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.

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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.

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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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