Women On The Eiger….Hopefully!

Sometimes  things just evolve don’t they?  A thought springs into your head, one little email arrives and that can be enough to trigger a whole new event in your life. That is how, despite being a mountaineer of very modest abilities,  this summer I find myself about to attempt one of the most notorious mountains in the Alps


North Face with Mittelleghi ridge on the left

 The Eiger arguably has become one of the most infamous mountains in the Alps. It’s north face was the site of horrifying accidents, remained unclimbed until 1938, and then became the space for Nazism to parade the perceived physical supremacy of the German nation. It remains somewhere many rock climbers go for the supreme test. So why, oh why, am I going to try to stand on this fearsome summit with such a horrible history? Have I got above myself, become deluded about my abilities or has dementia set in rather too early? These are all valid questions that I will to leave others to answer but they have nothing to say about the motivation for this climb.


Lucy with Frank (father) and Horace Walker(brother) and A W Moore ( Alpine Club Library)

This stems from a lady born in 1836 who in July 1864 became the first woman to stand on the Eiger’s summit. Lucy Walker was a pioneer of women’s climbing at a time when it was often thought mountaineering was only possible for men. After her ascent which, as well as being the 1st for a woman was only the 4th in the history of the mountain, people gathered at the hotel in Kleine Scheidegg keen to meet this ‘female phenomenon’. One person presumed she had gone immediately to bed only to be curtly told she  was ‘more anxious for dinner than for bed.’ 

I had been aware this was the 150th anniversary of Lucy’s climb and in the dark days of February the thought suddenly sprung into my mind  that it really ought to be commemorated. Almost unthinkingly I sent out a prospective email and was stunned at the  interest it generated; several people wanted to do the climb and even more offered support, thinking it an excellent idea.

Suddenly I had a project on my hands; suddenly I had to think seriously about the mountain. Lucy Walker’s route – the West Flank –  is now virtually impossible because of the changes time brings. The rock is loose and snow cover has decreased over recent years. That leaves only the Mittelleghi ridge as a feasible prospect; this is a narrow, exposed arête, quite a bit above my ‘pay grade’! Happily all that email traffic led me to a very experienced female guide  who has agreed to help me along – fingers firmly crossed!

From all those who got in touch in February inevitably several had to drop out for various reasons. We now have a party of ten women plus a couple of chaps who are planning to tackle the mountain early in September. Although we cannot do Lucy Walker’s actual route we will be making an appearance in Victorian climbing dress and will be revisiting the Bellevue Hotel at Kleine Scheidegg where Walker ‘s party stayed. Additionally some guides from Grindelwald will be joining us on our ascent just as they did 150 years previously.

 Lucy Walker broke new ground for women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Our climb not only wants to celebrate her achievement but  raise awareness that in the 21st century there is still work to do to encourage more women into the mountains and outdoors generally. The perception that mountaineering is more for men than women still persists – our eclectic group of varying ages and abilities hopes to undermine this.

So be warned one little thought, one quick email can lead you to some surprising places.

Later in the year it is planned, in conjunction with retailer Ellis Brigham, to hold a talk about the climb. If you are interested in attending please leave your contact details so I can send you further information



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Media, Sport and Variety…..please!

One of the things about working as a physio, especially one that has been in the same area for a while, is you get to know many of your patients well. With treatment sessions lasting up to an hour conversations, unsurprisingly, often stray well beyond the problem being addressed. Anything from politics, religion, education and health to potholes, gay rights, and ageism, are all fair game – its surprising what physio techniques encourage; a valid distraction policy perhaps?  Since the 2012 Olympics, however, the increasing frustration with  the lack of coverage of ‘minority ‘sports and  the monopoly of the media by men’s games, particularly football, has become a common talking point. This comes from both men and women, young and old.

The fabulous thing about the 2012 summer of sport was the publicity given to a great variety of events. From women’s boxing – who can ever forget Nicola Adams infectious smile – to canoe sprints, Graeco-roman wrestling, gymnastics, shooting, water polo and dressage. _62163892_jex_1488492_de27-1This enormous panoply of events not only brought exotic sports into our living rooms, often for the first time, but it broke down all manner of prejudices and preconceptions. Disabled sport was shown to be just as  compelling and exciting as able-bodied – sometimes more so, women’s boxing was  skilful with the boxers, to some people’s surprise, looking delightfully feminine and we all had to revise our ideas about the athleticism of beach volleyball and the class issues surrounding dressage. The games showed how sport brings people together regardless of age, religion, class and gender.

