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Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering

Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering. Rebecca A. Brown. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2002. Foreword by Arlene Blum. 272 pages. Hardcover $22.95.

Rebecca A. Brown has given us a highly readable history of women’s mountaineering. Women on High begins with the 1808 ascent of Mont Blanc by Marie Paradis, but focuses primarily on the Victorian era and the early decades of the 20th century, telling the stories of such fine Alpine climbers as Lucy Walker, Meta Brevoort, Elizabeth Le Blond, Mary Mummery, and Margaret Anne Jackson. In addition to describing the climbs themselves, Brown situates them within a background of evolving gender codes, climbing styles—and clothing styles (with corsets and cumbersome skirts giving way to bloomers and trousers). She also explores the varied motiva tions that prompted 19th-century women to climb: the desire for independence, a commitment to women’s rights, the search for spiritual and personal fulfillment.

Women on High makes clear that a number of early women climbers performed at the highest standards of their day. In 1893, for example, Lily Bristow cruised the Mummery Crack on the Grepon. (Her partner on the climb was A. R Mummery, the 19th century rock star who described his and Bristow’s ascent of the iced-up Grepon “as amongst the hardest I have made.”) In 1908, after several failed attempts, the American climber and feminist Annie Smith Peck final ly reached the summit of 21,831-foot Huascaran Norte (and survived a harrowing descent to the Garganta). Between 1899 and 1912 another American, Fanny Bullock Workman, led six extensive expeditions in the Himalaya, reaching summits as high as 22,800-foot Pinnacle Peak in the Nun Kun range. (She was 47 years old at the time.) Yet another American climber, Dora Keen, perse vering through lengthy storms that drove many of the men in the party back down the mountain, completed the first ascent of 16,000-foot Mt. Blackburn in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska. This was in 1912, when all the major Alaskan peaks except Mt. Saint Elias remained unclimbed.

Women on High's foreword is provided by Arlene Blum, who led the first American expe dition to Annapurna I in 1978 and whose Annapurna: A Womans Place is required reading for anyone interested in the history of women’s mountaineering. Blum notes that early in her own climbing career she knew nothing of most of the women whose stories are told in this book, adding that if she had they would have provided her “with role models, support, inspiration, and encouragement that would have made [my] own ascents easier.”

David Mazel, AAC