“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.
In 1893, she climbed and traversed the Grépon without a guide, making its second-ever traverse following Mummery’s first ascent two years before. It was this ascent that warranted Mummery’s “easy day for a lady” comment. Mummery went on to write that Bristow’s smooth style on the Grépon “showed the representatives of the Alpine Club how steep rocks should be climbed.” In fact, Bristow also hauled a bulky camera all the way to the top to record the ascent, of which she took six photos, only one of which was eventually developed and turned out. It was an action shot of Mummery leading the way.
“It was more difficult than I could ever imagine—a succession of problems, each one of which was a ripping good climb in itself,” she wrote of the Grépon. On the descent, the party was caught in a storm, and spent a sopping, windswept night in a cramped tent on the mountain, but in a letter portraying the trip, Bristow portrays little other than excitement over the conquest.
That year, she also topped out on the Petit Dru, the Zinal Rothorn, and the Matterhorn. She went guideless, even taking the lead for much of the way up the Dru, having watched a descending party’s route from the col the previous evening. Bristow commented, “The climbing was pretty stiff, I must say, though not nearly so difficult as the Grépon, which is a real snorker.”
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.