Located in the Swiss Alps, the proud peak of Zinalrothorn rises 4,221 metres above sea level and, to this day, it is usually climbed with a guide. In the mid-eighties of the nineteenth century, it was accessible only to a handful of skilled mountaineers at the forefront of climbing development. One of them was the young Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed. Known to her friends as Lizzie Le Blond, she escaped her destiny of becoming an ornament to London’s elegant society and relocated to the Alps.
At a time when mountaineering was regarded as a highly inappropriate activity for a woman, Le Blond had no choice but to guard her modesty with long skirts – even when climbing. She always waited until she was well out of sight of any potential onlookers before stopping, removing her skirt, and changing into men’s clothing. That’s what she did on one occasion, heading from the village of Zermatt for Zinalrothorn.
Alone, she made fast progress toward the peak. It is not known if on that day she reached the summit. It is known, however, that returning to Zermatt, she realised that she had left her skirt at her high point. So as not to cause a scandal, Le Blond simply turned back, scaled the mountain again, and retrieved her skirt.
It would stand to reason that the ability to whizz through the treacherous alpine terrain, often alone and often in winter, would be enough for Lizzie to be elected as a member of the Alpine Club. Unfortunately, despite her apparent prowess, Le Blond could not be admitted. She might have been a member of the upper classes, but she lacked one crucial quality – she was not a man. And the Alpine Club was open only to gentlemen. One notable exception was made in 1875 for Meta Brevoort, a prolific mountaineer born half a century earlier in New York. But it wasn’t Brevoort who was admitted – it was her spaniel, Tschingel, rewarded with a membership for “the first canine ascent of Mont Blanc”. The irony of the joke was certainly lost on the other Alpine Club members.
The Club’s apparent misogyny might be explained, at least in part, by what the author Colette Dowling dubbed “the frailty myth”. In her eponymous book, Dowling traces the origins of the belief in the physical inferiority of women and finds its source in the early Victorian era – around the same time that the Alpine Club was formed. It was also a time of violent revolutions all over the world; of overthrowing the old order and demanding rights for lower social classes. Soon, women were also raising their voices, calling for education, as well as... continue reading now→