While adventure sports like climbing aren’t perfect in the way they represent female athletes, we’re also incredibly lucky to live in a time when climbers like Ashima Shiraishi, Alex Puccio, Sasha DiGiulian, Sarah Hueniken, and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner (and many, many more) are achieving absolutely incredible things on rock, plastic, ice, and in the mountains.
But these women’s audacity is not just the product of the last few decades. They, and any other woman who loves to feel challenged by the outdoors or just take in a deep lungful of mountain air, come from a long line of female adventurers.
As a little inspiration for your day, here are five women climbers in history who were absolutely, totally, badass.
Lucy Walker was the first woman ever to summit the Eiger in the Alps. The year? 1864. This occurred at a time when women were told by medical doctors to avoid strenuous exercise to protect their womanly parts and climbed in ankle-length skirts (which were recorded to pose actual hazards to climbers).
Walker wasn’t just satisfied with that first summit; she went on to climbthe Matterhorn (also the first female ascent), got the first ascent of the Balmhorn, and complete several alpine traverses. You can read more at this (amazingly titled) article: Lady-like Victorian psyche: the story of Lucy Walker and the Eiger
Fanny Bullock Workman
Suffragist, mountaineer, cross-country bicycler, and she chose to do it all in skirts—because if you can successfully negotiate a jagged, crevasse-filled ice field in a skirt, no one can say you had it easy.
Fanny Bullock Workman biked across Spain and North Africa and climbed in the Alps and the Himalaya at a time when there weren’t even proper maps available, and she set the women’s altitude record by climbing Pinnacle Peak in the Himalaya in 1908.
But she didn’t just dedicate herself to playing hard in the mountains. Bullock workman used her influence to work for the women’s right to vote—that photo above was taken on a high pass in the Karakoram with her holding a “Votes For Women” newspaper headline. She wrote extensively about her travels and expeditions, drawing attention to her role in planning and executing them—no hand-holding through the mountains for her!
“It should be known to them and stated in print that a woman was the initiator and special leader of this expedition. When, later, woman occupies her acknowledged position as an individual worker in all fields, as well as those of exploration, no such emphasis of her work will be needed; but that day has not fully arrived, and at present it behooves women, for the benefit of their sex, to put what they do, at least, on record.”
Miriam O’Brien Underhill
An American climber, she, along with Alice Damesme, got after the term “manless climbing”—la cordee femenine in French. At a time when mountaineering was still a sport primarily for Europeans of privilege and climbing without a guide was still considered rather cutting-edge, she and her partner said “Nah, I’m good,” and made the first all-female ascent of the Matterhorn in 1932. Nice.
She went on to climb other tall things in the Alps, the Mission and Beaverhead ranges in Montana, and the Tetons and Wind River Range in Wyoming, with female partners and often with her equally badass husband, Robert. (Check out this article from the Adventure Journal to continue being impressed by her.)
“Very early, I realized that the person who invariably climbs behind a good leader…may never really learn mountaineering at all and in any case enjoys only part of the varied delights and rewards of climbing … I did realize that if women were really to lead, that is, to take the entire responsibility for the climb, there couldn’t be any man at all in the party.”
Gwen Moffat was a dirtbag climber in the 1940s before anyone even knew what a dirtbag was. She deserted from the Army to dedicate herself to climbing, and slept barns and under hedges because why sleep inside or get married when you could be climbing?
That’s right, in that photo she’s lead climbing barefoot. First female British Mountain Guide in 1953 (certainly the most exciting event of that year), prolific writer and novelist, and I’m pretty sure she’s fought off a dragon, too.
So she’s slightly less “historical” than these other women, but I can’t help including her because I love her understated style and gentle strength.
First woman to summit Everest in 1975, first woman to climb the Seven Summits (each continent’s tallest peak). Strong mind, incredible mountaineer, 4’9” tall. Heck yes.
Today, she focuses on campaigning for sustainable mountaineering (i.e., get your trash out of there) and bettering the position of women in society in Japan.
Her response after summiting the world’s highest mountain? “I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest—it’s only a mountain.”
Which women, past or present, inspire you to chase adventure? Leave her name in the comments below!