“All mountains appear doomed to pass through three stages: An inaccessible peak, the hardest climb in the Alps, an easy day for a lady,” wrote renowned mountaineer A. F. Mummery. But hold your snickering, chauvinists-it’s actually a compliment. It was ironic adulation for his occasional climbing partner and friend, Lily Bristow. She wasn’t the first woman to venture into the Alps, but her toughness and enthusiasm for taking the sharp end landed her in places no women had gone before.
Women climbers were usually met with antagonism in the late 1800s, and often even left off the records by climbing parties, or recorded only by initials as side notes. A woman wearing pants? Unthinkable. A woman spending the night high on a mountainside with men other than her husband? Scandalous. But Lily Bristow didn’t wait around for things to change. She joined climbing parties with Mummery and his wife, Mary, eventually topping some of the most cutting-edge routes in the Alps at the time-without guides.
Bristow burst onto mountaineering scene by traversing the Aiguille de Charmoz with the Mummerys in 1982, becoming the first woman to conquer the Charmoz, along with Mary Mummery. But it was the next year that saw her really pushing alpine boundaries.
Though little is recorded of her pre-mountaineering life, Bristow made an impression on those who saw her in the alpine. As she returned from summiting the Rothorn, the local villagers didn’t believe she had actually summited, insisting she had mistaken a grassy knoll for the peak itself: “Non, Mademoiselle, pas possible!”
Rumor has it Mummery was later forbidden by his wife to climb with Bristow. Whether or not that’s a myth, their climbing partnership dwindled, and Bristow’s mountaineering career faded after Mummery’s death in 1895 on Nanga Parbat.