So why, oh why has this not changed how sport is represented and portrayed? Within a matter of weeks after the end of London 2012 the media had reverted to type with coverage in the sports pages  largely confined to men and male team sports. Women’s sport barely registers a mention in most daily papers, neither do the disabled. Even when the England women’s cricket team  recently retained the ashes in Australia – they did not warrant even one full page article in The Times. _65413909_mmcriengwmnsteampicThey shared a page with a report on Schumacher and the latest men’s cricket match against Australia.  It is argued that only popular sports attract media attention, but it is a case of the chicken and egg.  The wealth and power of a few sports dominate and monopolise the media. This control of publicity maintains the status quo; smaller sports are kept out & their chance to attract  support snuffed out before its begun.

In my clinic I have more women doing regular exercise than men, women in general look after their bodies better  – they are less likely to be over weight & think about their diet more. Seven of the ten best British medal hopes for the winter Olympics in Sochi are women and yet publicity for sports other than the wealthy men’s games is spasmodic at best and completely absent at worst. This lack of attention to women’s achievement  mirrors the response  to female mountaineers in the nineteenth century. Despite all the major alpine summits being climbed by women between 1860 and 1880 there was  little publicity; the overwhelming perception was that mountains and mountaineering were  a ‘playground’ for men.

In the twenty first century you would hope things are different  and of course in many, many ways they are; politically, legally, in education, and in job opportunities it is a very different world. Sport, and the publicity surrounding it, however seems to be dragging its feet. Hopefully the 2014 Sochi games will be another chance to witness the great array of sports on offer and cheer home all our athletes. Elizabeth-Yarnold-skeleton-gettyIf current form is any predictor, however, just like the London 2012 games it will be  women like the curling team, Katie Summerhayes, Shelley Rudman and Lizzy Yarnold leading the way to the medal podium.  The challenge for the media is to continue coverage beyond the immediate frenzy of the games and give more of the oxygen of publicity to a greater variety of sport; ones that are not wealthy and predominantly male. Go teamGB!!

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A ‘memorable’ climbing summer

Summer has whizzed past and as I write the rain streaming down obliterating the view to the far hills and woods is one of those November days when it is good to be inside looking out.

Back in the heady days of August however, I was in Zermatt. We hoped to manage maybe one 4000 metre peak as we were unsure of our fitness and of course mountain weather does not always do what you want it to. Arriving with the rain sheeting down was no confidence boost. It seemed likely  our mountain experience might be confined to sampling the many marvellous patisserie shops that abound in Zermatt, and having numerous visits to the Monte Rosa Hotel for coffee. This hotel – or rather the street outside –  was the summer meeting place for the Alpine Club in the nineteenth century. It has some unique photographs from that period  displayed in the upstairs lounge. (These, happily, are en route to the toilets provided you don’t obey the signs and go downstairs!) A perfect place to hole out on a wet and miserable day.

ayas hut (2)

The Ayas Hut, Italy

As often happens in the mountains, however, after a couple of dreary days doing some lower level hut walks ( and improving our fitness) suddenly the weather changed. The gods smiled on us and we were blessed with over a week of high  pressure – cloudless sky, sun and no wind.  Fantastic luck! We headed up to Kleine Matterhorn with the intention of doing the ‘Spaghetti tour’ – a series of 4000 metre peaks with nights spent just over the border in a variety of Italian huts.

castor (4)

The Ridge on Castor

I was particularly keen to do  Castor, the Breithorn,  the Parrotspitze and at least one of the summits of Monte Rosa as these were climbed by many women in the last half of the nineteenth century.

I  firmly believe that to be able to write, contextualise and discuss intelligently the accomplishments of these women it is important to have some first hand knowledge of the terrain and what climbing involves at that altitude.

Due to the excellent conditions we managed all my planned summits – I couldn’t believe my luck! It was exhausting, I didn’t do it in any great style, I fell over,  scrambled over rocks and bergschrunds  in an ungainly fashion, tripped over my crampons and crept cautiously along knife edged Alpine ridges  (see above)- but it was  fabulous, an experience like no other. If it was a tremendous experience for me, a twenty first century independent women, it emphasised how this must have been  more of a revelation and a change in their ‘way of being’ to women in the nineteenth century. The freedom from censure, the working as a team and the demanding fitness required are factors at play today – how much more was this the case over 100 years ago.

