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Climbing the Matterhorn, 150 years after the first female attempt

On 12 September 1867, the then 18-year old Felicite Carrel made the first female attempt to climb the Matterhorn, along with Caesar Carrel, J.J. and J.P. Maquignaz, and her father Jean-Antoine Carrel, the famous Italian mountain guide. Jean-Antoine had made climbs with Edward Whymper and was his rival when he attempted to climb the Matterhorn for the first time in July 1865. The party made the fourth attempt at the mountain (third from the Italian side). Leaving Breuil at 5am, they reached the shoulder of the final peak at 7am, and arrived at the base of the last precipice within 100 metres of the summit. Only J.J. and J.P. Maquignaz ascended; it is said that Felicite’s skirts ballooned in the strong wind and it therefore became too dangerous for her to go on. The point is named Col Felicite in her honour.

The Golden Age of Alpinism in the 19th century (1854-1865) saw a number of first ascents of peaks in the Alps, and was dominated by British male alpinists and their Swiss and French guides. Mountain activities were generally considered dangerous and only for the most brave and hardy! Women of the time, on the other hand, were seen as belonging to the domestic sphere and had to struggle against social repression. Women’s rights were extremely limited without the right to vote, sue or own property.

A few early ascents by women date back to 1808 with Marie Paradis’ ascent of Mont Blanc. However a number of pioneering women mountaineers and climbers emerged during the Golden Age (such as Lucy Walker, Annie Smith Peck, Fanny Bullock Workman, Meta Brevoort, Elizabeth Le Blond, and Mary Mummery). There were various motivations for 19th-century women to climb: the desire for independence, a commitment to women’s rights (some even taking “Votes for Women “ banners on their expeditions), as well as personal fulfillment. Their ventures into the mountains broke down the walls of “ladylike behaviour” at the time and were often met with resistance from their male counterparts. Lord Curzon, the President of the Royal Geographical Society stated that “Their sex and training render them equally unfitted for exploration”, although he later presided over the decision to admit women as fellows to the RGS in 1913.

There was an expected etiquette for women in the Victorian era, especially with regard to dress of voluminous heavy skirts and corsets, which lasted all the way to the summit for modesty and made movement difficult. The American Annie Smith Peck’s decision to wear bloomers instead of a skirt as a more practical outfit for her climbs in the late 1890s was considered a serious scandal and prompted public debate on what women should be able to do.

The British Lucy Walker became the first female to summit the Matterhorn in July 1871, just six years after Edward Whymper and his team’s first ascent. She wore a long flannel skirt as was appropriate for a Victorian lady. Four days later, Punch magazine even dedicated a poem to her:

No glacier can baffle, no precipice balk her,

No peak rise above her, however sublime,

Give three times three cheers for intrepid Miss Walker,

I say, my boys, doesn’t she know how to climb!

Almost exactly 150 years to the day that Felicite made that first attempt on the Matterhorn, I would be attempting to summit the infamous mountain myself. Two years ago I had turned around just a few hundred metres from the summit (click here for the blog) and can appreciate how frustrated and disappointed Felicite must have felt. I was determined to reach the top this time around.

This time my climbing partner was my boyfriend David. After flying out from London, we spent the first weekend of August in Chamonix, where the finishers of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 170km ultra marathon through France, Italy and Switzerland with 10,000m of ascent, were still coming in. The atmosphere in the town was amazing, with crowds of supporters lining the final stretch in town. Inspired by the race, we went for a short trail run around Chamonix, which ended up being along part of the route and cheered on the participants as we passed them by (whilst also struggling to run uphill!).

On Sunday evening we met our guide, Julien, from Chamonix Experience. The next morning we set off around 7.30am for our first day of training together – taking the Flegere and Index chairlifts and then a short (30min) approach to the foot of the first pitch of the classic South Ridge route of the Chapelle de la Gliere. The climb is part of the Aiguille Rouges chain, which gets its name from the red colour of the rock. We covered 13 pitches of interesting crack and face climbing up to French grade 5b (around a UK VS), following a long ridge line over a number of towers, including the legendary “razior pitch” with a committing and exposed traverse across a slab! Afterwards we abseiled 15m down the north face of the “Chapelle” rock tower then scrambled back down to the Index chairlift. Although we enjoyed the day and had no problems we had done the climb in our rock climbing shoes and were well aware that climbing in our big mountaineering boots and crampons would add an extra layer of technical difficulty. This was going to be tested in our next session…

The next day we headed out early again but this time we drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy and caught the first Aiguille du Midi gondola up, dropping off some gear at the Torino hut en route where we would be staying that evening. Putting on our crampons, we crossed the glacier then ventured up a gully consisting of exposed mixed climbing, which took a couple of hours before finally reaching the foot of the Southwest face of the Dent du Geant (AD+ / 4C) or “Giant’s tooth”. Here we left our crampons and axes, to pick up later.

The first two pitches were up a gully with good holds. I struggled at first to trust my boots to grip the rock, but soon realised I could climb (almost) as well as in my rock shoes! We then reached some slabby pitches for around 75m which although steep were aided with thick fixed ropes, which I avoided pulling myself up with but were great for balance. After another couple of sustained pitches, we reached the South summit of the Dent du Geant, known as Pointe Sella at 4009m with stunning views. From this point we descended a short chimney then traversed an exposed ridge for about 25m to the higher North summit, Pointe Graham, at 4013m. All the way up we had been joined by a team from the Austrian army who were undertaking an alpine training course (the belays had been very cosy at times!), and it was great to share the summit with them and celebrate. We abseiled down the North face – 3 x 60m long rappels - and walked for about an hour through the snow back to the Torino hut.

