Herstory 2: Lady Climbers of the Long Nineteenth Century (1850-1914)

© Harold Raeburn - Digital reproduction or scan of original

Anna Fleming profiles three women from the archives of 19th Century climbing history...

The mythical 'Golden Age of Alpinism' conjures a certain set of images. Picture heavily moustached men in tweeds, smoking pipes and discussing Alpine ambitions, victories and defeats in urbane clubs. Or, out on the mountain, hear the clank of iron, smell the damp wool, spot the stiff hemp ropes tied around the waists of eager pioneers trying for the Eiger or Matterhorn. These major European peaks were first climbed, to much excitement, in 1858 and 1865.

Lucy Smith and Pauline Rankin rock climbing in skirts on Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh. 1908.  © Harold Raeburn - Digital reproduction or scan of original
Lucy Smith and Pauline Rankin rock climbing in skirts on Salisbury Crags, Edinburgh. 1908.
© Harold Raeburn - Digital reproduction or scan of original

The big names from this mountaineering period read like the guest list to an exclusive gentleman's club, but we are mistaken to imagine that all the voices on the mountain were male. Just as I discovered in the preceding period - outlined in Herstory Part 1 - a little digging reveals a host of active mountain women; ladies who were somehow forgotten or mysteriously side-lined by the mainstream sporting history.

During the Victorian period, women made first ascents, pioneered winter climbing, set altitude records and explored new areas across the world. Remarkable photographs show women out on the ice or tackling serious rock faces while wearing dresses, skirts and impractical shoes. Queen Victoria herself was a mountaineer who climbed many of the Cairngorms near Balmoral, including Lochnagar, Beinn a' Bhùird and Ben Macdui.

But this was also a time when gender binaries stiffened. The crinoline, a ridiculously impractical bell-shaped skirt was designed and donned in the 1830s, as society produced stricter definitions of what a woman should be. A woman should be 'ladylike'. She should keep apart from men outside of her family. She was not allowed to vote or own property. The ideal woman was chaste, pure and modest: the Angel in the House.

Yet the Angel had discovered climbing.

Here are the stories of three exceptional women who were active in the mountains from the 1850s through to 1914. Besides these three, there were countless more women walking, climbing, taking photographs, sketching, painting, giving lectures, making films and writing books.

They will have detailed their experiences in journals, stories, poems and letters that were shared with friends and family. This ephemeral matter – largely lost in the mists of time – demonstrates how girls and women played an active part in shaping our growing mountain culture.

Lucy Walker 1836-1916

The legendary alpinist Lucy Walker began her ground-breaking climbing career after a doctor recommended she go to the Alps to treat rheumatism. This was 1858. Once she got there, she soon forgot her ailment and became a prolific mountaineer, climbing in season after season with her brother, father and Swiss guide, Melchior Anderegg.

Over 98 expeditions, Walker clocked up an incredible streak of ascents: twenty-nine 4,000 metre peaks and sixteen female first ascents, including the Eiger, Monte Rosa and the Strahlhorn. She also did the first ascent (irrespective of gender) of Balmhorn in 1864. Her most famous climb, however, was the hotly anticipated first female ascent of the Matterhorn in 1871.

Modest and self-effacing, Walker did not court publicity. She came from a merchant family in Liverpool and did not go in for extravagant outfits or climb in trousers. She climbed in a dress or skirts and took champagne and sponge cake to treat the ill-effects of altitude. Off the mountain, Walker stayed conventional. She enjoyed croquet and never wrote about her climbing, which perhaps suggests a coyness relating to the public perception of her adventurous activities.

Family portrait with Father Frank Walker, guide Melchior Anderegg.
© By Unknown author - Gardiner and Pilkington.

