150 years ago Lucy Walker became the first woman to summit the Eiger, the infamous 3,970m peak in the Bernese Alps. Today, alpine historian Clare Roche alongside other Alpine Club and Climbers' Club members are at Hotel Bellevue celebrating Lucy's historic achievement, having attempted to follow in her footsteps.
The mountain is home to the foreboding ‘Mordwand' or 'Murderous Wall’ on the North Face, and its history and aesthetic has inspired many first and fastest alpine challenges, from the young German Nazi’s who won the first ascent of the North Wall in 1938, to Catherine Destivelle’s 17 hour solo in 1992 and Ueli Steck’s infamous free climbing speed attempts.
When Lucy Walker summited the Eiger on 25 July 1864, Alpinism was in its infancy. The lure of the clear and free mountains was just beginning to rise above the Victorian fear of the unknown and terrible natural world. Climbing wasn’t a fashionable sport, and we had a very different relationship with danger.
How did a Liverpudlian Victorian lady get psyched for the Eiger? How did she even get there? Alpine historian Clare Roche decided to try to understand Lucy’s motivation and celebrate her achievement by rounding up a group of women to climb the Eiger this summer.
We talk to Clare during her attempt, to find out what it would have been like on the first female ascent.
Tell me about Lucy Walker. It’s difficult to be precise about as she left no memoirs. She was born in Canada but the family soon returned to Liverpool where her father was a lead merchant. She was an excellent linguist and became a founder member of the Ladies Alpine Club when it was established in 1907. She seems to have been a quiet determined, kindly person who not only encouraged other women in their climbing but later also men. Lord Schuster, for example, dedicated a book he wrote about his climbing to Lucy Walker explaining how she had encouraged him to write down all his experiences – this is somewhat ironic given she herself wrote nothing! She also seems to have had a keen sense of humour and not above playing practical jokes. Her guide Melchior Anderegg became a lifelong friend and she continued to visit him long after her climbing days ended, often surprising others by disappearing on long walks with him. Find out more about Melchior Anderegg in our recent article.
Was she an extreme example, or were there other women climbing in the alps at this time? Many women explored the mountains from the 1850s but Lucy was one of the first to climb and the first to continue for such a long time. She began in 1858 and stopped in 1876 although continued to walk and visit the alps after that date. A fairly closely knit group of around 10-12 women who climbed the major summits evolved. Many more women climbed lesser peaks and major cols – we know this from evidence in guides' testimonial books. It is important to recall that all ascents were longer than today because of the lack of lifts/cable cars etc – even allowing for the fact that glaciers had not receded to the extent they have in 2014.
Would she have climbed at home as well? There are no certain records of her climbing in the UK, however her brother Horace Walker, with whom she lived all her life (neither married) organised Alpine Club trips to Wales and the Lakes. It is possible she went on these although people who wrote of Lucy stress how she was the model of a Victorian lady at home, a hostess who did no overt physical exercise apart from croquet!
How would her journey to the summit have differed from Eiger climbers today? She walked and rode a mule from Wengen to the Bellevue hotel at Kleine Scheidegg – today we all go by train to the Eismeer station or even the Jungfraujoch! From there she went on foot and her ascent was by the west flank which is rarely used today apart from a descent route. Even then the south ridge is preferred because the relative lack of snow and the increasingly loose rock makes it unsafe. The climb was a total of 14 hours – they left at 1.00am and were back by 3.00pm. They were accompanied by two of the most famous alpine guides – Melchior Anderegg and Christian Almer – plus a couple of porters. The obligatory bottles of champagne accompanied them to the top where they celebrated not only by drinking but also yodelling at the top of their voices – activities not generally indulged in today!
Without Twitter and Facebook, would it have been easy for the news to spread, or would she in fact have wanted people to know? I think Lucy preferred to keep things relatively quiet so she remained free to pursue her activities and did not attract too much criticism. Women at this time were advised by doctors to avoid strenuous exercise as it allegedly affected their abilities to be mothers and wives! It is an example of how male power tried to maintain the established social hierarchy. However, after Lucy's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1871 – the first woman to do so – the weekly cartoon magazine Punch published a laudatory poem in her honour rather than its usual satirical offerings. Generally women did not publicise their achievements in the mountains to the extent men did. The Times was full of letters recounting tales by men of various climbs they had done – most of them were not first ascents, just accounts of fairly routine climbs.
