Trailblazing Mountaineering Women - Anne Lister and Ann Walker Article

© Portrait by Joshua Horner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rebecca Batley profiles two trailblazing women in mountaineering: Anne Lister and Anne Walker.

188 years ago, Ann Walker - the wife of diarist Anne Lister, Halifax's infamous Gentleman Jack - sat down in the Alps and cried. She had been walking, climbing and riding all day. Walker felt nauseous, tired and her gown was uncomfortable, but after a few minutes, determined not to be defeated, she got back to her feet and ascended to the top of Vauzaz/Vozal.

Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner.   © Portrait by Joshua Horner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner.
© Portrait by Joshua Horner, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Walker's sense of accomplishment as she looked around at the beautiful view was palpable. Her and Lister's achievement is all the more remarkable to modern eyes as they completed the steep ascent and descent in dresses and "old outram cloaks", although Lister threw off her under petticoat to be slightly more comfortable. This was only one of the mountaineering adventures that these remarkable women undertook together.

Lister's love affair with the mountains began 1822 when she, aged 21, climbed Mount Snowdon alongside her aunt and found the ascent "much easier than expected." She had been well and truly bitten by the mountaineering bug and over the next few years explored the Lake District, Alps and Pyrenees. In 1829 she wrote to Mr and Mrs Duffin, describing her ascent of Mont Perdu and sharing that she had been "two hours climbing on hardish rock…got the first glacier so steeper that in spite of iron cramps trapped to our feet we got it up, one of our guides with an axe cut little steps…so we could stick our toes in." 

Walker loved the countryside, was an excellent walker, horsewoman and had a desire to travel to locations in which she could hone her artistic skills. It is hardly surprising, then, that when it came to finding a honeymoon destination, mountains were high on both women's lists of requirements.

Eventually Lister would become the first person to climb Vignemale in 1838 alongside climbing such peaks as Ben Nevis, Pic du Midi de Bigorre and Puy de Dome. Walker's achievements included climbing the Mer de Glace, Col Ferret and Le Brevent. Thanks to Lister's meticulous 5,000,000 word diaries and Walker's own travel journal we can get an intimate insight into their experiences in the Alps and the climbs they undertook.

The Mer de Glace, circa 1870.  © Wikicommons, Public Domain.
The Mer de Glace, circa 1870.
© Wikicommons, Public Domain.

One of their first forays into the mountains proper on their honeymoon was on the 16th July 834 at Col Ferret, the mountain pass between the valley of Courmayeur in Italy and the Val Ferret on the Swiss side of the border. Today this area is the highest part of the Tour du Mont Blanc, rising to an elevation of 2,490 metres. Walker wrote that the "ascent of (the) mountain very steep….(but)....beautiful view." They followed this with a trip up Le Brevent, although Lister went to the summit alone after Walker turned back three quarters of the way up.

They also climbed the Great Saint Bernard Pass, the third-highest road pass in Switzerland, where Walker records that they walked on a road "much better than usual up such mountains" and that the situation was "cold, bleak and snow-clad…air very cold." 

Grand St Bernard Pass and hospice.  © Soumei Baba, CC BY 2.0
Grand St Bernard Pass and hospice.
© Soumei Baba, CC BY 2.0

Over the next few days, Lister ascended the dormant volcano Puy de Dome and by 19th September the two women were planning to go to Eaux-Bonnes and climb Pic du Midi d'Ossau in the Pyrenees. On this occasion they were prevented from undertaking the climb by thick fog, but they did climb it in 1838 and Lister gave an account of their journey to Mariana Lawton, who replied that she was glad that the rumours of "Adney (Walker) being first dying and then dead had no ground to rest upon," and that from the account her letter gave, she "must have brought her back a little Hercules, for no strength less than this would have carried her up Pic de Midi." The fact that Mariana initially gave credence to the rumours of Walker's demise is testament to the very real dangers Lister and Walker were facing.

For Lister, though, this ascent followed what is today considered to be her crowning achievement, reaching the peak of Vignemale. She became the first person to do so and won a race against Prince de la Moskowa, Napoleon Joseph Nay, to complete the climb. Lister spent the few days beforehand reading the writing of previous climbers such as Chausenques, in which he talked about his own climb up 'petit Vignemale.' She dressed for the weather and packed "stockings, gloves, handkerchiefs, tooth brush, comb needle and thread and stiletto" in one parcel. 

In a fit of temper Walker insisted that her wife also take her crampons, an item that literally saved the day when Lister encountered an unexpected glacier and heavy snow. She had engaged Jean-Pierre Sanjou as her guide; they had previously climbed together in 1830. Lister trusted him and more importantly he trusted her to pay him the promised 5 francs a day — plus 3 for the horse. Lister set off at 3.35 a.m. on 5 August with 100 francs stuffed into her grey stockings. After a strenuous climb they finally reached the summit at 1 p.m., having suffered the nausea often associated with altitude sickness. They put their names in a bottle to record their achievement and then began the descent.