sunrise from Parrotspitze

sunrise from Parrotspitze

It was made more memorable by knowing I was standing where many of the first women mountaineers had stood for the first time. Particularly impressive was looking down from a col – the Sesia joch –  below the  Parrotspitze and realising in 1869 two sisters from Clapham were the first people to descend this precipitous rock face dotted with ice encrusted snow. Their achievement astonished the local Italian papers and even made the male bastion of the Alpine Club take notice. I knew it had been an impressive piece of ‘adventuring’ but actually being there, witnessing its sheer scale and terrifying location  made me realise what a truly astonishing accomplishment it was.  I , with all the benefits of light weight warm gear had rather ineptly managed some modest 4000 metre peaks. If I was feeling  pleased with myself, the realisation of what these sisters achieved brought me down to earth. It  impressed upon me how important it is to try to relive or revisit  sites of such unprecedented  female achievement. In a world dominated by the noise of male accomplishments women are hard to hear. No wonder there are fewer females on FTSE 100 boards, women MPs, scientists and leaders of industry. Our society does not celebrate what women have achieved historically even when they were fighting  more against the odds even than now. Witness the difficulty in retaining a woman’s face on our bank notes, if you need persuading.

Next year it is 150 years since Lucy Walker was the first women to stand on the top of the Eiger.  This was at at time when women were supposed to be unable to perform any type of strenuous activity. She clearly ignored such medical advice and did not allow gender stereotypes to prevent her achieving her goal.  Will this be recognised or celebrated? It remains to be seen- possibly another ‘work in progress’ – but Walker’s  determination to succeed despite society’s prevailing view of women is symbolic of what is still needed today.Now, do I have any volunteers for the Eiger next year, please?

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Physical exercise; a source of liberation for women…. and probably for men too!

As a physiotherapist working in the same place for many years, one of the rewards – which admittedly can, occasionally, be a double edged sword –  is getting to know patients so well they are comfortable sharing some of their innermost thoughts with you. Recently I was seeing a woman who was a ballet dancer. She has been retired for several years but the discipline she learnt from an early age continues; she is slim, fit and remains extremely active – a fabulous advert for her art. This week she was in reflective mood remembering the debt she owed to ballet – how it had transformed her life. At school she had struggled academically and her self esteem was at an all time low when she discovered she had both a talent and a love of  dance.

contemporary balletThe freedom she found in ballet unleashed a self confidence that she had never dreamt of before. This new experience came solely through the control, training and movement of her body. It gave her a new relationship both with herself and, through  her performances, with the external world of the audience. She explained how it was only through understanding and using her body that she was at last able to express herself  fully. It gave her a liberty, it let her soul sing. Movement, fitness, training and most importantly performance  gave her not only a physical but crucially also an immense psychological and spiritual boost. Life was never the same again after her discovery of dance.


Francis Havergal

Given my PhD topic I was immediately aware of the similarities with women climbers in the nineteenth century. For many of them  it was only once they began climbing that they  realised what their bodies were actually capable of. Mountaineering, as ballet did for my patient, suddenly allowed women to glimpse a whole new world of possibilities. This was a particular revelation at a time when control of women’s bodies was central to many medical, political and social debates.  Any woman who paid heed to medical advice, for example, knew that many doctors advised them to avoid extreme physical  exertion for fear of infertility. Interest in evolution seemed to suggest that women’s bodies were arrested at a more primitive stage of development than mens and the Contagious Diseases Acts allowed any woman to be whisked way and subjected to  internal examination to exclude venereal disease . The female body, therefore, was a contested subject in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the mountains  though women found somewhere they could leave these debates behind, a place where they  could truly experience their bodies for themselves; here was reality and truth, not opinion or conjecture.  The views of scientists, doctors or politicians  were of no relevance in the mountains all that mattered  here was the physical and psychological ability and desire to gain the summit. Just as for my patient, discovering what they could achieve in the mountains was a revelation for many women. Francis Havergal, despite being more noted as a hymn writer than a climber, nevertheless became seduced by the mountains and noted how ‘no one can judge  of what they can do here by what they can do in England.’

five ladies

Another group of young women  during their first Alpine trip in 1874 wrote ‘ there is something delightful in possessing strength and power and endurance… there is a buoyancy, a sense of freedom.’  Many other women  had similar experiences; free from the restrictions of society the high mountains provided an exhilaration few had known before. It truly was another world. For some these encounters were life changing. As with ballet,mountaineering gave some women  a new sense of self expression, fulfilment and spiritual renewal. While men, clearly, also experienced these sensations the difference in lifestyle and activity in the Alps compared to life in Britain was more marked for women than men.  In the mountains women were freer to experience and explore for themselves what  their bodies could achieve. Medical and evolutionary theories were just that – theories; in the mountains they were an irrelevance -superseded by the reality of what women discovered they could do.

