Women aren't just breaking trail in the Alps, they're blazing it. Traci J. Macnamara charts the rise of the female Mountain Guide.
In 1808, a young French girl named Marie Paradis became the first woman to summit Mont Blanc. Her account recalls how guide Jacques Balmat and two others dragged her up the mountain even though she begged them to throw her into a crevasse and continue without her.
It wouldn’t have been an easy day out for Marie. For women of that time corsets, petticoats and skirts were compulsory – even at altitude. Forget avalanches and crevasses, the early female alpiniste had a special set of hazards to face. Skirts got tangled in the brush, hems caused tripping and sprayed loose rock down on other climbers, and corsets inhibited breathing – putting enough pressure on midsections to damage internal organs. She did, however, make it to the top - a historic first for women - but no records indicate that she ever climbed again. It seems that she was a one-mountain woman, who lived out her days in the Chamonix valley running a successful tea room.
Thirty years later, Henriette D’Angeville repeated the feat. She took along six guides and six porters, who carried a staggering quantity of wine (18 bottles), mutton (2 legs), and fowl (24), among other luxuries. Henriette D’Angeville climbed in clothing that weighed nearly ten kilos. She topped off the outfit with a feathered beret and draped a plush black boa around her neck. Despite the expedition’s excess, the party achieved its goal, and Henriette D’Angeville continued climbing for the next twenty-five years.
These historic moments didn’t represent an auspicious beginning for women climbing in the Alps, but Marie Paradis and Henriette D’Angeville did something that had previously been thought impossible. In doing so, they opened the way for other women to follow. And now, two hundred years later, the days of petticoats are a long-distant memory.
At three months pregnant, Chamonix mountain guide Isabelle Santoire rescued herself from a crevasse fall. At six months, she made a bed out of her jacket and slept under a table in Mont Blanc’s Goûter Hut. The next day, she guided a 79-year-old man to the summit of Mont Blanc, surprising the naysayers who had crammed into the hut for their own summit bids. After three successive weeks guiding on Mont Blanc, Santoire - by this time six and a half months pregnant - led a group of women on a high altitude trek in South America. Her doctor had advised her to acclimatise for the trip and had encouraged her to continue doing activities such as skiing and climbing that were normal for her. She gave birth to a beautiful blonde-haired boy and was out guiding other women on ice climbs three months later. Is she a superwoman? No. But she is a Mountaingirl.
Mountaingirl is a very modern phenomenon - the only climbing organisation based in the Alps that employs all female UIAGM/IFMGA guides and offers courses just for women. Mountaingirl was founded in 2006 by Louise Alexander. She was inspired in part by Santoire to start the company after the two had been climbing together in Chamonix. Santoire, Alexander remembers, was this little woman who had a big impact on her.
“Isabelle had a special attitude,” Alexander recalls, “She was less like a guide and more like a friend, a mentor, and a teacher.” Alexander was moved by the experience she had climbing with a female role model and wanted to create a way for other women to experience the same. So, Mountaingirl was born, a company that prides itself not in being exclusionary or anti-man but in providing a place for women to develop independently within an encouraging, safe, and fun atmosphere.
But what difference does it make (or does it make any difference at all) whether women learn from other women or from men? It’s obvious that nature doesn’t consider a climber’s gender: avalanches, snowstorms, and falling rocks don’t discriminate. However, there are several good reasons why women may benefit at some point from practicing their skills within an all-female setting.
Physiological differences between men and women result in different climbing styles, and levels of comfort with risk also differ according to gender. Sure, there are exceptions to the norm, but when a woman watches another woman climb, she is more likely to visualise a technique that she can practice herself. Or after watching another woman successfully lead a difficult pitch, she’ll be more likely to think: “If she can do it, I can do it, too.”
Take, for instance, Sally Dixon, who began climbing with her self-described “big brawny Royal Marine boyfriend” in Emsworth, Hampshire. Dixon noticed that her partner had the strength to launch himself up rock routes, but she had to climb more slowly and rely more on technique. It wasn’t until she participated in Mountaingirl’s introduction to ice climbing course in Chamonix that she realised how her unique size and strength-to-weight ratio made her climbing style different from her boyfriend’s. Instead of remaining frustrated that she couldn’t reach the same holds that he could when she returned home, she felt encouraged to try a different approach.
