Sunday, October 11, 2015

Crux columns: women with attitude

Women with attitude

The largest to climb Crookneck in The Glass House Mountains on 'Salmon's Leap', 1933 (Cliff and Lexie Wilson collection).
Browsing through the plethora of multimedia climbing images available today it’s clear that women are increasingly making their mark on Australian crags. The current surge in female climbing activity in Australia began around the early 1990s with the popularisation of indoor sport climbing, gradually extending into all forms of the activity since. But women’s attraction for high places began in eastern Australia more than a century ago. During the 1930s, the number of women climbing—particularly in Queensland—roughly equalled that of their male counterparts. After World War II in Queensland, women all but vanished from the climbing scene—Australia was embroiled in era of nation-building and women’s place, it seemed, was anywhere but in the mountains or on the rock.

Australia’s pioneering female climbers had plenty of international role models. Henriette d’Angeville was 45 when she became the first woman to climb Mont Blanc in 1838. Despite her achievement being denounced as ‘unfeminine and plain dangerous’, she inspired generations of female climbers to challenge the prevailing viewpoint that women did not climb. By the 1850s, women in Europe and the United States had established themselves firmly as highly competent climbers, but they still climbed with men. It wasn’t until 1900 that the outstanding British climber-photographer, Elizabeth Aubrey Le Blond, made the first ‘manless’ ascent in the Alps—and it quickly caught on. Le Blond also pioneered winter climbing for women and was instrumental in starting the Ladies Alpine Club in 1907. Women in this era climbed in ‘voluminous skirts’ but by the 1880s, a pioneering few began to discard them after leaving mountain huts, climbing in riding breeches, although dressing for their return to ‘the civilised world’. The popularity of active sports like mountaineering, walking and cycling in Europe prompted a new wave of ‘athletic’ fashions for women to sweep into Australia in the form of the ‘Velocipedienne’ skirt—while riding a bicycle, women could undo a section of the garment, extending it so as to conceal the feet and ankles. 

The European influence on local climbers was clear. In 1894, Queensland adventurer, John Hardcastle, found a bottle with 17 names listed inside on the summit of Wilson’s Peak, at the southern end of the Main Range and observed: ‘The fact that five girls, whose ages range from 15 to 21 years, reached the top of this great peak shows that the natives are not far behind their sisters of other countries in mountaineering as it requires far more than the average woman’s nerve to make the ascent of this mountain.’

In 1908, Australia’s first mountaineer, 26 year old Sydney climber Emmeline Freda Du Faur, stood on a pass below the summit of New Zealand’s highest peak and was inspired: ‘Then and there I decided I would be a real mountaineer, and some day be the first woman to climb Mount Cook.’ Two years later Du Faur achieved her goal. She grew up with Kuringai Chase in Sydney as her backyard and practised rockclimbing on the many sandstone outcrops there. She also worked out in the Dupain Institute for Physical Fitness—one of the earliest known instances of any climber training in this way. Two years after her historic ascent of Mt Cook, Du Faur made the first Mt Cook-Mt Tasman traverse with brothers Peter and Alex Graham. In the same year, the first women—Jenny, Sara, and Etty Clark—stood on the summit of Crookneck in southeast Queensland. Etty attempted Crookneck a second time 36 years later and managed to get about halfway up the climb, reflecting: ‘When I climbed to the top in 1912, we girls took off our skirts and finished the climb in knee-length bloomers. They didn’t have shorts in those days.’

Women’s involvement with climbing in Australia began in earnest after World War I. But even in 1925, ankle-length skirts remained the usual climbing attire for women. Within a few years, a remarkable change would free women of the long garments that had plagued them from the time of their very first steps into the mountains. By the end of the 1920s, women were climbing in shorts and sandshoes and setting the trend that continues, albeit with some modifications, to this day.

From the late 1920s until World War II, an extraordinary mass climbing movement emerged in Queensland, inspired by the enigmatic Bert Salmon. It involved large numbers of women who made the most difficult ascents known at that time. The era began when Jean Easton and Doris Williams became the first women to climb Caves Route on the east face of Tibrogargan in 1928. For 20-year-old Easton, it was the first step towards becoming one of Queensland’s most accomplished sportswomen and one of the State’s leading climbers in the 1930s. Following her daring ascent, Easton observed: ‘At no stage of the ascent was a rope used but at times, real thrills were experienced when substantial handholds and footholds were lacking.’ The Queensland female climbing coterie soon attracted national attention with the magazine, Walkabout, concluding that ‘women are good climbers, and as novices give less trouble than men’.