We reached the hut just in time for dinner! We stayed in the Torino hut for the night, luckily getting a dorm to ourselves although the hard bunk beds and altitude (3375m) meant I got little sleep at night. We were considering doing another route the next morning but given how tired we were and that, due to the weather conditions, our summit attempt was being moved forward a day, we elected to head back to Chamonix for a rest day.

The next day we set off for Zermatt! We met our second guide for this next stage, Tibo, and departed around 11am in Julien’s car. The drive was picturesque along winding roads and through mountain villages. We reached Zermatt late afternoon, and after dropping off our luggage at a hotel in town, got the gondola up to Schwarzsee then started the climb up to the Hornli hut at 3260m. It was only a couple of hours along a marked trail until we were at the hut at the foot of the North-Eastern ridge of the Matterhorn, which towered majestically above the building. It was a clear evening and we could see the climbing route leading from here via the Hörnligrat ridge up to the summit as well as magnificent views of the Monta Rosa mountain range. By this point we were feeling a mix of excitement and apprehension about what lay ahead! The guides went for a group meeting (which we later found out consisted of cheese and white wine, and being told firmly by the Swiss guides that on all accounts they would be leaving first!). We got a good meal of soup, chicken, and rice then turned in for the night around 9pm in our dorm (with three bunk beds full of climbers) ready for an early start.

We awoke around 4am for breakfast at 4.30am in the large dining room, packed with around 60 climbers and their guides buzzing with anticipation for the day ahead. After breakfast, the doors of the hut opened at 5am and we set off in the dark, following the dancing lights of head torches ahead of us. Julien and David were on one rope, with Tibo and I just behind them. The only sounds were our breathing and the crunch of the snow under our boots. We soon reached a bottleneck as a queue of climbers waited at the first pitch, and didn’t get moving for a good 20 minutes or so. Fortunately it wasn’t a cold morning but I was eager to get going.

The route is rated AD but elevation gain is 1200m from the hut to the summit and requires concentration throughout with the very exposed climbing and, in some places, loose rock or ice. The pace was sustained but David and I moved quickly over the rock with the guides on the ropes ahead. When the sun came up we found the route finding a little easier and after a couple of hours we reached the tiny Solvay hut, situated about halfway up the ridge. From the balcony of the Solvay we could see the glacier below, an almost vertical drop hundreds of metres away.

The climbing continued to be mixed and by this point we were also wearing crampons, using the front points to get us up the steep snow and rock sections. However we persevered and at the steepest sections, such as the Moseley slabs, used fixed ropes to help aid us. It was a clear day and now and again, when waiting to get on a busy section, I’d stop to take in the breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks. We went over the shoulder and reached a snowy slope, where I took out my walking axe for extra support and kicked my boots into the snow, then walked along the narrow ridgeline leading to the top. Eventually we reached the summit at around 10am Swiss time (about 4.5hours from the start of the climb), along with David and Julien. The mountain actually has two summits, situated at either end of a 100m exposed rocky crest, which forms the Swiss/Italian border. The Swiss summit that we were on has a height of 4478m and the slightly lower Italian summit at 4476m. We spent a few wonderful minutes on the summit, congratulating ourselves, hugging each other, and admiring the view, before turning round to descend.

After carefully down-climbing the snow slopes, we continued to rappel down the Moseley slabs however it was very slow going with many climbers both going up and down the mountain at that time, and all on the same route. We eventually arrived at the Solvay hut where we took a quick food/drink break before continuing downwards. It continued to be slow going with impending tiredness and number of people, and I had to really force myself to maintain concentration, given that one false step could send us down the face of the mountain. At one point we lost the route and I was not best pleased when we had to climb up a steep section again to find it! Finally we reached the Hornli hut around 3pm. After downing some more water and coca-cola we headed to the Schwarzsee. At this point Julien and Tibo told us the last gondola was at 4.30pm so we had to literally trail run back down in order to avoid a very long walk downhill into Zermatt! I was feeling absolutely knackered at this point and felt like my legs might give in at any time! Fortunately we made it with just 5 minutes to spare. Phew. A couple of celebratory beers in the sun with our guides once we got back to town was the perfect end to our trip.

The next day David and I visited the Zermatt graveyard, where a number of mountaineers are buried, and also the museum to learn more about the fateful first ascent. They were a stark reminder that the risks of mountaineering should never be underestimated, with the Matterhorn itself claiming more than 500 lives. It’s also incredible to think that those first climbers at the turn of the last century would have made their ascents with such limited equipment. I imagine the young Felicite Carrel undertaking the expedition 150 years ago in her heavy skirts, nailed boots, and hemp ropes and am incredibly awed by her bravery and endurance. I feel very privileged to have been able to achieve my goal of climbing the Matterhorn - one of the world’s most iconic mountains, however it was pioneering women such as Felicite and Lucy Walker who paved the way for me to do so. It’s thanks to them as well as the support from my guides and David that I was finally able to stand on such an amazing summit and it was certainly a moment I’ll never forget.

Exploring the corners of the world - from sea to summits

A keen traveller, explorer and mountaineer, I've undertaken expeditions to some of the world's toughest and remote environments including rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. Follow me on my next Endeavour!

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