Wild People: Lucy Walker, Victorian mountain climber

Leaving behind a quiet life of croquet and cream teas, Lucy Walker became one of Britain’s finest early mountain climbers. Clare Roche tells her extraordinary story.

ITALY - APRIL 28: The Matterhorn, 4478 m, seen from Breuil-Cervinia, Valtournenche, Aosta Valley, Italy. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Lucy successfully climbed the Matterhorn… wearing a skirt.

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At 10.15 am on 25 July,  1864, a group of 11 people arranged themselves gingerly on the narrow arête of the Eiger’s summit, and “proceeded to howl [themselves] hoarse” in celebration of their achievement. The merriment was more raucous than usual because 28-year-old Liverpudlian Lucy Walker had just become the first woman to climb the mountain.

Poor visibility, ice and difficult route-finding threatened to defeat them, but as fellow climber Adolphus Moore noted, in a typical example  of middle-class Victorian pride:  “A repugnance to abandoning an undertaking once commenced…appears to be naturally inherent in the breasts of Britons, male and female alike.” When the party arrived back in the village, Moore noted that “the astonishment amongst the people, collected at the inn, at a lady having performed such an unusual feat, was immense and entertaining.”

Epic adventures

Lucy, however, was becoming used to going where no woman had been before. Prior to the Eiger, she was the first woman to the top of at least five Alpine summits and claimed another 10 first female ascents, including the Matterhorn (4,478m), before her climbing career finished in 1879. She totalled 98 expeditions in her 21 years of mountaineering, which included  28 summits over 4,000 metres.

So how did a lady from Liverpool become the pioneer of women’s mountaineering? Many people viewed Mont Blanc, the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn, but few actually stood on the tops – and those who did were generally men, not women… or so we have been told.

On Lucy Walker’s first trip to the Alps in 1858, she – unlike many people – was not content to remain in the valley but accompanied her brother and father into the high mountains. Whereas today climbers use cable cars or trains for the first part of an expedition, in the 19th century, several hours of steep walking was required.

Most Victorian doctors advised gentlewomen to refrain from any strenuous exercise; the demands of mountaineering went way beyond strenuous. It is a measure of Lucy’s character that she clearly ignored medical diktats. She was an educated woman, spoke several languages, knew her own mind and was not prepared to conform to any convention if it meant restricting her mountaineering.

In the Alps, she regularly climbed for more than 14 hours a day, tackled some of the most difficult summits and slept in barns high in the mountains, often close by the men in the party. Home life in Liverpool could not have been more different. There she played croquet, entertained and led the respectable life expected of a Victorian lady.

Even on the mountains, she was keen to maintain a feminine appearance whenever possible, always wearing skirts, but removing her crinoline once outside the village. Dresses were arranged so they could be shortened easily on steep or rocky slopes. Trousers didn’t become popular with women until the 1890s, long after Lucy’s climbing was over. She later said how envious she was of the easier conditions women experienced in the early years of the 20th century.

A tipple on the top

Although Lucy wrote nothing about her climbing, others did, noting her penchant for champagne – a common tipple among mountaineers, especially those who made unprecedented climbs. Lucy would get through several bottles during the course of an expedition. She became a renowned personality in the Alps whom everyone wanted to meet because, as famous mountaineer Edward Whymper, claimed, “no candidate for election in the Alpine club… ever submitted a list of qualifications at all approaching the list of Miss Walker.”  

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Clare Roche is a physiotherapist and historian who recently completed a doctorate researching Victorian women mountaineers.