Women in the mountains

Social attitudes to the mountains

For early visitors, the mountains were seen as dark and forbidding, the home of spectral creatures and wild men. For those who lived there, the crofters, shieling maids and shepherds, the mountains defined their way of life.

Changing artistic fashions turned mountain wilderness into picturesque destinations. Experiencing the mountains, being 'at one' with them, was an important aspect of romantic landscape appreciation. Artistic ideals of the mountains were often expressed from an outsider's perspective. The voices of the people who live there are little heard.

These ideas are echoed today with wild spaces seen as outdoor playgrounds, and entire mountain ranges designated as parks for their protection and our enjoyment. The experience of being mindful, or subsumed by our environment, is considered essential for our wellbeing. But tensions remain between visitors' experience, local livelihoods and the protection of rare species.

'Class comes in here. For a long time, the wild land was a working place, whether you were a hunter gatherer, a crofter, a miner. But now it seems it is being claimed by the educated middle classes on spiritual quests. The land is empty and the saints come marching in.'

— Kathleen Jamie, 2008.

'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'

— John Muir, 1901.

Writing for society

Women writers were aware of their audience. Even when no publication was intended, they knew their journals and diaries would be shared with family and friends. Travelling singly or in remote places was considered unladylike and unconventional behaviour, and in some societies still is.

The knowledge of potential criticism influenced the content of their writing. Jane Duncan took care to mention that she bathed every day and downplays the dangers of some of her adventures, not wishing to appear heroic. Isabella Bird was at pains to point out that her Hawaiian riding trousers were 'essentially feminine' and riding astride was a necessity on steep slopes.

Male travellers published expedition accounts in learned society journals or with mainstream publishers. Women often published their travels in serial form in popular magazines, only producing a book when there was sufficient demand. This more ephemeral format may partly account for the women's achievements being diminished and overlooked.

'I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the mountains for knocking from me the shackles of conventionality.'

— Elizabeth Le Blond, 1902.

'The charm and ease of travelling in Western Tibet, of which I have tried to give an impression, may encourage those who have leisure and opportunity to set out and experience it for themselves.'

Jane Duncan, 1906.

Attitudes and acceptance

Walking is our primary mode of travel. It was accepted as a suitable, ladylike pastime but when women ventured into the hills, either without male companions or entirely on their own, they were viewed with suspicion. When that walking turned into long-distance hiking, mountaineering and rock climbing the social outcry was even louder. In some cultures a woman travelling alone is still an object of curiosity or disapproval.

Some of the fiercest critics of these outdoor behaviours were other women, often based on no more than their own reaction to what they saw as unconventional clothing. ‘My, what a fright you look!’ Others deemed adventurous women as 'unmotherly'.

Some male climbers took it as an affront to their masculinity that a woman should achieve the same climb. But many others encouraged and supported their partners, wives and daughters, walking and climbing together. Indeed many women choose to share their first experience of being in the hills with friends and family.

'Some people asked if it was a fascination or a craze, or if people who went in for mountaineering were just completely mad, and it was a difficult question to answer.'

— H W Turnbull, 1937.

'The Grépon has disappeared. Of course, there are still some rocks standing there, but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that is has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it. A pity, too, because it used to be a very good climb.'

— Étienne Bruhl, 1929.

'When George Mallory disappeared on Everest, he, too, left a wife and small children behind, yet this did nothing to dint his heroic image.'

— Maria Coffey, 2003.

Clothing and equipment

We are amazed by historical images of women climbing in long skirts and broad brimmed hats. However, many of these photographs are of tourists on the Mer de Glace at Chamonix or other Alpine resorts. For real climbing, women shortened or removed their petticoats or adopted pantaloons, gathered at the ankle, under a below-the-knee length skirt. Later, they resorted to boys' tweed breeches.

After the Second Word War clothing rules relaxed and women were able to wear trousers on the hill without having to change before being seen in public. More recently manufacturers have started making performance wear specifically to fit a woman's shape. However there are still issues if you are a curvy woman; ill-fitting garments can lead to a miserable day on the hill.

The weight and bulk of early technical equipment were a challenge for women. Hemp ropes and canvas tents are heavy when wet. Travelling with guides and porters brought its own difficulties. An unchaperoned woman climbing with a male guide would cause a social outcry at imagined impropriety. While for male climbers hiring a guide rarely detracted from the story of their own heroic conquering of the mountain, for the women it devalued their achievement.

'One of the joys of the expedition was getting away from dress with its worries as distinguished from mere clothes, and many a time after returning to civilization I longed to be in the desert again, where the crows and the goats did not care what I wore.'

Jane Duncan, 1906.

'Some ladies cling insanely to the artificial trammels of society, in the shape of a skirt when climbing. It is perfectly futile, perhaps a little dangerous, and the skirt will certainly cling insanely to the rocks and quite probably get irremediably torn off.'

— C E Benson, 1914.

'Suitable nailed boots were not to be had in this country, and boys' tweed suits were the only available outfit for women. When I appeared in my boys' suit (made by Forsyth), and wearing my big hobnailers, my own mother could not endure the spectacle and cried "Oh what a fright you look!" It was not done in those days!'

Jane Inglis Clark, 1938.


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