammut will support a British outdoor adventurer to add a milestone to her climbing and mountaineering career by tackling the iconic 4,478m peak. Olivia Jane spent most of her childhood in Zermatt, the same village that was a base for Lucy Walker’s Matterhorn ascent in 1871. Her family bred St. Bernard dogs to support the mountain rescue teams in the area which is where her passion for mountains and adventure grew. This summer she will follow her childhood dream and step into the shoes of Lucy Walker and share her training and preparations in a personal diary. ‘I hope I am able to motivate other women to pursue their goals when it comes to similar adventures’, says Olivia Jane.

A lack of female role models might prevent other women from starting or even thinking about mountain climbing. The 100% Women Peak Challenge - an initiative by Switzerland Tourism together with its partners, the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), the Swiss Mountain Guide Association and the Swiss outdoor brand Mammut - challenges women-only teams to ascend the 48 highest peaks in the Swiss Alps this summer. The challenge will run until 8 September 2021 and interested participants can profit from the professional advice of the involved expert partners or participate in guided climbs.

The Matterhorn

This year, the historical British Alpine Club is celebrating Lucy Walker as well as the American climber Meta Brevoort, by assembling a group of approximately 30 female alpinists who will, in different formations, ascend the iconic Matterhorn and also the Weisshorn, Bietschhorn and Dent Blanche. The project 'Women Rise Up' honours Walker's accomplishment and aims to offer fresh inspiration to modern female climbers. 

The Alpine Club hopes to bring together a diverse group of women to mark this extraordinary year in female mountaineering with the aim of broadening access to mountaineering through inspiration, in the same way that Walker and Brevoort did for women a century and a half ago. To this end, the Alpine Club is offering two subsidised places to women with the desire to climb in the Alps who may not yet have had the opportunity.
The event will facilitate a group of around 12-14 women with varying levels of alpine experience and from different backgrounds to partner each other on one or more of Walker and Brevoort’s routes. The emphasis will be on sharing, learning, enjoyment and reflecting on the inspiring legacy left to us by these women and considering the one we leave for future generations.

The women who shaped male dominated alpinism

For the most part, it was men who shaped the history of alpinism – but not exclusively. As far back as the 19th century, there have been women achieving top performances in the Alps. And often under difficult conditions (wearing skirts or harem trousers), without social acceptance, excluded from alpine clubs and limited opportunities to report on their experiences in public. The first half of the 19th century saw an upsurge in mountaineering as Alpine tourism became increasingly developed. In particular, upper-class Englishmen travelled the Swiss Alps with the goal of achieving a first ascent. Around 1860, the golden age of alpinism began, with more and more demanding Alpine peaks being climbed. The era reached its high point in 1865 with the first ascent of the Matterhorn by Edward Whymper.

In 1884, Elizabeth Burnaby Main Le Blond, a British mountaineer, undertook more than 130 grand tours from 1881 onwards, including 26 first ascents and 11 first winter ascents. In 1907, she was the driving force behind the founding of the British Ladies Alpine Club and became its first president. The Swiss Alpine Club (SAC) was founded in 1863 (as the third Alpine Club in Europe, after the one in England that was founded in 1857). In 1907, after long discussions, women were actively excluded from the SAC, which led to the founding of the Swiss Women’s Alpine Club in 1918. It was not until 1980 that the Swiss Alpine Club merged with the Swiss Women’s Alpine Club.

Zermatt cemetary The mountaineers cemetary in Zermatt

The Matterhorn was regarded as the most desirable trophy by both men and women mountaineers. Lucy Walker was not the only woman whose dream it was to reach the peak. Various women attempted the ascent, most notably Meta Brevoort (1825-1876), a New Yorker who had settled in England. Just like Miss Walker, Meta was making a name for herself in the mountaineering world in the late 1860s. In 1869, she undertook her first attempt to climb the Matterhorn and, approaching from the Italian side, reached an altitude of just under 4,000 metres before being forced to turn back due to severe weather conditions. Two years later, however, Meta Brevoort decided to give it another go, setting out for Zermatt with the aim of attempting another ascent. Lucy Walker was already in Zermatt though and, on receiving word of Ms Breevort’s intentions, quickly assembled her own group in order to begin her ascent of the Matterhorn, a feat that would make her the most famous female mountaineer of the era.

Meta Brevoort arrived just after Lucy‘s achievement to receive the shocking news that she had missed her chance to win the ultimate trophy. That very evening, the two women met each other in Zermatt. What Meta really felt on this occasion is anyone’s guess but contemporary sources state that “there were congratulations” . This would be the only occasion that the two most prominent female Alpinists of the era would meet. Meta, however, was not cowed by Lucy‘s successful ascent of the Matterhorn. She waited until conditions on the mountain were just right and, on 5th September, became the first woman to traverse the mountain from Zermatt to Breuil (Cervinia) in Italy. During the following two weeks, she also became the first woman to ascend the Weisshorn (4,506 metres) and the Dent Blanche (4,357 metres). 

Lucy Walker continued mountain-climbing until 1879. From 1913 to 1915, she held the honour of being Vice President of the British Ladies’ Alpine Club before passing away at the age of 80 in 1916.

Sources: Switzerland Tourism, Alpine Club, Caroline Fink, Karin Steinbach: Erste am Seil – Pionierinnen in Fels und Eis. Tyrolia Verlag, Innsbruck 2013. ISBN 978-3-7022-3252-8, 304 S., ca. 80 images, Fr. 39.–.