From fame and first ascents to frostbite and controversy, Rebecca Batley writes about the incredible lives of the Pigeon sisters.
Clapham is not the first place many would think of when searching for mountaineering pioneers of the nineteenth century. Yet on the south side of that famous common, in 1832 and 1836, sisters Anna and Ellen Pigeon were born.
They were the daughters of the prosperous wine merchant Henry Pigeon, and were the sixth and eighth of their parents' eight children. The Pigeons owned a very well respected business, founded in 1755 by Anna and Ellen's great great grandfather, which traded all over the south side of London.
Their parents' prosperity meant that the two sisters had the chance to explore their interests and passions as they grew. As such, they were considered one of a generation of 'New Women' who took up interests, specifically physical ones such as mountaineering without a male companion. This contemporary term was not complementary, and implied that they were either 'loose, mannish or asexual', none of which applied to the Pigeon sisters.
There is no evidence that they were driven by any forceful political views, it was simply the case that their family's financial and social position opened up the climbing world to them. Women who undertook such activities often came in for harsh criticism both from society and from their families. Elizabeth Le Blond's family, for example, were horrified and embarrassed by her adventures, but the Pigeon sisters' family seem to have fully supported their endeavours.
In later life Anna would write that she 'had always loved walking' as a young woman, and climbing provided an obvious outlet for the sisters natural energy. By the 1860's their passion for mountain climbing had become all consuming, and from 1864 they travelled annually to the Alps to explore and undertake what they described as their meticulously planned expeditions.
It was on one of their numerous expeditions, their most famous one, that they were to cause two years of Alpine Club controversy.
In 1869 the two sisters became the first people to traverse the Sesia Joch pass, which runs between Zermatt in Switzerland and Alagna in Italy. It had only ever been attempted as an ascent before, as the descent was considered far too dangerous. Conditions were bad and the weather was absolutely freezing. Anna later wrote that 'it was most likely because of the intense cold that we were free from falling stones'.
They had not intended to take that route, but after an error by their guide they had little choice. Their guide, Jean, was left with his face 'swollen and burnt by the sun … lips chapped … eyes inflamed … show[ing] fatigue and extreme pain'.
They completed the climb in 17 hours and 45 minutes, a speed that is impressive even today, without the encumbrance of the heavy clothing, rope, and the unsuitable shoes which female climbers were forced to endure in the nineteenth century. The climb must have been terrifying, but the two women were exhilarated.
Anna Pigeon quickly dispatched a note, flush with triumph, to the Alpine Club, stating:
It may interest your readers to hear that Sesia Joch was crossed on August 12 1869…this is the first time that the passage had been made from the Swiss side as it had been considered by Mr George to be impossible….two ladies were of the party (and) guide Jean Martin de Vissoie.
The news caused both great surprise and consternation with Adolphus W Moore, private secretary to Randolph Churchill and a mountaineer of some renown, in particular scoffing calling the traverse impossible given the 'steep angle and the usual threat of snowfall'.
The sisters were forced to defend themselves against accusations of falsehood, but as they had no conclusive evidence of their journey, nor left any marker, they were forced to rely upon letters that they had sent to the respected mountaineer and theologian Giovanni Farinetti to prove their achievement. Fortunately a number of these letters survive. In one, Ellen directly appeals to Farinetti, stating that they wished to 'know your opinion as to whether you still believe we took the Sesiajoch or whether there is some other passage we could have taken'.
Farinetti wrote back in rapid French that he remembered them and the events of their traverse. To the sisters' relief he considered it 'entirely proved that on the 12th August 1869 you really made the passage of Sesia-Joch through the fearful precipices of the Parrot Spitze'. He wryly added that the men did not believe it because 'it seem[ed] to (them) incredible because it has been accomplished by two young ladies accompanied by a single guide and porter'.
In her response Ellen made it clear that the sisters themselves were certain, but it was only the men that they had to convince. She also writes quite casually that he might remember that Anna was suffering from 'frostbite at Alagna, and not inflammation as first supposed'.
The sisters were clearly no strangers to the hardship of the Alps, nor were they deterred by them. Whilst Anna was incapacitated, Ellen 'revisited Cogne and enjoyed the splendid panorama from the summit of Grivola', which was an enormous climb of 4,969 feet. Within weeks Anna was back on her feet and well enough to explore Col Duran from Zermatt to Zindal, which they called a 'very beautiful' climb.
To both sisters' annoyance, it was only after Farinetti's reply was sent to the Alpine Club that the club accepted the women's version of events. They club did, however, annotate and publish Farinetti's account in May 1872. By this time Anna and Ellen were well established in the climbing community, and had begun to receive support from others.
The next year while in the area of Oberland they met with 'American mountaineer Miss Brevoort and her nephew Mr Collidge', the result of which was that 'Christian Almer (travelling with them) now retracts his denial of our Sesia descent!' Such support meant that when they were climbing they now frequently met with those who knew their names and who wanted to speak with them about their exploits. It was a level of validation that both women enjoyed.
For nearly a decade after the controversy, Anna and Ellen did not miss a single climbing season. They completed a remarkable 63 ascents and crossed 70 passes, which they recorded by altitude in a booklet which they published in 1885, called - appropriately - 'Peaks and passes: Sketches of tours 1869-76'. The booklet reveals that in 1874, over a period of just two weeks, the sisters climbed eight mountains and ascended over 4000 feet. These included, in 1872, the first traverse of Macugnaga to Alagna.
Unless one of them were injured the sisters always climbed together, and shared their wonder at the scenery. Their energy and enthusiasm is palpable in their letters, which speak constantly of their desire to reach the next summit or peek over the next horizon.
They did not, however, go in for hyperbole, and disliked any fuss. When in 1871 Edward Whymper detailed his ascent of the Matterhorn, Anna, in a letter to William Coolidge in 1909, acerbically wrote that 'he exaggerated the difficulties of the Matterhorn - had I read that account before we had been up I should have said such an ascent was beyond our powers … we had bad weather … still it was accomplished satisfactorily with the exception of some frost bitten fingers'.
They had in fact been the first women to climb the Matterhorn via the route from Breuil to Zermatt in 1873, but Anna doesn't brag, despite making it clear that they had managed perfectly 'satisfactorily'. She also makes no mention of the fact that the bad weather they experienced was in fact a large storm front during which they were forced to spend the night exposed on the mountainside.
Ellen Pigeon married in 1876, to a man named Bradley Abbot, and they set up house at 16 Clapham Common North side. Ellen's marriage, in combination with the change in circumstances that it brought about for her curtailed the sisters' climbing activities somewhat, and they only sporadically climbed in the 1880's.
However, they had not left the climbing world behind altogether, and in 1910 Anna was made Vice President of the Ladies Alpine Club which had been founded in 1907 specifically for women mountaineers who were denied membership to the exclusively male Alpine Club. The membership at the time of her presidency numbered about 100 women, testament to the growing presence of women on the mountaineering scene.
She remained an honorary member until 1917. The formation of the Ladies Alpine club was not universally popular, and Ellen wrote that 'many Alpine Club members refused to speak to us'. However the Alpine Club president in 1908, Hermann Wooley, was enthusiastic in his support and proclaimed loudly that women 'could make ascents of the very first order' something that was hardly news to either Anna or Ellen, but did help pave the way for wider acceptance.
Ellen died in 1902, Anna in 1917 and today both sisters rest in unvisited graves in West Norwood cemetery, but their remarkable achievements deserve to be better remembered.
(Quotes are taken from Alpine Club articles and copies of the sister letters. Further details available on request.)