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Spotlight: Matterhorn's First Female Ascent

8 March 2019

Today, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day - a day that sets out to celebrate female achievement and confront bias in pursuit of a gender-balanced world.

For this latest Spotlight blog post we wanted to honour this by sharing a little of the legacy of an under-acknowledge mountaineering pioneer.
 
Lucy Walker was by all accounts a traditionally Victorian lady. Born in Canada, she grew up in Liverpool, daughter of a lead merchant. She tended to her domestic duties, did her needlework and never exerted herself physically beyond the croquet field.

But she also happened to spend her summers in the Alps, and transformed from her demure Englishwoman persona into an athlete at the forefront of a burgeoning sport. She is regarded as one of the first female Alpinists and having banked over 90 summits between 1858 and 1879, was certainly one of the most prolific of the time. She was little known beyond the alpine inner circle in her day though, despite newspapers regularly running stories of men’s heroic exploits during that Golden Age of Alpinism. And she’s even lesser known today...But, Walker landed 16 female first ascents on some of the highest peaks in the Alps such as the Grand Combin and Monte Rosa, as well as the outright first ascent of the Balmhorn.

The expedition that fixed her place in the annals of mountaineering history, however, was when she became the first woman to reach the iconic apex of the Matterhorn. Few mountains stand as proudly above their surrounding peaks, and few mountains pose such a difficult and dangerous climb. The summit was conquered for the first time in 1865, but with a disastrous descent that saw 4 members of the party fall to their death. Lucy Walker summited on July 21st, 1871, in a rushed bid for the accolade of first female to the top – she had heard that a rival female mountaineer from the USA, Meta Brevoort, was planning to make an attempt and wanted to lay claim herself first.
 
Many years after Walker had stopped climbing in the high Alps, on the recommendations of her doctor, she was involved in the founding of the Ladies Alpine Club, and in 1909, two years after its inception, became its second president. That club merged with the long standing male-only equivalent, the Alpine Club, in 1975 – the year Junko Tabei became the first woman to summit Everest. The Alpine Club had clearly had to move on from their one time opinion that they could not “accept women members on account of their supposed physical and moral deficiencies in the matter of mountain climbing”.
 
Whatever the Alpine Club once thought, from where we stand today, absolutely anyone, regardless of gender, that can climb the Matterhorn, in a Victorian petticoat and hobnail boots, on a diet of sponge cake and Asti Spumante is someone we’d like to climb with. [Though we don’t actually recommend that diet on the mountain...]

“Lucy Walker Mountaineer

One of the few images of we could find of Lucy Walke in the late 1800's via Zermatt.ch

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