January 16, 1888: Darkness fell as Margaret Jackson climbed down layers of soft snow and crumbling stone, during the first winter traverse of the Jungfrau. She and the guides–Christian Jossi, Ulrich Almer, Emil Boss–passed a single lantern back and forth. Lost in a maze of frozen blocks, they huddled in a cave to wait for dawn. Despite the cold, she marveled at the way the lantern illuminated the pillars around them, until it seemed as though they dwelled within a globe of dancing light.
Over the past twelve days, she’d made first winter ascents of three other peaks in the Swiss Alps: the Lauteraarhorn, the Pfaffenstockli and the Gross Fiescherhorn. To her, the landscape seemed, not a hostile place, but a “dream of beauty and delight.” A moonlit glacier sparkled like the diamond ballroom of a fairytale palace. Bleak rocks and arctic drifts gave way to summer colors of golden lichen and sunbaked stone. During their first attempt on the Jungfrau, she and her party staggered up hard ice slopes in a gale. “I thought…of the many failures on the Matterhorn and the Aiguille du Dru before either of them was conquered,” she recounted. “I resolved to try again.”
At first light, after the long night’s bivouac, they found an exit through a narrow rift, half hidden by a swell of ice. By the time Jackson returned to the valley, she’d suffered severe frostbite. And yet no mention of the pain disrupts her sense of wonder at the winter landscape, at the completion of her own epic story–and at the invitation to write about her adventures there. In the Alpine Journal, she later mused, “No ancestress of mine, [a witch] taking her midnight ride, ever came to warn me of the fate the weird sisters were perhaps then weaving for me–that one day the story of my winter wanderings in the Alps might be required.”
It was the first time that a woman had been permitted to publish an article in the Alpine Journal under her own name. Something about the newness of that moment struck her as magic–a portal opening into a once forbidden world.
In her memoir, Here and There Among the Alps (1875), Frederica Plunkett imagined a female reader sitting by the fire on a winter’s night. Slowly, the woman leafs through men’s books of Alpine adventures. Swept up in their prose, she feels as though she has teetered with them along sharp points of rock and fragile crests of snow. Then, she remembers that she has no place in such stories, and she resigns herself to mule paths and low hills. It was for this woman that Plunkett wrote, hoping that tales of other female alpinists might quicken new thoughts in her reader’s mind until “she too, when the time comes, will leave the beaten tracks, and adventure herself into the ice-world beyond.”
During the early days of English mountaineering literature, explorers were the heroes of popular books, the cartographers and conquerors of far-flung realms. Closer to home, the Alps still shimmered with blanks on the map, settings for similar tales of rites of passage across expanses of ice and snow. Most protagonists were men, and most writers assumed their readers were also male. Yet, as Richard Phillips points out in Mapping Men and Empire (1997), Victorian girls pored over adventure stories in magazines like The Boy’s Own Paper. They, too, dreamed of uncharted peaks and frozen lands. Relatively few women published accounts of their mountain exploits: they were expected to live private lives. In an article for Sport in History (2013), Clare Roche describes sifting through diaries and letters, logbooks in huts, applications to the Ladies’ Alpine Club, client lists of Alpine guides, references in journals and newspapers–and finding hints of more female climbers than anyone will ever know.
A year after Jackson’s astounding winter season, Alpine Club president Clinton Dent gave his farewell address during the annual meeting in the Metropole Hotel. The club did not yet admit women (and would not until 1974). Nevertheless, he noted the rise of an “Alpine sisterhood,” capable of hard routes during the coldest days of the year. Often forgotten today, these female climbers helped pioneer winter mountaineering in the Alps. By starlight and candle flame, they entered ice-worlds that once appeared closed. For a long time, such an idea might well have seemed like witchery–as Jackson imagined it–a transgression of boundaries, a bewilderment of forms. Each of their stories shone a faint light that still glows, reminding us of other pathways into the mountains and the wild.
During the decades before the burgeoning of the ski industry and year-round resorts, a deep quiet settled over the Alps in winter. Railroads hadn’t yet stretched as far as alpine villages. Carriage wheels got stuck in drifts. Sleighs overturned on slick roads. Seracs calved and startled horses. Mountain huts were empty and awash with wind-blown drifts. Tracks of foxes dotted the snowy rooftops of nearly deserted hotels. Granite pinnacles, covered with frost, flashed eerie colors at dusk, as if reflecting the Northern Lights.
For most mountaineers of the 1870s, as Ronald Clark explains in An Eccentric in the Alps (1959), “the very idea of climbing while the upper peaks were thickly covered in snow was considered both dangerous and devoid of pleasure or value.” A handful of alpinists had ventured up high summits during the darkest months, but when Meta Brevoort and her nephew, W.A.B Coolidge, set out for the Alps in December 1873, much remained unknown. On January 15, Brevoort, Coolidge, the guide Christian Almer and his son struggled through gusts to the top of the Wetterhorn, planting a fir tree to mark their first winter ascent. A week later, as they descended from the first winter ascent of the Jungfrau, a line of seracs collapsed on the Monch; waves of ice crystals washed over their boot prints. At nightfall, they picked their way back to the hut by the glow of a cloud-dimmed moon.
