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A Brief History of Women Mountaineers

Victorian woman mountaineer

Do what you love most, and must do, and not only will you meet those who share your passion and know your devotion, but the choosing will lead you to mastery. Being able to live by such a creed is both an opportunity and a privilege. It is also a challenge, as any high ideal or serious endeavor requires determination, and for the most ambitious, a necessary amount of courage and strength.

In the mountains, women are undeniably able and strong and brave, though historically we have not always been allowed to just go out and do what we want to do. But that was yesterday, today is today, and it is no longer a simple story of we versus them. Now, women are not only allowed in the mountains, but they are making new history, choreographing lines up towering rock faces, aspiring to ever greater icebound limits and heights.

Still there are men who too often treat women as weaker or less driven.

And there are yet those women who call ambitious women competitive.

Shame on any person or group, so easily threatened, who lump people into a category of this or that, arguing politics, not morals, and who insist you stay in your designated lane. This, as opposed to acknowledging the unique human being each of us happens to be. In a just society, the philosopher John Rawls has argued, we must each of us put ourselves into a hypothetical original position (behind a veil of ignorance—as if not knowing our race, our religion, our gender, our class) and from this state of awareness agree on the social rules and basic rights that govern us all. Only by adopting this perspective (not knowing who you might turn out to be in society) can we live in a world that is morally fair. Then we may each have the opportunity and privilege to do the work we want most to do.

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Climbing a mountain is about extending yourself, reaching for a faraway aim, venturing to rise to the very top of it. Most people are content to stand in a valley and look upward, capturing a glorious pinnacle by eye or by camera at a distance. It’s not necessary to climb to the top of a peak to be awed by nature or the sublime. A railway in Switzerland bores through the Eiger up to the col between the Jungfrau and Mönch, so anyone can travel to great heights by train. What is it but folly, anyway, even irreverence some would say, that incites a person to climb? An Indian guide once said to me as I pointed to a particular mountain and asked the route up, “Why, have you lost something up there?” And there are some mountains in the world that are not to be climbed at all, being instead reserved for the Gods. Like Mount Kailash, in Tibet; you may circumambulate the peak, and cross a 19,000 ft. pass in order to do it, but no human being is allowed to stand at the top of the sacred mountain.

Those compelled to reach a summit usually care little about custom or ritual, the common, the ordinary, the routine. Most itch to be away from the mob, wanting instead to be up out of the valley to head straight up the hill. To endeavor, to risk, to move toward some unknown, to feel more alive—whether male or female—these are strivings a climber is born to.

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Male colonial explorers were the world’s earliest mountaineers, traveling with thermometers and artificial horizons, compasses and sextants, ice axes and picks, with the aim of measuring and appropriating land. It wasn’t until the 1800s that mountaineering turned recreation and sport, most notably in the alpine lands of Switzerland, Italy and France. With Alpine Clubs and professional guides, the Alps became a European playground, and though most of the climbers of that era were men, there were women who immediately entered the picture. Marie Paradis, an 18-year-old French woman, climbed Mont Blanc in 1808—the first female summit of known world record. In 1838, Henriette D’Angerville made claim to the same peak, popping a bottle of champagne at the top.

“To endeavor, to risk, to move toward some unknown, to feel more alive—whether male or female—these are strivings a climber is born to.”

English and American women were in the meantime doing the equivalent: Lucy Walker, in 1871, claimed the crown of the Matterhorn. Fay Fuller, who helped establish the Washington State Alpine Club, arrived in 1890 to the top of Mount Rainier, awing the all-male party that followed. At the turn of the century, another American woman, Fanny Bullock Workman, one of the founders of the American Alpine Club, went off with her husband trekking in the Himalaya, planting her banners—“Votes for Women”—into the icy skins of 22,000 foot peaks. Wherever there were mountains, there were women climbing them, and plenty of men who enjoyed their camaraderie. Then again, some men did not. The thought experiment of the original position is one many people prefer to ignore.