Yet reading between the lines, we can discern familiar hints of ambition and competitiveness – for Walker was not the only woman trying for the Matterhorn. Just four years after the first male ascent, in 1869 a female team including Welsh climber, Emmeline Lewis-Lloyd and the Englishwoman Isabella Straton made an unsuccessful attempt on the peak. (These two would make an interesting pair on the rope: Emmeline was a fan of fishing, pony breeding and otter hunting. Isabella later defied social convention and married below her station to her long-time climbing guide, Jean Charlet.)

In 1871, Walker was tipped off that her rival, the American Meta Brevoort, was planning to make an attempt on the Matterhorn. Determined not to be beaten by another woman, Walker quickly assembled a team and on 20 July she stood proud on the summit.

With this climb she shot to fame, making mainstream media and publications. British satirical magazine Punch penned a poem in her honour:

No glacier can baffle, no precipice balk her,
No peak rise above her, however sublime,
Give three times three cheers for intrepid Miss Walker,
I say, my boys, doesn't she know how to climb!

I say my boys, indeed. Walker retired in 1879. She never married.

Lizzie Le Blond 1861-1934

In 1881, an Irish woman picked up where Walker left off. Lizzie Le Blond likewise moved to Switzerland on doctors' orders to treat a respiratory problem (consumption). Like Walker, Le Blond soon found convalescence in the mountains and went against medical advice to pursue strenuous exercise in her inspiring surroundings. Over her remarkable career, she climbed thirty-seven 4,000 metre peaks.

Portrait of Elizabeth Alice Hawkins-Whitshed (1861-1934).  © Public domain
Portrait of Elizabeth Alice Hawkins-Whitshed (1861-1934).
© Public domain

Le Blond climbed with men and women and was a pioneer of winter Alpine climbing. In 1892 she dispensed with guides and climbed Piz Palu (3901m) together with Lady Evelyn McDonell in a rare manless ascent that Dorothy Pilley (1894-1986) - a prominent English climber and the author of Climbing Days - said was 'hushed up and regarded as somewhat improper.'

Whereas Walker lived cautiously off the mountain, Le Blond had a full, confident and colourful life. She married three times but never climbed with her husbands. Seeking fresh adventures, Le Blond spent six summers in Lapland and Arctic Norway, where she completed twenty first ascents. She also enjoyed winter sports, such as tobogganing and ice skating, competed in motor-car hill races and was an early adopter of the bicycle, which she rode in tours of the Alps.

How could Le Blond be so bold? Such activities were not widely pursued by women and were considered 'unladylike'. Le Blond took a cavalier approach to life because she enjoyed unique freedoms unavailable to most women at the time. She came from aristocracy and had inherited personal wealth at a young age. This meant she could do, say and write what she wanted without the fear of being cut off by disapproving male family members. She also had the social connections to weather any storm of wider disapproval.

Elizabeth Main Skating on the lake of Sils.  © Elizabeth Main (1861 - 1934). CC BY-SA 4.0
Elizabeth Main Skating on the lake of Sils.
© Elizabeth Main (1861 - 1934). CC BY-SA 4.0

Unlike Walker, who shied away from the public platform, Le Blond used her privilege to widen perceptions of what was possible for women. She published seven mountaineering books, written in measured tones of feminine authority, capturing her experiences in vivid first-hand detail. Titles include My Home in the Alps (1892), Adventures on the Roof of the World (1907) and The Story of an Alpine Winter (1907). Her visceral account of climbing Monte della Disgrazia (3678m) in winter opens with a passage celebrating the achievements of her female comrades:

It is a curious fact that two of the first people to attempt the ascent of high Alpine peaks in mid-winter were women. Miss Stratton's [sic] (now Madame Charlet-Stratton) plucky feats on Mont Blanc are well-known. Miss Brevoort made many notable winter climbs, and in later years Mrs Jackson succeeded, in addition to other ascents, in crossing the Jungfrau at that season.

Le Blond was one of the first mountain photographers and took thousands of photographs that illustrated both her own and other people's publications. She also experimented with moving images, producing films of bob-sleigh racing, tobogganing and skating in Switzerland, which made her one of the first female filmmakers and the first-ever mountain filmmaker.

