Who Was the First Woman to Summit Mont Blanc?
In 1838, 44-year-old aristocrat Henriette d'Angeville (accompanied by six guides and six porters) reached the summit of Mont Blanc, opened a bottle of champagne and loosed a carrier pigeon to announce to the world she had ascended to the position of the world's first lady mountain climber.
The fact that Marie Paradis, a young maidservant, had summited with a handful of friends a full 30 years earlier didn't trouble her in the least. Or did it?
Henriette D'Angeville or "The Fiancé of Mont Blanc"
A daughter of the aristocracy, Henriette d'Angeville was also the granddaughter of a gentleman who was guillotined under the French Revolution. Though she was also a staunch royalist, she kept her own head on her shoulders. That didn't keep it from filling with lofty ideas, though, not the least of which was to ascend Mont Blanc, only a short distance from her family's chateau in Geneva.
The project had been forming in her mind for a decade. After all, if a man could do it, why couldn't a woman? As mores raced quickly toward Victorian restraint and the squelching of what little influence women had boasted under the Enlightenment, Henriette was anxious to break away and prove to the world that a woman too could stand atop it.
She nevertheless kept her thoughts to herself, aware that her greatest hurdle would not be the crevasses she'd have to cross or the walls of ice to scale, but the sexist stereotypes that could not only discourage, but prevent women from accomplishing exploits men would, it seemed, prefer to believe only they were capable of.
Indeed, even for men, climbing Mont Blanc was still an altogether extraordinary exploit. The very first ascension had taken place 50 years earlier and while many before and since had attempted it, few succeeded, sometimes at the expense of their guides' lives.
When at last Henriette decided to act, she did so quickly, making plans and carrying them out within the month,
Traveling in Style
Part of Henriette's preparations included designing her own mountain apparel. In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain describes picking up an old lithograph in Chamonix. "I value it less as a work of art than as a fashion-plate. Miss d'Angeville put on a pair of men's pantaloons to climb it, which was wise; but she cramped their utility by adding her petticoat, which was idiotic."
The outfit did weigh 14 lbs / 7 kg, and she could have done without the petticoat (not to mention her feather boa), but it was more efficient than anything else to date, and with it she wore the nailed climbing shoes that got her to the top, though granted it took more effort than Mark Twain's ascent by telescope...
She then arranged for 6 guides and 6 porters to accompany her. The latter were required to get 2 legs of mutton, 24 cooked chickens, 2 loins of veal, a barrel of wine, 6 lbs / 3 kg of chocolate up the mountain, not to mention a large fan should they need to fan her, a small fan should she wish to fan herself, and a mirror so she could straighten her hat.
As the group set out, men below in Chamonix placed bets on just where she would abandon and head back. But the expedition pushed on. After a two-day climb, and despite heart palpitations and an overwhelming desire to sleep, Henriette d'Angeville reached the summit, where she famously engraved in the rock "Vouloir, c'est pouvoir" (where there's a will there's a way).
On returning to Chamonix, Henriette d'Angeville was given an elaborate party and a special guest showed up: Marie Paradis, the local peasant woman who had summitted close to 30 years earlier.
Having made her ascent at the age of 18, the two women were roughly the same age, though Marie is described as being old, no doubt a result of her rugged way of life compared to the pampered lifestyle of her successor.
Who invited Marie to the party is not clear. Henriette may have, though local sources claim it was a surprise. Whether or not Henriette was pleased is also unclear. What is clear, is that Henriette ardently wished to be known as the first woman to ascend Mont Blanc, and failing that, she would only condescend to the woman who had beat her to it.
According to Henriette, Marie told her that she had not climbed of her own accord, that she was pushed and hauled, and only did so for the financial gain that comes with notoriety. She said Marie told her that her friends had encouraged her by saying "Foreigners will come to see you and give you gifts of money which will help you a lot." Henriette, on the other hand, spent money (a much nobler act?), and sought notoriety for itself (a much nobler goal?), even hiring a trio of illustrators to document her exploit.
In light of this, Henriette insisted, Marie could not have been considered to have "climbed" the mountain, and thus she, Henriette, was the first woman to have done so. The proof, according to Henriette, was that even Marie congratulated her on being "the first lady mountaineer".
The True First Female Ascent
So who was Marie Paradis? Little is known about her. Henriette had boasted "Mont Blanc, when I went, had not yet been visited by any woman capable of telling the tale," To a certain extent, she was right.
It was not Marie, a maid servant at the time and most likely illiterate, who would publish her memoir like Henriette later would. But Henriette also used an ambiguous French expression for "telling the tale" (rendre compte) which implied Marie was even incapable of realizing what she'd done. Most sources since have relied on Henriette's unflattering account of Marie.
In his memoir Impressions de voyage, published five years before Henriette d'Angeville's ascent, Alexander Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) tells of a trip to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) glacier with Jacques Payot, a guide from one of the oldest, most respected families in the valley, who painted a very different picture of Marie.
As Dumas' party headed out on the expedition, Payot broke away from the group to speak to an unassuming woman in the street, later running to catch up with the party and apologizing:
"I was with Marie"
"Who is Marie?"
"The only woman to have ever gone up Mont Blanc."
"Who? That woman?" Dumas exclaims in surprise.
