This is a parity of sorts coming at a time when women’s rights are under attack. “Can’t Keep Us Down” is a renewed battle cry! It’s fueled a fire inside me and the last six years has prepared me for this moment in our history. If inspiration is what you need, stay tuned & keep climbing ladies, whatever your destination!
Part two: A Consolidated History of Women’s Climbing Achievements
Credit: Megan Walsh is a climber/writer in Salt Lake City. She loves exploring routes in Utah and beyond, but is even more stoked about furthering the progress of women in the outdoors.
1799: The Beginning, but hardly the “beginning.”
For centuries, women have pushed their limits in the mountains. For nearly as long, they’ve done so behind the scenes and rarely received proper credit, being recorded as “Sir William’s Wife” or left unnamed. And when a woman did summit, it wasn’t due to her own strength but—as the narrative often went—to the men on her team who surely carried her across crevasses, hauled her pack, and held her hand on the most daring precipices. Women have persisted, though. Since women were recorded in mountaineering in the late eighteenth century, to the first 5.15 female ascent by Margo Hayes in 2017, the call of the mountains has been as strong for women as it has been for men.
Here’s the history of women climbers over the centuries.
Although the first documented ascent of a mountain was Mount Ventoux in 1336 by the Italian poet Petrarch, the first recorded female ascent wasn’t until 1799, when the mysterious Miss Parminter climbed “on” Le Buet (10,157 feet) in the Alps of Savoy. Shortly thereafter, in 1808, Marie Paradis became the first woman to climb Mont Blanc. However, her ascent went widely unknown. Thus 30 years later, French aristocrat Henriette D’Angeville, outfitted with six porters, six guides, and a 14-pound outfit including multiple layers, a petticoat, and a feather boa, summited Mont Blanc and proclaimed herself the first woman to do so. She did this with flare, releasing a carrier pigeon and popping open champagne on the summit.
1800s: Walker and Brevoort
Lucy Walker, rumored to have lived on sponge cake and spumante, became the first woman to summit the Matterhorn, in 1871, after hearing that her contemporary Meta Brevoort planned to snag the FFA. At that time, Brevoort was known for her “scandalous” fashion choices, often choosing pants over skirts on her ascents. Walker would go on to complete 98 expeditions and became an involved member of the Ladies Alpine Club, created in 1907 in London as a response to Britain’s strict “male-only” Alpine Club.
Late 1800s/Early 1900s: The Right to Vote
During the late 1800s, when women were getting their start in alpinism, men began rock climbing in the Elbsandstein of Saxony, the Lake District of England, and the Dolomites. While OG Jones was making his 1897 FA of the Lake District’s Kern Knotts Crack (5.8 PG-13), women were thinking of the right to vote. Annie Peck, a founding member of the American Alpine Club, climbed Coropuna (21,079 feet) in Peru in 1911, and waved a banner atop the summit reading “Women’s Vote.” Meanwhile, Fanny Bullock Workman, while surveying glaciers on an expedition in the Karakoram, was photographed with a “Votes for Women” sign (above). (Workman trekked to the Himalayas to climb Pinnacle Peak [22,735 feet] in 1906, establishing a new female altitude record.) Through the efforts of Workman, Peck, and countless other suffragettes, women won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920.
1920s: Miriam O’Brien Underhill
In the mid 1920s, Miriam O’Brien Underhill made the traverse from Aiguilles du Diable to Mont Blanc du Tacul, tagging five 4,000-meter summits. In the late 1920s, she coined the term “manless climbing” and in 1929 nabbed the first such ascent of the Grépon with Alice Damesme. Shortly after the ascent went public, the French mountaineer Étienne Bruhl infamously shook his head and stated, “The Grépon has disappeared. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.” 🙁
1930s: The Owen-Spalding, from “Can’t Keep Her Down” post two weeks ago!
Negative sentiment toward women is easily found throughout our history in climbing, including in America. In 1939, a group of women from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, made the first female ascent of Owen-Spalding (II 5.4) on the Grand Teton. Margaret Smith Craighead (above), Margaret Bedell, Ann Sharples, and Mary Whittemore awoke earlier than other climbers to ensure critics couldn’t attribute their victory to the help of men. After their milestone, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported, “Another successful invasion of the field of sport by the weaker sex.” 🙁
1930s: Marj Farquhar—“Strong Like Lhotse”
Thankfully, the slights women climbers endured only solidified their goals. Like Marj Farquhar, who became the first woman to send Yosemite’s Higher Cathedral Spire in 1934, via its Regular Route. Farquhar, an active member of the Sierra Club, belonged to a small group of climbers who learned modern rock-climbing techniques from Robert Underhill, who imported them from Europe. Marj and her husband, Francis, were leading environmental activists in the mid-1900s, and remained at the epicenter of Yosemite’s early climbing years. “If people were mountains,” wrote Nicholas B. Clinch in his “In Memoriam” article, published in the 2000 American Alpine Journal, “Marj Farquhar would be Lhotse… strong, impressive, and rising far above most other mountains.”
1940s-’50s: WWII, Washburn, Prudden, and the Stanford Alpine Club
In the 1940s and ‘50s, World War II and its aftermath demanded everyone’s attention, and climbing came to a near-standstill. In 1947, Barbara Washburn became the first female to summit Denali (20,320 feet. The Stanford Alpine Club made their debut in 1947, with a nontraditional stance, welcoming women and celebrating “manless” climbing. Mary Sherrill, Freddy Hubbard, Irene Beardsley, and Sue Swedlund all made notable first all-female ascents of climbs like the Regular Route on Higher Cathedral Spire (Sherrill and Hubbard) and the North Face of the Grand Teton (Beardsley and Swedlund).
Next Up 1960s: The Golden Age and The Feminine Mystique – least we forget how far we’ve come!
Keep Climbing ladies, whatever your destination!