Geraldine Hackett traces the steps taken by English novelist, journalist, traveller and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards on her journey through the Italian Dolomites in 1872...
In an era before lycra had been invented, Amelia Edwards and her woman companion trekked across the then relatively unexplored Dolomite mountain range in northern Italy wearing long dresses and riding side-saddle on mules.
Edwards and Lucy Renshaw made their remarkable journey from Cortina to Bolzano in 1872, a time when women rarely travelled across rough terrain and even more rarely without a male escort, (though they did employ local male guides).
Both were relatively affluent, Edwards was a successful novelist. Little is known of Renshaw apart from the fact that she could afford to employ a maid and a courier.
The pair met in Naples in the spring of 1872 and set off together for Switzerland to escape the heat. They stopped on top of Monte Generoso between Lake Lugano and Lake Como and changed plans. Edwards had years previously been intrigued by paintings of the strange shaped peaks of the Dolomites. That night they abandoned Switzerland and planned a 500 km journey across the Dolomites.
The route had not been well travelled and would require stamina from both women. In her travel journal, Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys, Edwards writes: "The passes are too long and too fatiguing for ladies on foot, and should not be attempted by any who cannot endure eight and sometimes ten hours of mule-riding."
A few days into the journey Renshaw's courier announced that he would go no further: travel by coach and horses on poor paths was uncomfortable and there were no decent places to stay on the route. Undeterred, the pair found a local farmer to act as a mountain guide.
The hardship of the journey was repaid by the spectacular beauty of the Dolomites, which Edwards considered 'probably the most dramatic landscape on earth.' The limestone forms jagged pinnacles and spiralling towers; the pale-coloured rock reflects the shimmering shades of sunlight throughout the day. Edwards wrote pen-portraits and sketched the amazing peaks; her sketches were used for the engravings in her book. It was a best-selling Victorian travel book and introduced this hitherto unknown range of mountains to the British middle-classes looking for somewhere different and exciting to visit.
The pair made their way by mule and on foot. They were not climbers, but they made the first ascent of the 2407 metres Sasso Bianco overlooking Caprile, a peak acknowledged as too easy for members of the Alpine Club and inaccessible to others.
Sasso Bianco is, as Edwards says in her journal: "… in the very centre of the Dolomites, like the middle ball upon a Solitaire board, surrounded on all sides by the giants of the district." Edwards, Renshaw and their guides took six hours to reach the top; the mules had to be left behind as they scrambled along the precipitous summit ridge on foot.
At the top, the party ate their lunch of hard-boiled eggs and bread. Edwards' journal records the drink they had with their meal. "The water in the flask being flat, Clementi, (one of their two guides) fetches up a great lump of ice, and this melted in the sun and mixed with a little brandy, makes a delicious draught as cold as ice itself."
Once refreshed, Edwards, lists the peaks and ranges she can see. To the north she glimpses the highest summits of the Zillerthal Alps – the Fuss Stein, near the Brenner Pass, and the five peaks of the Hornspitzen; along the snow range of the Antholzer Alps and the Wildgall and Hochgall peaks. To the south, she sees the Primiero peaks from Pala di San Martino to the Sasso di Campo.
As they made their descent, an old man stopped and said: "So signora, have you been up our mountain?….but you are the first forestieri (foreigners) who have cared to find it out."
Edwards' account of her journey inspired Alan Boyle and his sister, Susan, to re-trace her footsteps and talk to the descendants of her guides and others the Victorian met in the Dolomites. Alan Boyle had nurtured the plan for more than 30 years after finding a dusty copy of Edwards' journal in the Coruisk mountain hut on the Isle of Skye.
Alan inaugurated the Alta Via Amelia, a 400 km high-level trek inspired by Edwards' itinerary. It touches the ten highest peaks in the Dolomites, involves 30,000m of ascent and takes 30 days. A description of the route is available online at www.avamelia.com.