By the 1970s, as Rawls was busy polishing his theory of justice, expedition membership among women was increasing, though the numbers varied from country to country, as did male attitudes about equality on the slopes. Polish teams were making record-breaking feats (Wanda Rutkiewicz and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz entered the history books by climbing 26,089 ft. Gasherbrum III, the world’s highest unclimbed mountain at the time), but in the United States there were several men resistant to having females along on expeditions at all. Of the 100 applicants for the 1963 American Everest expedition team, three were woman, and none were chosen; male reasoning, it is said, that attested to the weaknesses of both sexes—women who would not be strong enough to carry their load and endure the harsh conditions, and men who could not be trusted to behave properly while in their company.

When Dianne Roberts, wife of Jim Whitaker, made the 1975 K2 expedition team (with her spouse) one male climber in particular had his gripes about it, a man consistently vocal each time a woman was invited on any major climb. Meanwhile, Arlene Blum was making her point about gender; having been rebuffed enough times by male expeditionists, she began organizing all female teams. “A Woman’s Place is on Top” was the banner planted at the summit of Annapurna by Irene Miller and Vera Komarkova, the first Americans to reach the summit of this notorious peak. Critics called the achievement highly politicized, but the same claim could be made about the nationalistic fervor long associated with most organized climbs (or team sports of all kinds); another version of the us versus them type of mindset, a tribal habit or norm people everywhere in the world fall into with ease.

While the high altitude expeditionists were working out their problems of inclusion/exclusion, needing to be part of large orchestrated parties, female rock climbers in Yosemite Valley, who knew a willing partner is all one needs, if that, were enjoying the golden years of the 1960s and 70s without much protest and grumble from any of those positioned at various points along the sexual spectrum. Liz Robbins and Johanna Marte were hammering into rock alongside guys who were awed by their strength and grace. Beverly Johnson and Sibylee Hechtel made the first all-female ascent of the 3,000 ft. granite monolith El Capitan, a seven-day quest hauling haulbags that weighed more than they did. Mari Gingery became the first woman to scale The Shield. When in 1994 later Lynn Hill free climbed the Nose of El Cap in just 23 hours—free climbed!—she called down to her fellow Stonemasters, “It goes boys!” It would be a little over a decade before Tommy Caldwell finally beat Lynn’s record.

Back in the Himalaya, the British climber, Alison Jane Hargreaves, was also making history. In 1995 she was only the second person in the world (Rheinhold Messner, the first) to ever have solo’d Mount Everest—and without oxygen. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa would be the first Nepalese woman to summit Everest in 1993, though she perished in bad weather on the descent. And Lhakpa Sherpa has climbed the summit of Everest six times while assisting on expedition teams.

Nanda Devi Unsoeld, a young woman from Washington State, was the instigator of the 1976 Nanda Devi climb, once the highest mountain in India (now the second highest: in 1975 Sikkim joined the republic of India). Devi’s father, Willi Unsoeld, a theology professor at Evergreen College, was one of the first Americans to climb Mount Everest (he and Tom Hornbein traversed the west ridge, a legendary ascent that has not since been accomplished). Unsoeld had caught sight of the mountain that inspired his daughter’s moniker while trekking through the Himalaya in his younger days. “I dreamed of having a daughter to name after the peak,” he said. He did, and she grew up wanting to summit the pinnacle for which she had been christened. Devi Unsoeld would have established a new record for American women climbers had they reached the summit. Devi, whom the porters on the trip had come to regard as a goddess returning to her mountain, died on her namesake at 24,000 feet. The mountain has since been closed.

Marty Hoey was an accomplished American mountaineer and Mt. Rainier guide who would have been the first woman at the summit of Everest had she not fallen 6,000 feet to her death while attempting it. As with Devi Unsoeld, people close to Marty comforted themselves in knowing that she died doing what she loved doing most of all.

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Show me your work and I will know you, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Put a person into a down climbing suit and cover the face with a mask, and it will be difficult to know who the ascender is—call it an empirical veil of ignorance—but you will surely know that climber’s ability. Gender, sex, or sexual preference, make no difference at all. Skill, strength, endurance, perseverance, nerve, fascination, faith; this is what it takes to produce a philosophic study of totalitarianism, pioneer research on radioactivity, paint Music in Pink & Blue, or crawl up a 3,000 ft. granite rock face. What matters is the enthrallment, the optimism, the devotion, the conviction. Then onward and onward, as Emerson said. In liberated moments we know a new picture of life, one that is already possible.

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