aiguille de toule 4

author and friend aiguille de toule 2010

And just to prove this is still as relevant today the photo above was taken a couple of years ago in the Mont Blanc Massif. It was the first time a friend of mine had been on glaciers or climbed in the high mountains  but like many women before us she found it an engrossing and liberating experience. Society, both in the past and today, is very keen to shape what women  should or should not be doing. Much of this revolves around their bodies- what they  wear, how they behave, what sport, job or exercise is suitable – witness the recent curfuffle over Hilary Mantels view of the Duchess of Cambridge if you have any doubts! In setting limits on the body, the spirit is dampened. If women discover the ability of their body for themselves it can herald a transformation. It may even allow the soul  to break out and sing – just as it did for my patient.

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Women, Mont Blanc………& Recognition

So the weather is dreadful. Outside it is cold, snowing, wet and dismal. In these conditions most of us are happy to remain tucked up inside – an ideal time to get on with some reading  and catch up with indoor chores. During such moments of self indulgence, however, we would do well to consider the activities of two women in the Alps a hundred and thirty seven years ago.


Mont Blanc with the Grand Mulets ridge rising above the Bossons Glacier

During January 1876  two women were bidding to become the first person to climb Mont Blanc in winter. The first person note , not just the first woman. At a time when it is often imagined mountaineering was a male domain, it was two women who were serious contenders  to claim this first winter ascent. The American, Meta Brevoort, spent New Year’s day at the Grand Mulets refuge, a hut high up (3000m) on the flank of the mountain  – it nestles behind  one of the rocky outcrops shown in the middle of the photo. She stayed  there for five nights  and even camped out under canvas at the significantly higher Grand Plateau (4200m) in a last desperate, heroic – some might say foolish – attempt to reach the summit.

Deutsch: (von links nach rechts) der Schweizer...

Meta Brevoort with Nephew William Coolidge and guides Christian & Ulrich Almer and dog Tschingel

Unfortunately, driving winds, low temperatures and poor visibility forced a retreat. A few days later, the desire to achieve the first winter ascent of the Alps highest mountain encouraged another attempt  by fellow mountaineers, Gabriel Loppe and Simon Ecclestone. They too, however, were stopped at the Grand Plateau by terrible weather conditions.


Isabel Straton (right) and future husband Jean Charlet

Two weeks later the thirty eight year old British woman, Isabel Straton, made her bid.                                              Accompanied byJean Charlet, the man she would  marry later that year, the expedition was not without mishap; she suffered frostbitten fingers, a porter was injured and it took four days at the Grand Mulets before they successfully made it to the top. The temperature on the summit was minus 23 celsius. So if you think the weather we have had recently is bad, think again!

Straton’s success was reported in both English and foreign newspapers. She  remains a real presence in Chamonix  where streets, mountain ridges, hotels and refuges are named after her. In Britain, however, she is virtually unknown. It is hard not to imagine that if Straton had been a man, histories of mountaineering would have given her a higher priority. As it is, details of her climbing  are often secondary to  discussion of her wealth and marriage. Such domestic arrangements  assume a higher priority for women than for men it seems and in doing so occlude the very real achievements that were made.

Looking out of the window I see the snow has stopped and  a suggestion of sun is filtering through the leaden sky. Clearly its time to leave my warm, sheltered study, get outside  and enjoy the bracing, cool air , to commune in an albeit limited sense  with the spirit of  women like Brevoort and Straton. Regardless of how others saw them they did not let domestic concerns deter them – as I leave my comfy chair I am wondering if I can do the same!

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Scoliosis, hunchbacks and other Richard III stuff!

I can’t help it, as a physio and a historian I have got to get this off my chest. There have been lots of comment about Richard III and his scoliosis – a sideways deformity of the spine – and whether he was also a ‘hunchback’ and if so how could he have worn armour.

In most instances a marked scoliosis – that is one visible to the naked eye and not requiring modern imaging to unmask – will also have some axial rotation of the vertebrae. As the ribs attach to these same vertebrae any rotation  of the spine is exaggerated. This causes  the ribs to be more prominent on one side than the other and creates what is popular termed a ‘hunchback’.