With Coolidge’s name as the byline of every published story, much of Brevoort’s perspective vanished from public view. Yet her actions left traces, both bright and subtle. In January 1876, despite a series of storms, Brevoort and her party arrived about 600 meters below the summit of Mont Blanc, before retreating in a whiteout. Mere weeks later, another woman, Isabella Straton, completed the peak’s first winter ascent. As Terry Gifford points out in Women in Transit (2013), Brevoort ghostwrote at least one article: an Alpine Journal account of a September ascent of the Bietschhorn contains small clues to writer’s real identity, including a reference to the narrator as the “equestrian” (Brevoort was the sole team member who rode horseback on the approach). They appear like lapses of attention, echoes of a muted voice.
In 1883 Elizabeth Le Blond became the first climber of any gender to publish an English book on winter mountaineering: The High Alps in Winter, part memoir and part how-to guide. Of her motivations for first winter ascents, she wrote: “I was never sure, when starting, whether the thing was practicable or not, and this uncertainty gave the excursion a flavor of excitement which was very enjoyable. Besides (shall I be honest enough to admit it?) to do something which no one else had done is pleasant.”
During the 1880s, first female ascents had taken place on most of the major summits of the Alps. The premise of Le Blond’s book was more radical than that of simply repeating men’s deeds. Instead, her stories suggested that a female author could report back from largely unexplored fields, offering advice to both women and men who wished to follow in her path. Images emerge from understated prose like clearings in a mist of snow: the author leads her party up the Aiguille des Grands Montets, cutting steps into wind-burnished, brittle slopes; she races to try to beat Vittorio Sella’s team for the first winter ascent of Monte Rosa; and she rescues a partner on the Diavolezza, giving him her arm while using her long axe to test for invisible crevasses in the dark.
By the end of her career, Le Blond had published seven books and accumulated one of the longest lists of winter ascents of any alpinist of her era. In 1900 she and Evelyn McDonnell made a guideless, “manless,” winter traverse of the Piz Palu. According to Le Blond’s Alpine Journal obituary, she remained “reticent” about this feat, as if wondering whether she might be accused of going too far. Like Jackson, she reserved her most ornate details for the landscape, often revealing little of her feelings, and at times muting suggestions of effort, suffering or risk.
It’s tempting to read Le Blond’s descriptions of winter as metaphors for silent thoughts. “I owe a supreme debt of gratitude to the mountains for knocking me from the shackles of conventionality,” she once declared. In My Home in the Alps (1892), she depicted her chosen dwelling as a place of instability and elemental force. At times, the footfalls of a chamois or a shudder of wind released avalanches that thundered so far down they pulled up trees and battered chalets, and the ice-world, temporarily, took over the valley. Above the snowline, she had found an upturned realm, where the malaise she felt in cities vanished. As the air thinned and the slopes steepened, she experienced, not an onset of weakness, but the growth of unexpected strength. Within the ice-world, a woman, no longer an invisible reader of an adventure story, might become the hero and the writer of her own.
The notion of the sublime, so central to early polar and mountaineering literature, has always had a revolutionary potential. As Francis Spufford writes in I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1997), that blend of wonder and fear sometimes represents a “counter-attack on the everyday scheme of the world.” Winter blots out familiar landscapes. Tendrils of ice grow into alien forests. Points of orientation vanish, beyond what appears through falling snow: the grey silhouette of a ridgeline, the marble-pale walls of a gully of ice, an outcrop of frosted stone.
Too frequently, modern adventure writing reinstates old formulas, and experiences that don’t fall within them drift into a void. Nonetheless, female alpinists still shape the course of winter mountaineering. In recent years, Natalia Martinez has made winter first ascents across the windswept Southern Patagonian Icefield–Volcan Aguilera, Cerro Anacoreta, Cerro Octante, the east peak of Cerro Spegazzini and Cerro Esperanza–as well as the first winter ascent of the legendary Monte Sarmiento. As we go to press, Elisabeth Revol has just attempted the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat again. Tamara Lunger nearly reached the summit. By reading more diverse stories, we begin to see how our genre could become more liberating for climbers of all genders. The myth of the hero’s journey has its power, but so, too, do attempts to navigate without its pre-marked trails.
A winter storm still brings glimmers of the ice-world to our doors. Cornices form on rooftops. Rime covers the streets. At dusk, each frozen waterfall near my home becomes a fragmentary map. I choose a fleeting path through intricate and brittle contours, thinking of silverpoint and paper, of early drawings of the Alps. Night falls, and the earth below me seems to vanish. I look back: only the snowflakes glimmer through the darkening air, a shower of stars falling and vanishing into the blue depths of space.
[This story, which originally appeared in Alpinist Magazine Issue 53–Spring 2016, was updated on March 4 at 2:33 p.m. to reflect more recent news about Nanga Parbat. With additional thanks to Peter Hansen, who contributed research advice on Victorian mountaineering. –Ed.]