“Of course we weren’t all the same size, weight, or skill level,” Dixon says of the other women on her course, “but the thing that made it work was that we all had the same motivation to build our skill level and to push ourselves to our own limits—not the limits that others had set for us.”
Both Isabelle Santoire, who was the guide leading Dixon’s course, and guide Ulrika Asp see their work with Mountaingirl as important because it brings together groups of women with different climbing backgrounds. Instead of taking female clients from point A to B, they want other women to understand the process, and working with Mountaingirl gives them the opportunity to share what they have learned.
“Guiding is about wanting to be with people and about sharing your passion,” says Asp. “When we’re on the mountain, we stand out because we are female. But it’s not a bad thing—it sets a precedent for the other women who will become guides after us.”
To become guides, Santoire and Asp went through Chamonix’s École Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme, or ENSA. Potential guides must be able to prove their abilities by performing several tasks such as climbing French grade 6b+ within a specified time limit, climbing 6a in mountaineering boots, mastering off-piste skiing, and being comfortable on all types of terrain. That’s just to get into the school.
“The most difficult part of it all,” says Asp, “was that most of the time, we only had one opportunity to do our best, and we knew that if a foot slipped, we would have to wait until the next year to try again.” After getting accepted, the challenge was to keep up the pace by climbing every day, running around in the mountains, and still being prepared for assessments.
“Thirty years ago, it was unimaginable that a woman could be a mountain guide,” says Armin Oehrli, who is an IFMGA guide based Switzerland and has been general secretary of the IFMGA since 2000. Historically in Switzerland, aspiring guides had to be soldiers in the Swiss Army to get a permit so that they could start training to become a guide. In the 1980s, however, that precedent began to change, and Oehrli estimates that about 25 of Switzerland’s 1,500 mountain guides are female but that the number of female guides in France and Austria, which have around the same total number of guides, is lower.
The technical difficulty required for entrance into schools such as ENSA, or the variety of skills involved, along with mountain climbing’s inherent risks, may be reasons why the current number of female mountain guides is disproportionately low compared to the number of women climbers. Those same reasons might also deter men from becoming guides, but other gender-specific reasons could discourage women from pursuing mountain and expedition guiding.
A woman’s size may make it more difficult for her to carry heavy loads in the mountains, which may be the reason why some women have chosen to sport climb or boulder instead. And women may be faced with the question of giving birth to children at the same time that they would like to pursue guiding. The physical demands of doing both would require a sacrifice of one for the other—at least for a certain amount of time.
“It would be excellent if there were more female guides to reflect wider female participation in climbing and mountaineering,” says Roger Payne, who has been climbing in the Alps for over forty years and guiding for the past twenty-five. “I’m not suggesting positive discrimination,” he clarifies, “but it is important to recognise that when any sport or organisation is dominated by one gender or social group, it can be difficult for others not in that group to enter and take part.”
In their work with Mountaingirl, guides such as Isabelle Santoire and Ulrika Asp ease the difficulty that other women may experience as a gender minority. By simply participating at a high level within their profession, they are instilling the idea in other women that it can be done. And in bringing together groups of women climbers, Mountaingirl is creating a space for others to follow suit.
“Lots of young, talented girls are out there, and they are being better trained,” says Asp. “I’m seeing younger women push themselves more and not bother so much about whether they are male or female.” In Asp’s comment is the hope that future generations will transcend gender barriers—perceived or actual—and participate freely in the activities that they love.
In the meantime, Mountaingirl climbers will continue to wear crampons instead of corsets, and they’ll lead on alpine rock in a style that far surpasses Henriette D’Angeville’s black boa or her feathered beret.
Traci J. Macnamara first went to Chamonix to research William Wordsworth’s poetry about the Alps. She ended up climbing a lot instead and discovered Mountaingirl during her third summer there. Traci currently lives in Vail, Colorado.