Inspired by pioneers of the peak

Steve McKennaThe West Australian
The mighty Matterhorn viewed from Zermatt.
Camera IconThe mighty Matterhorn viewed from Zermatt. Credit: Steve McKenna/Supplied

With its distinctive pyramid-shaped peak piercing, or sometimes shrouded by the clouds, the Matterhorn is the most iconic and photographed mountain in the Swiss Alps.

An entrancing sight for travellers, it was, 150 years ago, the scene of one of the most daring feats in mountaineering folklore. On July 22, 1871, only six years after her countryman Edward Whymper reached the 4478m summit, Brit Lucy Walker (1836-1916) became the first woman to make it to the top of the Matterhorn.

Fuelled, it’s said, by a diet of sparkling wine and sponge cake, Walker, inset right, completed the ascent while wearing a long flannel skirt — appropriate attire for a Victorian lady at that time — and despite grumbles from parts of patriarchal society she became a pioneer in female alpinism.

Over a two-decade climbing career, she conquered 28 peaks higher than 4000m, including other legendary Swiss peaks such as the Eiger, as well as Italy’s Balmenhorn and France’s Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain.

Edward Whymper.
Camera IconEdward Whymper. Credit: Supplied/Supplied

There’s more to discover about Walker — and other famous mountaineers, including her American rival Meta Brevoort — at the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt, the village that was a base for Walker’s climb, and is now a glitzy alpine resort rich in high-end boutiques, adventure operators, ski hire shops, hotels, apres-ski bars and restaurants.

Until the mid 19th century, Zermatt was one of the poorest villages in the Alps. Straddling an altitude of 1600m, it would get completely cut off by winter snowstorms and was populated primarily by subsistence farmers, many of whom were superstitious and believed the Matterhorn, which they knew as ds Hore (The Peak), was populated by ghosts and evil spirits and shouldn’t be messed with.

Things began to change when the sport of alpinism grew in popularity, with young men of the British upper and middle classes gravitating to the Alps to go climbing in summer. The Walkers — a wealthy Liverpool merchant family — were among those who enjoyed stretching their legs in the fresh mountain air, and Lucy began to accompany her father, Frank, and her brother, Horace, on excursions.

Lucy Walker.
Camera IconLucy Walker. Credit: Switzerland Tourism and Zermatt Tourism

Soon enough, she wished to spread her wings even further and higher, although Victorian conventions meant it wasn’t seen as acceptable for her to be alone with unrelated males during these excursions, so her climbing parties always included a family member.

For her groundbreaking Matterhorn ascent, she was joined by her father and Swiss guide Melchoir Anderegg. According to alpinist historians, Lucy typically got through several bottles of champagne during expeditions, hydrating on bottles of sparkling bubbles. With the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border, her drink of choice was Asti Spumante, the Italian sparkling wine.

Her habits were all the more incredible when you consider the dangers of these mountains, the altitude sickness and fast-changing weather. On the Matterhorn alone, more than 500 climbers have died on the mountain since Whymper’s triumphant first ascent in 1865 — and even that hike ended in tragedy, due to a rope failure, with four of his party perishing on the descent.

Olivia Jane Wood is preparing to climb the Matterhorn.
Camera IconOlivia Jane Wood is preparing to climb the Matterhorn. Credit: Switzerland Tourism

As a part of the events marking the anniversary of Walker’s feat, on Thursday, another British mountaineer, Olivia Jane Wood, tackled the peak. She spent much of her childhood staring up at the Matterhorn, as her family ran a photography shop in Zermatt, and also owned five St Bernards who played a role in mountain rescues. Wood’s climb is part of the 100% Women Peak Challenge — an initiative by Switzerland Tourism together with its partners, the Swiss Alpine Club (SAC), the Swiss Mountain Guide Association and the Swiss outdoor brand Mammut — that challenges women-only teams to ascend the 48 highest peaks in the Swiss Alps this summer (until September 8).

Wood says: “I hope I am able to motivate other women to pursue their goals when it comes to similar adventures.”

If you don’t fancy yourself as a hardcore hiker — and most Matterhorn expeditions take two-three days with a night in a mountain hut — you can admire the spectacular alpine landscapes from a network of more moderate walking trails.

Around Zermatt there are about 400km of marked hiking routes, with varying degrees of difficulty, climbs and distances for every level of hiker.

And you can also use the train to your advantage. Departing from Zermatt is one of Switzerland’s scenic train rides, the Gornergrat, Europe’s highest open-air cog railway, and the world’s first fully electrified cog railway. In just over 30 minutes, passengers are lifted from Zermatt station to an observation platform 3131m up. Here you’ll have the perfect view of the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s highest peak (Dufourspitze, 4634m) and dozens of other breathtaking alpine pinnacles.

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For more information on visiting Switzerland and Zermatt, see myswitzerland.com and zermatt.ch/en

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