What about Lucy’s story resonated with you personally? She and her brother went to the Alps together in 1858 and she clearly was not going to accept being left in the valley or hotel whilst her father and younger brother went out on the hill. In the Alps she lived a different life, had a different ‘way of being' to that at home in Liverpool. The Alps allowed her a freedom. Today there are still subtle... and not so subtle… ideas of what is or is not suitable for men or women. We need to follow Lucy’s brave, independent even iconoclastic actions and ignore artificial restrictions that might impinge on our lives – on or off the mountain.
And why did you want to tread in her footsteps? There have been many celebrated anniversaries of men’s first ascents but hardly any of women's. By commemorating Lucy's climb of the Eiger I wanted in a small way to rectify this and bring her achievements to a wider audience. Modern management speak often states ‘if its not written down it hasn’t happened’ – complete rubbish in my opinion! Unfortunately because many women either did not write about their climbing or if they did their journals have been lost it has been assumed by many that women were not involved in the early explorations of the Alps in the 19th century. Indeed there remains no collated accounts of women’s first alpine ascents –something I am trying to correct.
Who is in your team? There are six women. Four are members of the Alpine Club and two belong to the Climbing Club. We range in age from the 40s to well over 60 – proving that age does not have to be a barrier to enjoying the mountains.
What’s been the reality of the Eiger compared to you preconceptions? It's quite a mythical mountain. Well... this summer has been the worst summer in the Alps for over 100 years! Typical eh? This has meant that despite our best efforts the Eiger has not been climbed by anyone by any route! We have however been able to climb neighbouring mountains such as the Monch and Jungfrau which have been in condition.
How did you begin climbing yourself? I am not a very experienced rock climber. I did a little with my husband over 30 years ago but ski touring introduced me to the remote mountains and alpinism developed from there. After uncovering the numerous women who explored the mountains in the 19th century this also stimulated me to discover more of what they were actually doing and in some sense to retrace their efforts. I have climbed a little in Wales and the Lakes as well as on our local sandstone outcrops... but I like moving over and through the mountains rather than waiting around on multi pitch rock climbs.
What do you think about the environment that women climb in today, has it progressed? Undoubtedly it has progressed but according to a female guide I climbed with in Chamonix still less than 2% of guides are women and gazing around any high mountain hut women remain in the minority. Women are good gymnasts and excellent rock climbers but the wildness of the mountains still does not seem as appealing to them as it does to men. This is probably a confidence thing but also I expect the logistical difficulty of dealing with families. Generally men are more single-minded and will pursue a goal relentlessly whilst women generally are more collaborative and concerned with the affect of their activities on others.
What elements of Lucy’s life other than her climbing should we consider now 150 years have passed? I guess the most obvious thing is the social expectation a middle class woman of her era laboured under. That is what makes the achievements of her and other female climbers from her time so impressive. They climbed despite heavy restrictive clothing and a social etiquette that situated women as dependent, passive and weak. Lucy like many other women climbers was a good linguist – speaking German, French and Italian. Not many of us match this today!
What do you hope for women’s climbing in the future? I would like to think that women of all abilities, not just the athletically gifted, might realise the benefits to be had from climbing, walking and travelling through the high mountains. That this is an environment that has much to offer physically and psychologically. Several women in 19th century wrote of experiencing ‘a sense of freedom’ in that environment. This is something we can all still tap into.
And what is next on your tick-list? I don’t have a list, my aim is more to enjoy the Alps in many different ways – ski touring, climbing, walking. However I have not really explored the Engadine, the Julian Alps or the Dolomites much... yet! Today we are having a celebratory lunch in Victorian dress at the Hotel Bellevue at Kleine Scheidegg where Lucy stayed before and after her climb, it will be some recompense for the inability to climb the Eiger this year.
Thanks Clare, don’t drink too much champagne!
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