'An Accomplished Lady Climber’ - ‘Ladies take a particular pride in ascending the most perilous pinnacles.’
© The Graphic newspaper, 13 August 1898.

It was a truly remarkable achievement, but one that few of the men involved were happy to credit her with. On 25 August, Galignani's messenger published that it was the Prince de la Moskova and his brother who had made the ascent. Lister and her wife were furious, and took legal advice on the matter — they were both very well aware of the magnitude of Lister's achievement. She was granted a certificate as proof of her actions, but it took some wrangling out of the local officials.

Pic du Midi de Bigorre was the women's next target, the 2,887m high mountain that today is crowned by an observatory that was built in the 1870s, but in Lister and Walker's time there was a steep, but well-known path to the top. Lister climbed it first in a furious temper after a row with her wife, but Walker also rode to the summit later the same day. She rode to the summit on a mule, not an uncommon use for the animals at the time. Walker therefore became the first woman to ride up and down the mountain that day, a feat that requires some skill. She was an accomplished horsewoman and later in life, whilst riding in Russia, the Cossacks would come to admire and respect her capabilities as a rider. Their guides joined them that evening to "drink to Ann's health for being the first lady who had ridden all the way up and down." 

On 24 July 1834 the women ascended Pic du Pimene, which is a breathtakingly steep ridge. Both women suffered from altitude sickness, so much so that Walker was advised to wait on a ledge whilst Lister went to the summit alone. At the top Lister was rewarded with the sight of a "noble congregation of mountain tops." The climb though was "so precipitous (her) head would scarcely carry (her)." 

The achievements of Lister and her wife flew in the face of medical opinion at the time, which argued vehemently that such strenuous physical activity would seriously damage a woman's health and many a doctor wrote treatises advising against it. This is especially ironic in Walker's case as her mental health had long been poor and her ambitions suppressed by her overbearing family. Out in the fresh air, eating, drinking and exercising well, it can hardly be a surprise that her health, both mental and physical, improved considerably during their mountain excursions.

Crossing a crevasse on the Glacier des Bossons.  © Georgio Sommer, 1880/National Library of Scotland.
Crossing a crevasse on the Glacier des Bossons.
© Georgio Sommer, 1880/National Library of Scotland.

By reading both women's diaries we know more about their Alpine/mountaineering exploits than we do about almost any other female climber of the time, though we know that they were not alone. Both journals reference women who had been walking and climbing in the mountains at around the same time, but details are scarce. We do know that Lister was aware of Marie-Caroline of the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies' achievement in climbing the Breche de Roland, as she saw her name carved into a rock while climbing Mont Perdu.

Lister planned many more climbs than she was able to undertake; she had planned to attempt the summit of Mont Blanc, with Walker avowing that she would accompany her, but they were prevented by the weather on several occasions. They also intended to climb Mount Ararat in Turkey in 1840 alongside finding the source of the river Rioni in Georgia, but Lister died whilst travelling in 1840, leaving her devastated wife with the unenviable task of transporting her body home. Walker would ultimately end her days as a certified lunatic, she would never again see the snow-covered caps of the Alps.

Today, both women's climbing achievements are often overlooked, but it was an aspect of their lives about which they were passionate. Their courage as well as the scope of their achievements should not be forgotten, or underestimated.

All quoted material from the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

Rebecca is a historian and journalist. She is currently writing a book about Ann Walker, due for publication later this year.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Rebecca Batley

Support UKC

As climbers we strive to make UKClimbing the kind of website we would love to visit, with the most up-to-date news, diverse and interesting articles, comprehensive gear reviews, breathtaking photographs and a vast and useful logbook system. As a result, an incredible community has formed around the site - we’ve provided the framework but it’s you who make the website what it is today. If you appreciate the content we offer then you can help us by becoming an official UKC Supporter. This can be a one-off single annual payment or a more substantial payment paid monthly or yearly which includes full access to Rockfax Digital and discounts on Rockfax print publications.

If you appreciate UKClimbing then please help us by becoming a UKC Supporter.

UKC Supporter

  • Support the website we all know and love
  • Access to a year's subscription to Rockfax Digital.
  • Plus 30% off Rockfax guidebooks
  • Plus Show your support - UKC Supporter badge on your profile and forum posts
UKC/UKH/Rockfax logo

23 May, 2022

look forward to seeing the book in print and reading.

31 May, 2022

Queer women and mountaineering?! Yes please! I loved the programme Gentleman Jack but had no idea about this side of their lives. Thanks for shining a light on it, excited to read the book.

31 May, 2022

Looks interesting.

I see the Mount Snowdon thing was around then too ;-)

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email