d'Angeville, Henriette (1795–1871)

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d'Angeville, Henriette (1795–1871)

French mountaineer. Born in 1795; died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1871; member of the Beaumonts, a prestigious French family (her father was imprisoned during the French Revolution); lived at Ferney, near Geneva, Switzerland; never married.

The first woman to organize and undertake her own climb, Henriette d'Angeville successfully ascended Mt. Blanc (15,771 ft.) in September 1838, at age 44. She was not, however, the first woman to reach the summit. In 1809, Marie Paradis , an 18-year-old Chamonix maid, made the ascent, but the attempt was not officially acknowledged because she was apparently dragged up the last several stages by her companions while in an altitude-induced semicoma. Noted d'Angeville: "When I went up Mont Blanc it had not been ascended by any woman capable of remembering her impressions."

In the mid-19th century, women did not ride bicycles much less scale mountains. Compounding the dangers of the climb was a prejudice against independent-minded women that might have defeated a less resolute individual. As Durvla Murphy relates in an introduction to d'Angeville's diary, even a robust constitution in a woman was "generally regarded as a peasant quality, not an attribute of which ladies should boast, and certainly not one to be displayed by climbing a mountain most gentlemen preferred to admire from afar." Undaunted by her critics, d'Angeville planned her trek in just 15 days, including hiring her retinue and gathering provisions.

Paradis, Marie (fl. 1808)

French mountaineer who made the first female ascent of Mt. Blanc. Flourished around 1808.

Chamonix's 18-year-old Marie Paradis climbed Mt. Blanc (15,771 ft.) in 1808. Unfortunately, little is known about the young adventurer who has been identified either as the owner of tearooms in Les Pèlerins or as a Chamonix maid. She was lured into making the climb by guides who promised that as the first woman to reach the peak, she would become rich and famous. Reports that she had been dragged half dead to the top turned out to be quite correct. "I just remember it was white all around," she said, "and black down away below, but that's all."

She set off on a Monday morning with six guides, six porters, a mule driver, and a wellstocked caravan of wine, mutton, fowl, and chocolate. Murphy speculates that d'Angeville's

21 pounds of clothing may have posed as much of a hazard as any she would meet on the mountain. "Under a voluminous belted cloak she wore fleece-lined plaid, peg-top trousers and thick woolen stockings over silk stockings. A close fur-trimmed bonnet with a green veil matched a long black boa, a black velvet facemask and deep fur cuffs." Unable to contain the elation of getting under way, she began the trek at a fast pace. "My feet seemed winged," she recorded. "I scarcely walked, I ran! … 'Slowly, slowly!' cried the guides. 'Think of tomorrow.'"

In her detailed account of the experience, d'Angeville noted that it was not the first ninetenths of the climb, but the final ascent to the summit that posed the greatest challenge. After conquering the Mimont rocks, traversing the Bossons glacier, and facing a variety of menacing avalanches and seracs, she was almost defeated by altitude sickness just as her goal was within grasp. Beset by a pounding heart, muscle weakness, and intervals of leaden sleepiness, she was forced to stop and nap every 20 steps until she finally found the strength to drag herself to the peak. Her guides offered to carry her, but she staunchly refused. As she drove her stick into the summit, she experienced a complete revival and, for the next hour, marveled at the spectacle before her. While enjoying the remarkable views, d'Angeville wrote a number of letters to her friends and relatives "to serve as a constant reminder that I had not forgotten them even on the summit of Mont Blanc." Before leaving the peak, her guides formed a seat with their hands and lifted her as high as they could, thus elevating her four feet above the peak, to a height never attained by her predecessors. With rising winds and a storm approaching, the party made its way back to base camp where they witnessed a spectacular avalanche before completing the journey back to Chamonix the next day.

D'Angeville returned home to "a position she enjoyed, having a morbid passion for self-advertisement," notes Claire Elliane Engle in Mountaineering in the Alps. After the climb, one of her first visitors was Marie Paradis (now an old woman), who came to offer congratulations and compare notes. Over the next 25 years, d'Angeville made 21 more ascents, climbing the 10,250-ft. Oldenhorn in the Alps at the age of 69. She died in 1871, the same year Lucy Walker became the first woman to climb the Matterhorn (14,690 ft.).


d'Angeville, Henriette. My Ascent of Mont Blanc. Translated from the French by Jennifer Barnes. London, England: HarperCollins, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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