Mountain time: looking out at the Engelhörner range, Wetterhorn, and Wellhorn

After nearly a year of living in Meiringen, the mountains I see every day are becoming familiar friends. Yet naming them and knowing their history is another story, something I’ve become more and more ashamed of.

I decided to do something about that this afternoon, as the weather turned and the prospect of my own mountain adventures became slightly less appealing.

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The first step of my mountain research project, trying to make sense of a map, is quickly replaced by getting the PeakFinder Earth app on my phone. I see that there are forty-two visible peaks from my house and cheer. That’s definitely one affirmation of why I love living here. For today, I focus on the mountains I can see from my dining room window.

To the left there are the jagged contours of the 4 k.m. long Engelhörner range. It’s made of compact limestone, which sets it apart from many of its neighbours, explains the unusual formations, and makes it decent for climbing. 

If I leave my curtains open, these mountains are the first thing I see every morning. They’re especially beautiful when there’s fresh snow out there.

 The Engelhörner mountain range.
The Engelhörner mountain range.

Then, there are the snowy peaks that I must have spent dozens of hours looking at: the Wellhorn and the Wetterhorn.

 The intimidating rock face on the left is the Wellhorn (3,191 m). And the pointy peak on the right-hand side is the Wetterhorn (3,692 m)
The intimidating rock face on the left is the Wellhorn (3,191 m). And the pointy peak on the right-hand side is the Wetterhorn (3,692 m)

Winston Churchill, it turns out, climbed the Wetterhorn in 1894, aged 19. Churchill’s presence is a very interesting thing to ponder when looking out of my window. But, looking over at the Wetterhorn now, I’m more interested in an ascent twenty-eight years before, by the first woman to reach the summit: an Englishwoman sharing my first name, Lucy Walker. 

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Walker began her climbing rather modestly, when she was advised by her doctor at age twenty-two to take up walking as a cure for rheumatism. However, the Wetterhorn was a small victory for her. She was the first woman to climb the Eiger in 1864, aged twenty-eight. Then, she set her sights on Switzerland’s most iconic mountain: the Matterhorn.

It was 1871, and Meta Brevoort, a New Yorker, had set out to try and cinch the title of first woman up the Matterhorn. But Lucy Walker was already in Zermatt. She got word of her intentions before she arrived, quickly assembled a team and, in her long skirt, became the first woman to reach the summit.

Four days later, Punch magazine dedicated a poem to her – as opposed to one of the satirical cartoons they’re perhaps best known for. It was entitled, “A Lady has Clomb to the Matterhorn’s Summit”:

No glacier can baffle, no precipice balk her,
No peak rise above her, however sublime,
Give three times three cheers for intrepid Miss Walker,
I say, my boys, doesn’t she know how to climb!

When reading about Lucy Walker, I especially loved this quote from Alpine historian Clare Roche with the British Mountaineering Council:

She and her brother went to the Alps together in 1858 and she clearly was not going to accept being left in the valley or hotel whilst her father and younger brother went out on the hill. In the Alps she lived a different life, had a different ‘way of being’ to that at home in Liverpool. The Alps allowed her a freedom. Today there are still subtle… and not so subtle… ideas of what is or is not suitable for men or women. We need to follow Lucy’s brave, independent [and] even iconoclastic actions and ignore artificial restrictions that might impinge on our lives – on or off the mountain.

— Clare Roche, Alpine Historian. Interviewed by The British Mountaineering Council.

I’ve written before about the echoes of Tolkien in Meiringen and around the Berner Oberland, and looking at my local mountains – and thinking of the climbers that have ascended them – is somewhat similar.

The magic of a mountain is one part natural sublimity, another part history; including the courage of those who have summited them. And there’s a particular type of courage that comes from a skirt-wearing Victorian Englishwoman who has taken in the view from the very top.

I’d like to keep reminding myself to look outside and think of that.