woman mountaineering

Female mountaineers: doctors were advising them to stay at home (1876)

From a contribution by a doctor based in Aix-les-Bains, Stéphen d’Arve raises the question of female mountaineers. In Les Fastes du Mont Blanc, published in 1876 by H. Georg, his opinion is crystal clear. Women have nothing to do in the high mountains for medical reasons. We can smile today reading those words. But they have certainly played their part – historically – in the position that women still occupy today in the practice of mountaineering. Almost absent from mountain guides classes, so rare in long-distance expeditions,… mountain sports are still far from demonstrating gender equality. Let’s go back in 1876 to understand where we come from …

Doctor Léon Brachet, then assigned to the thermal establishment of Aix-les-Bains, is a founder of the Alpine Club of Savoy. The author starts strong: “May this useful advice and these severe warnings divert some temerity, hinder some projects whose moral profit can never compensate for the sum of the serious dangers to which a woman is exposed in such a business! ” So what does the doctor say? Let’s dig into it.

“So we can only blame women for this (…) craze for the mountains”

“M. Hert, professor at the Faculty of Science in Paris, formulated with conviction that the Earth belongs to man. His long research to overcome mountain sickness can, it is true, be of great help against this affection. But it still does not reassure us enough about the possibility, for women, to attempt without danger these great climbs that we celebrate every year in our Alps.

As much as we approve the walk, as much we are delighted to see the spread of English habits in France for the education of young girls, as much as we medically appreciate this muscular contraction which takes place in mountain journeys, at 1,500 or 1,700 meters; so much we judge that it is absurd and dangerous for the women to try altitudes of 2,300 or 2,500 meters. Actually, it is at these altitudes that the symptoms of mountain sickness manifest themselves in a fatal way. I.e. vomiting, syncope, suffocation and finally bleedings through the natural openings: eyes, ears, mouth, nose, uterus, etc.

All functions are increased by walking, but breathing and circulation are also greatly exaggerated by the decrease in oxygen gas. The endosmo-exosmotic exchange of blood gases is difficult to perform, given the reduced pressure which no longer produces their expansion. The weakest vessels tear. Then comes the danger, more or less significant, depending on the organ where the blood loss occurs.

Read also: 1865, the ascent of the Matterhon by Edward Whymper

“I remembered a lady who…”

In my journeys, at very high altitudes, I have had the opportunity to observe twice accidents of metrorrhagia [Note: abnormal uterus bleeding] which have endangered the lives of affected women each time. I remember, among other things, a lady who, arriving at the top of the Grand-Son, started suffering from mountain sickness and metrorrhagia. It disappeared only with the local application of ice and only after she was moved to lower altitudes. I knew a lady who, while attempting the ascent of Mont-Blanc in 1862, had to be buffered by one of my colleagues, whom a happy coincidence had caused to be there.

Often the woman has epistaxis [Editor’s note: nose bleed]; but, in her case, this accident can bring deplorable disturbances to physiological functions. This phenomenon of uterine congestion that occurs in mountain sickness does not always result in blood loss, but it has often been revealed to us by disorders of the innervations, perfectly similar to those experienced by women affected by metritis or other uterus pathological phenomena.

We can therefore only blame women for this fashionable infatuation with altitudes. It can only be dangerous, especially at a time when the sickly, nervous, anemic woman has so much to monitor one’s hygiene so as not to succumb to physical suffering. >>

Under these conditions, the women who climbed in the mountains at that time were opposed to the wisdom of science. They needed more than courage to face this exclusively male world. The German Eleonore Hasenclever, the British Isabella Stratton or the American Meta Brevoort (picture) were among them.

Acute or chronic mountain sickness affects both men and women. Metrorrhagia is not part of the symptoms list in 2020 for mountain sickness. Hereafter, the full version of this book (in French).

Credits. Meta Brevoort with Almer guides and her nephew William Coolidge © Public Domain

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