Payot then gave a detailed account. In 1809, a group of guides and other locals who had accompanied or seen wealthy strangers head up the mountain since the first ascension 23 years earlier, decided to go up on their own.
The group of six, led by Jacques Balmat, the first man to discover the passage and to make it to the top, convened on a clear Sunday morning for their pleasure trip to the summit. To their surprise, two women showed up to go along. One had a seven-month-old baby, and the men sent her home. But Marie was single and she stood firm. Balmat, who better than any knew the danger but also the tough constitution and pluck of his fellow mountain folk, took the girl by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes:
"So child, are you determined to come along?"
"We can't have any crybabies along, you know that?"
"I'll laugh the whole way up"
Balmat told her she needn't go so far as to laugh her way up, only that she be brave, and honest about how she was feeling so he could pace the ascent. He promised she'd go where they went, even if he had to carry her. They shook on it.
... to "Marie Mont Blanc"
So it was that Marie became the 7th member of what would be only the 8th ascension of Mont Blanc. Payot told Dumas how they had spent the night halfway up like usual, and how Marie slept well. He then described how they scaled a 1400 ft / 425 m. vertical wall of ice using ice picks.
"What about Marie?" Dumas asked.
Payot told him she had brought up the rear, climbing like the rest of them, and that they had thought nothing of it. However as they got closer to the summit, Marie's legs went wobbly (not surprising considering she had just ascended a wall of ice wearing a heavy winter dress, possibly her only one, and town footwear).
She caught up with Balmat and jokingly suggested that if he could pretend he was tired and slow down, she'd appreciate it, which he did. But, parched, she ate a handful of snow, and after another ten minutes of hiking at a slower pace, nausea set in. Balmat took her by the arm and called to another guide to help her continue.
Before they got moving again, another member of the party sat down and said he wouldn't go any further, that he was heading back down. Instead, he began to nod off, the most dangerous thing one can do at freezing high altitudes. Balmat went to shake the man and force him to go on, arguing that everyone down below who was watching through telescopes would see only six people, assume someone had been killed, and be worried to death themselves until they found out who it was.
Meanwhile, Payot took Balmat's place at Marie's arm and they continued with the others to the summit. At the top, Payot said, Marie was faint, but she nevertheless took the time to admire the horizon. Balmat and the other lagger caught up with them, and after another ten minutes, they began their descent.
According to Payot, on arriving back in Chamonix , they found all the town's women gathered to hear Marie's impressions. But the people of the Alps are not prone to boasting and Marie was no exception. She simply told them she had seen so many things that it would take too long to tell. If they were really curious, she suggested they go see for themselves. Not a one took her up on it, said Payot.
Heroines of a Different Nature
Like Jacques Balmat before her, Marie Paradis became a local heroine, and the two were often seen and cited together. After having become the first man to ascend Mont Blanc, Jacques Balmat made a career as a guide. As the first woman to summit Mont Blanc, Marie Paradis became hostess to expeditions coming down off the mountain, providing dinner, drink and a place to swap stories about the new sport of mountaineering, at least for those willing to share...She never went up the mountain again.
Henriette d'Angeville's endeavor to break with the stereotypes of her day was admirable, yet she was unwittingly guilty of another one. In denigrating the accomplishment of her predecessor, a maidservant who used her accomplishment to raise herself to innkeeper, she proved she was still the product of her times, an aristocrat for whom the thought of following in the footsteps of a peasant was unbearable.
That Henriette loved mountains and climbed them with flair, none can deny. She continued mountain climbing until the age of 69, scaling another 21 peaks. In this she may indeed merit the title given her by Marie Paradis: the first lady mountaineer. As for who was the first to climb Mont Blanc and whose conduct was most lady-like, that is another matter...
© 2012 LetitiaFT
M.E. on March 05, 2014:
Hey Letitia, loved your article! I am creating a presentation on women mountaineers in History and I was wondering if I could get some sources from you? Thanks!
LetitiaFT (author) from Paris via California on November 13, 2012:
Thanks so much Marsha, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Admirable women they were, each in their own way!
marshacanada from Vancouver BC on November 03, 2012:
I loved this hub. Thanks Letitia for the well researched and well written story.
DS Duby from United States, Illinois on May 28, 2012:
Absolutely, Maria Paradis was an incredible woman with an even more incredible demeanor she was a credit to the human race. I do believe you are correct that at one time we were on the right track for a while, I'm not really sure when we started backtracking.
LetitiaFT (author) from Paris via California on May 28, 2012:
Thanks Aviannovice, I'm glad the research paid off!
LetitiaFT (author) from Paris via California on May 28, 2012:
Thanks DS Duby. I'm afraid I have to agree that times have changed little. Or rather, I think they were changing in the right direction for a while, and have taken an about face, largely thanks to the media as you've pointed out. Maria Paradis knew who she was and what she'd done, and that's what should count in any life. But I do feel indignant when I see even other sources dismissing her achievement and swallowing Henriette's claim whole!
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on May 28, 2012:
Voted awesome and up, a wonderful account of a little known fact. I commend your research on this one.
DS Duby from United States, Illinois on May 28, 2012:
Very interesting hub, I had never heard of either woman before this. I have to say times still have not changed in many ways many of , the rich still feel they are above the poor and take credit for doing firsts knowing full well someone else had already done it. Only now they use the media to make their claims known, to clear any doubt of their achievements. I vote up and interesting