Pioneers of the peaks
An Irishwoman’s Diary: Scaling ‘Mountain week’
‘At one point, Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed’s personal maid had to be carried out by a mountain guide when their carriage became ice-bound while traversing a 2,757-metre Italian pass.’ Above, the interior of Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed’s tent. Image from In Search of Peaks, Passes & Glaciers – Irish Alpine Pioneers, by Frank Nugent, published by The Collins Press
‘Stop her climbing mountains; she is scandalising all London and looks like a Red Indian . . .” When one Lady Bentinck took pen to paper to express concern about a relative’s antics, she might as well have saved her ink. Lizzie Hawkins-Whitshed not only ignored her grand-aunt’s entreaties in 1879, but fought hard to hold on to her privileges even as she eschewed class convention. This could prove awkward when it involved spending time up crags and in deep snow.
At one point, her personal maid had to be carried out by a mountain guide when their carriage became ice-bound while traversing a 2,757-metre Italian pass. Other staff proved more of a hindrance than a help in enduring the extreme conditions demanded of them by their employer. “One of the species had incessant hysteria whenever I returned late from an expedition,” Lizzie was quoted as observing later, while “another eloped with a courier”. If empathy wasn’ t her middle name, Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed wasn’t lacking in courage. In his new Collins Press history of Irish alpine pioneers, In Search of Peaks, Passes and Glaciers, mountaineer Frank Nugent notes that recovery from a bout of consumption close to Mont Blanc in 1882 had converted her to climbing. She became overwhelmed by a desire to “go up something”, but not just any old peak. She hired two porters and a guide to tackle the formidable 4,208-metre Grandes Jorasses over several days.
Bitten by the bug, she was to become a member of the first recorded unguided, all-female team to climb a major alpine peak, the world’s first known mountain film-maker, author of 18 books, wife to three husbands, and, as Nugent observes, “she seems to have spent a lot of time apart from each”.
Being male of a certain class, with certain access to money, was what drove Irish mountaineering back then, and another Wicklow native, Charles Barrington, is also the subject of Nugent’s book. One of a philanthropic and wealthy Quaker family from Fassaroe near Bray, his main passions were horse racing, hunting, shooting and sailing. Unlike Lizzie, he made just one visit to the Alps, when he was 24 years old. It was one trip to remember, though.
Over a two-day period, Barrington climbed the Jungfrau, the highest peak in the Bernese Oberland, and recorded the first ascent of the Eiger with two Swiss guides, Christian Almer and Peter Bohren from the village of Grindelwald. Barrington never returned to Switzerland, but became owner, trainer and jockey of Sir Robert Peel, the horse that won the first Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in April, 1870 .
He also organised the first hill-running race up and down Sugarloaf Mountain in Wicklow and presented a gold watch he had donated for the event to the winning athlete. A report on his death in the Freeman’s Journal in April,1901 described him as “the best of good fellows in club life”.
It also noted that his Eiger achievement had been for many years “ascribed to an Englishman”. This week, Mountaineering Ireland, national governing body for climbers and hillwalkers, aims to remember the Eigerman when its president Ursula MacPherson lays a wreath with members of Barrington’s family at his grave at Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin. Nugent, former chair of Mountaineering Ireland will make a short address. The occasion on December 11th also marks International Mountain Day, but it may feel like “mountain week” here.
That’s because writer, broadcaster, public speaker and climber of some repute Stephen Venables is due to give the annual lecture in memory of Joss Lynam, whose contribution to Irish climbing and walking spanned 60 years until his death in 2011. Venables was the first Briton to ascend Everest without supplementary oxygen, and his climbing and skiing adventures over four decades have taken him through the Himalaya, from Afghanistan to Tibet, and to the Rockies, the Andes, the Antarctic island of South Georgia, East Africa, South Africa, the European Alps, and, he says, “not forgetting the Dingle Peninsula”.
Among his many books, including his recent autobiography, is the moving story of the journey he and his partner made with their late son, Ollie, who was diagnosed with both autism and leukaemia and died at the age of 12.
“Unlike a mountaineer, pursuing extreme experiences out of choice, he had difficulty thrust upon him: he was forced to be brave,” Venables has written. “For me, too, the journey was far more compelling than any expedition . . .” Stephen Venables speaks at 8pm on December 12th, in the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin. Entry is €10. Early arrival is advised, and online booking is at mountaineering.ie