It is clear Richard III had a significant scoliosis in his thoracic spine; he therefore inevitably had an asymmetric rib cage and ‘hunchback’. Having one without the other, whilst not impossible, is probably as rare as hens teeth! The whole debate of whether he had a hunchback as well as a scoliosis should never have got off the ground – it is a non question.

The other ridiculous comment is ‘how did he wear armour?’ Do the people who ask this think he  bought it off the peg from John Lewis?  He was the king not  a pauper – he had his armour made for him as did everyone else. He would have been able to move within this as well as anyone.  His body would have adapted  to the restrictions imposed by the scoliosis. One of (possibly the only!)  benefit of dying aged thirty two is that he avoided the worst of  the back and neck pain that plagues most people with scoliosis from middle age onwards making their later years a misery. Even  a king can’t avoid that.

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The Continuing Problem of Women’s Appearance……

My PhD topic is researching the surprisingly numerous women who climbed and walked in the Alps in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whenever I explain this to people hardly anyone comments on the extreme physical fitness needed, the cool heads and, at times, profound privation endured. No, women might have been bivouacking on glaciers, negotiating Alpine ridges with  thousand foot drops on either side, climbing without rest for over eighteen hours and then dining on slugs and squirrels but the thing that pops into most people’s heads is what they looked like!

midi ridge 2

A Typical Alpine Ridge

The most frequent comment is , ‘Did they climb in skirts and if so how did they manage?’   In many ways that is not surprising as to modern minds it seems impossible to have the same freedom of movement in a skirt as is possible in trousers.  In reality there was less difficulty than modern minds might  imagine and, indeed, some advantages; any woman who has walked up a glacier will know there is little cover for ‘calls of nature’. A skirt, however, provided a ready made tent as the Alpinist Mary Mummery noted in 1889. Nevertheless, I suspect if I told people I was studying male climbers  there would be few comments  made about their heavy, three piece tweed suits, the waist-coats, breeches and  the almost compulsory pipe they smoked. Appearance is  of little or no significance for men; it seems fundamental when considering women.

The continued subtle influence of what we expect of women’s appearance was brought home to me  recently by a comment made by a patient. Whilst discussing the joys of the Olympics and in particular the outstanding achievements of women like Jess Ennis the patient confessed she disliked seeing women with six packs.

Jess Eniss, London 2012

She felt they were ‘manly’ and de-feminising. I commented that this was only because her view of the feminine body has been conditioned by society and  the media.  The dismal coverage given to women’s sport is merely one example. If  an alien scanned the sports pages, women’s magazines or  television channels they could be forgiven for questioning whether women were capable of  serious physical exercise at all. Unfortunately the patient was not persuaded. Society’s expectations of women’s appearance clearly remains  an issue in a way it doesn’t for men. The recent disgusting attacks on the appearance of Cambridge don Mary Beard which followed  previous unwarranted criticism of her by  The Times columnist AA Gill are  high profile examples. If women, such as the ‘admirable Beard’, do not conform to the expected female stereotype they are  threatened and subjected to vitriol. Society’s expectations of women’s appearance can be subtle, pressurising and pervasive. Yesterday the highly acclaimed, double Booker winning author, Hilary Mantel laid bare her reflections  on coping with body image (www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/02/hilary-mantel-experience-fat).  If someone as successful and outwardly self assured as Mantel wrestles with appearance it suggests we have some way to go before the way women look is not an important talking point.

Deutsch: Wi die Pariserin ihr Haar ordnetIn one sense we have not moved very far from the final decades of the nineteenth century. Women’s bodies, their exercise and shape, was a major topic of conversation in medical journals and women’s magazines. Then as now the media, which of course meant only newspapers and periodicals, were controlled by men. Even most ‘Lady’s’ papers had male editors and proprietors. Medicine also was dominated by men. As a result the ideal woman’s body was often portrayed as one with a waspish waist sitting between a copious bosom and large backside!  As the anthropologist Mary Douglas has highlighted the more control and ritual a society exerts over dress and appearance the more an individual’s activities are controlled and curtailed. Women climbers were clearly one group of women who abandoned corsets  in favour of more practical clothing and in doing so opened up a new world of opportunities in the mountains. Although they climbed in skirts they made various  adaptations – no firm lacing being one.  Whilst not displaying their fitness in the explicit way modern athletes like Ennis do, nevertheless, the conventions of female body image were set aside whilst they were climbing. Then, as is clearly still the case today, not everyone was happy with this new demonstration of women’s appearance and by association their freedom to become involved in ‘manly’ activities, nevertheless they persevered – as must we.

Please feel free to contribute  and leave a comment

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