The formidable summit of Mt Lindesay on the Qld-NSW border was the next to succumb in 1931 when Easton, 22, and Nora Dimes, 21, reached the summit, accompanied by the irrepressible Salmon. The event caused a stir in nearby Beaudesert with the local newspaper lauding their achievement: ‘Great praise is due to the abovementioned ladies on their successful feat as they are the first ladies to ever conquer this formidable mountain of rock which Mr Salmon states is second to none in Queensland from a climbers standpoint.’ In the same year, rockclimbing was praised as a ‘health-giving sport for women’ by the Women’s Weekly, featuring novelist Eleanor Dark (Eric’s wife) in action on the Katoomba sandstone. Rockclimbing in the Blue Mountains around this time was popular although it was not quite the mass movement north of the border.

Queensland climber Muriel Patten becomes the first women to climb the First Sister, Katoomba, 1934. Bert Salmon is above her as both solo the climb (A. A. Salmon collection).
 With a female climbing culture firmly established in Queensland by the early 1930s, January 1934 saw 16 Queenslanders—including 7 women—travelling to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains on a ‘rock-climbing holiday’. Early one Sunday morning, with 300 people watching from a nearby lookout, Bert Salmon and 21 year old Muriel Patten climbed the first of the Three Sisters, unroped. It was the first female ascent and the Katoomba Daily was impressed: ‘Miss Muriel Patten, a petite and daring Brisbane girl, claims a record: that she is the only woman to scale the first of the Three Sisters. One section of this climb is extremely difficult and hazardous: particularly for a lady.’ When Muriel Patten returned to Brisbane, she was a celebrity, with the Courier-Mail reproducing the story of her success: ‘Miss Patten yesterday laughed at the idea of nervousness on these expeditions, although she confessed that she has had to acquire the climbing taste. She has long since lost the neophyte’s nervousness in daring expeditions to the top of Crook-neck (Glasshouse), Mt Barney, and Mt Lindesay. Now she is looking round for other crags to conquer.’

This publicity probably spurred her good friend, Jean Easton, into action. Shortly after dawn on the 11 March that same year, she made the second female ascent of the 1st Sister, climbing with two of the Blue Mountaineers. Easton, described as being ‘of slight athletic build’ and ‘one of the best lady mountaineers in the state’, apologised to readers of the Courier-Mail that although she had been climbing for five years and had never used ropes except on the 1st Sister, it was mainly ‘because her male companions were not acquainted with her capabilities as a mountaineer’. And her reason for climbing? ‘There is a thrill in seeing a view with which few other people have had the opportunity of becoming acquainted.’

Queensland’s climbing women had become big news. A full-page story in the Truth in 1934 featured glamorous studio photographs of these ‘modern maids of the mountain’. The story explained they were all members of a climbing club, started by Bert Salmon in 1926. ‘There are 15 girls attached to the club, among whom are several very capable and daring climbers,’ the article exclaimed. ‘Miss Easton probably has done more mountaineering than any girl in Brisbane. She and a girl companion were the first two girls to reach the summit of Mount Lindesay (4300 feet) and holds a similar honour in connection with the treacherous eastern face of Tibrogargan (Glass House group).’ The newspaper recounted Easton’s and Patten’s pioneering Katoomba climbs and undoubtedly fanned the flames of interstate rivalry, concluding: ‘This exploit astonished the less adventurous Southerners, who have not taken mountaineering so seriously, and did not realise that the Queensland girls have left the rest of Australia far behind in this exacting and exciting sport.’ 

Jean Easton (above) and Muriel Patten on the east face of Tibrogargan in The Glass Houses in 1934
(Cliff and Lexie Wilson collection).
World War II saw women virtually disappear from the rockclimbing scene around Australia although female membership of postwar bushwalking clubs offered an alternative. The Melbourne University Mountaineering Club in 1947 was the first postwar climbing club in Australia with the Brisbane Climbing Club (1950), the Sydney Rockclimbing Club (1951) and the Victorian Climbing Club (1952) following suit. While influential women were most certainly involved in the early days of postwar climbing in Australia, they were few in number.

The experiences of two young women, Bernice Noonan and Margaret Hammond, in Queensland in the early 1950s perhaps typify those who persisted despite the odds. The two friends would sometimes hitch from Brisbane to the Glasshouse Mountains for a climbing weekend. Bernice Noonan remembers the equipment she used was minimal: ‘We bought a rope, one rope, for the lot of us to use, and we had one carabiner. My son just shrieks with mirth at that,’ she laughs. Despite being vastly outnumbered by male climbers at the time, she felt at ease climbing with the boys: ‘I didn’t feel that the men were superior or that there was a difference because of the sexes. I never felt that at all.’

It is an attitude by women towards climbing that had its genesis more than a century ago in the European Alps—and clearly it persists today. And perhaps Bernice Noonan’s words best sum up what it’s all about—for women, at least. ‘I just felt we were all on the same level,’ she says. ‘We were all experiencing a good sport and we all enjoyed it and unless we all pulled together we weren’t going to get there.’ It seems abundantly clear that women have well and truly reclaimed their place in the Australian climbing scene.

(First published in the Australasian Climbing Journal, Crux Number 3)

1 comment:

Rob Ashdown said...

These posts are just terrific reading, thanks.