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?

This entry was posted in History, Mountaineering, Women and society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A ‘memorable’ climbing summer

  1. Shirley Chapman says:

    Clare you are inspirational!

    • clarearoche says:

      Haha Thanks Shirley I wish I was! I’m just an enthusiastic old bird dragging myself up some fantastic hills. It is great fun and gives me the splendid opportunity to eat with impunity afterwards. What could be better!

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