Ambassador, pioneer and leader, through her writings and images Le Blond's voice remains intact and audible. Of all the women climbing at this time, Le Blond was the one who enjoyed the freedoms of a man.

Fanny Bullock-Workman 1859-1925

Across the pond, another wealthy woman came to climbing in the more equal culture of America, where women were allowed to join mountaineering clubs alongside men. Competitive and adventurous, Fanny Bullock-Workman was a New Woman from Massachusetts. Unlike Walker and Le Blond, Bullock-Workman did most of her climbing with her husband.

Workman with climbing gear.  © Bain Collection
Workman with climbing gear.
© Bain Collection

The Bullock-Workmans were an unusual couple. Despite a twelve-year age gap, William Bullock-Workman did not condescend to his wife. Instead, they formed a fearsome partnership. The two undertook many expeditions together, leaving their children at home while they climbed mountains and toured the world, from the Alps to India and the Himalayas.

Working as a team, the couple shared equal responsibilities. When one planned and organised trip logistics, the other wrote-up diaries and trip reports. On the next trip, they swapped roles. Childcare was secondary. (The explorers were away in the Karakoram when their daughter got married.)

On the Silver Throne Plateau holding a newspaper that reads Votes for Women.  © William Hunter Workman
On the Silver Throne Plateau holding a newspaper that reads Votes for Women.
© William Hunter Workman

In 1906, aged 46, Bullock-Workman set the woman's altitude record on Pinnacle Peak (6930m). With this ascent, as with much of her activities, she wanted to challenge medical notions that women were weak and prove that women were equal to men. Just two years later another American named Annie Smith Peck further proved this point by climbing Huascaran in Peru, which she calculated to be 7300m – thus stealing the altitude record from Bullock-Workman. Not to be outdone, Bullock-Workman paid a team of surveyors to check the height of Huascaran, which they found to be 6768m. With this fastidious fact checking, Bullock-Workman kept hold of the women's altitude record until 1934.

Strong-willed and outspoken, Bullock-Workman was a proud feminist. She was a proponent of suffrage and used her mountaineering trips, travel and writings to promote women's rights. She wrote scientific papers, gave lectures and co-authored eight travel books with her husband. In 1905, she became the second woman ever to address the Royal Geographic Society. She was an active New Woman expanding the possibilities of what a woman's role could be, both on and off the mountain.


Despite the strict moral code and crinolines dictating 'ladylike' behaviour, women of the nineteenth Century continued going out into the mountains, ascending to the heights and pushing the boundaries of exploration and athletic potential. 

This women's climbing culture was mostly led from the top-down, for the ladies with the most freedom were, like Walker, Le Blond and Bullock-Workman, of the middle and upper-classes. Yet in their lifetimes, these women climbers had to fight for acceptance from the climbing establishment.

For while the mountaineering community was comprised of men and women, with individuals, families and couples making up a healthy population across the Alps, the establishment was male-dominated and most clubs excluded women. Despite their prodigious successes in the mountains, as women, neither Walker nor Le Blond could join the Alpine Club. (A policy that survived, in places, well into the twentieth century. The Scottish Mountaineering Club accepted its first women members in 1992.)

To make a dedicated space for women climbers, Lizzie Le Blond set up the Ladies Alpine Club in 1907. The model clearly worked – and was needed. The Ladies Scottish Climbing Club followed in 1908 and the Pinnacle Club in 1921. Lucy Walker joined the Ladies Alpine Club in 1909 and was president from 1913-1915. Three years later, British women got the right to vote. From competition to collaboration and co-operation, these smart women ascended to the heights in their skirts and petticoats, defying convention and proving just what a woman is capable of.

Picture of the Ladies' Scottish Climbing Club in 1909.

Further reading

Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering (2002)

Clare A Roche, The Ascent of Women: How Female Mountaineers Explored the Alps 1850-1900; PhD Thesis, Birkbeck, University of London (2015)

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