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.
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.
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.
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!