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Anne Lister’s Historic Hike

She ascended the highest French Pyrenees summit, defying preconceived notions about women's athleticism.

portrait of Anne Lister, left, along with a photograph of the Pyrenees mountain range
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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The prominent social attitude of the 1800s towards women outperforming men, or women performing impressively at anything at all, was likely a major part of the reason why a male nobleman was so eager to pick such a fierce fight with a female hiker in the French Pyrenees in 1838, over who climbed a specific mountain first. His egotistical masculine pride, as well as his reputation, was on the line, but he had entered a battle he had already lost. Everyone knew his female adversary had climbed it first, and he was lying. 

This was a particularly famous incident in the history of women’s athleticism. The female hiker not only won the fight but carried away with her the prize of distinction. She would be remembered forever as being the very first person to officially ascend and descend all 10,820 feet of the Vignemale. 

The female hiker in question was the indomitable personality Anne Lister (1791-1840) and she was absolutely the wrong individual to try and pick a fight with. Based in Halifax and born to a steely military man, Lister defied every gender role expectation at the time by operating as a career woman, actively in charge of running her own inherited estate of Shibden Hall, and as a lesbian who had numerous relationships, according to her biographer Anne Choma, the author of Gentleman Jack: The Real Anne Lister

To save money and horsepower, Lister was often spotted tramping about her provincial English community, clad head to foot in functional men’s wear and not carrying a jolt for the opinions of anyone who preferred to see women restricted and grounded at home.

Any form of rigorous outdoor exercise among women in the early 19th century was considered something of a joke. The feminine ideal at the time was frailty. Fainting fits, fanning oneself desperately if just a touch too hot, taking to one’s bed for the slightest flutter of unwellness, and of course, being carted about in fine horsedrawn carriages without having to budge a muscle. Just general physical incompetency, all for the purpose of making men feel superior and responsible for all sorts of manual exertion. 

In author Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudicethere is a notorious scene where Elizabeth Bennet, an unconventionally healthy and fit heroine, travels three miles across the Hertfordshire county by walking through post-rain debris. She arrives at a country manor happily flushed in her cheeks and splattered with mud. For this, she is mercilessly mocked by her peers, who find her escapade extremely odd and unladylike. “She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker,” remarks the snotty Miss Caroline Bingley. “I shall never forget her experience this morning. She really looked almost wild.”  

As delightful as the fictional Miss Bennet’s tomboyish determination is, “an excellent walker” doesn’t even come close to describing what the real-life Anne Lister was. Lister was a master walker, and hiker. Her historic hike up the Vignemale in 1838 was undertaken as a sort of sequel to her previous accomplishment of climbing up the 11,007-foot Monte Perdido in Spain in 1829. If she could do it once, she could (and would) do it again. 

Historian Vivien Ingham, writing for The Alphine Journal, describes in detail the incredible mountaineering feat which occurred on August 7, 1838. Anne Lister and her life partner Ann Walker had traveled to provincial France initially for the purpose of improving Walker’s precarious health. While there, Lister decided to put her own legendary rock-solid constitution to the test. 

The hike up Vignemale was originally scheduled for the 24th and 25th of July, with an overnight stay in a primitive hut, but plan was delayed due to the weather. For a guide she recruited a local man named Cazaux, who knew the terrain on an expert level and charged 20 francs for his services. 

The hike would be, in total, ten hours up and seven hours down. Lister kept a diary for most of her adolescent and adult life, and she naturally did not miss the opportunity to record her journey in minute detail for future reference. Here are some of the excerpts, in her own words, that describe the busy schedule of this most extraordinary day: 

“Off at 2! Sent back the horses at 4·55 ... Breakfast at 4·55 and off at 5.20 on foot. At the first degree at 6.40. Climbed the chimney. Rest at 7·7· for 12 minutes .... At the second degree, that is at the neige at the Cirque, at 8.5. Put on crampons and off again at 8. I8. On the snow without quitting it till 9.8., then rested on a little grassy knoll till 9.20.” 

“Took off crampons at 10.10. Rested on top of second crete at 11 1/4. I lay down a little; put on my cloak and did not feel the air cold. Thick clear all the morning, except about sun-rise and for about an hour .... Off again at 11 3/4! Sick just before.”

“At the top at 1 then descended for ½ hour to see the Rochers à Pic and glacier and Col. . . . Put our names in the bottle and began the descent at 2. 10. At 2.25 down at the snow. At the bottom of the first snow at 2.38. At snow again, where we had left our crampons, and put them on again at 3.10 .... Over the whole and took off crampons at 4.”

“Very fine sunny evening but delightful air. Off again at 4.10, after eating a little. I tried a little bit of bread with my weak brandy and water. . . . Back at the cabane of Saoussats Dabats at 8. 5. Tired, but would have pushed on to Gavarnie, but Charles said it would be dangerous to attempt such a road in the dark.”

The nobleman who challenged Anne Lister’s trailblazing expedition was Napoléon Joseph Ney (1803-1857), a French politician and the Prince de la Moskowa. His family had risen high during the Napoleonic Wars and something of that precious self-image, competitiveness, and entitlement took hold in all his endeavors. 

Lister had deliberately set out to beat him, having heard that he aspired to be the first to climb Vignemale, and at that she had succeeded. The prince was bitter and vengeful at the loss of another title. He retaliated with what can only be described as a petty media war or, in even more modern terms, “false news.” 

The guide Cazaux proved himself to be something of a con artist and a sleaze as well by informing his much-wealthier second patron that Anne Lister had made it only partway up the mountain, and that the “first climb” was still the prince’s trophy to claim. On August 25th the Italian newspaper Galignani's Messenger published an article falsely claiming that the Prince de la Moskowa and his party (which of course included Cazaux) had reached the highest point of Vignemale for the first time in history. 

Anne Lister fought back against guide and prince both. Her campaign for the truth included threatening to take Cazaux to court—she even found a lawyer who persuaded Cazaux to sign an official certificate confirming his trip with Lister—and holding the Messenger accountable for spreading incorrect information. It was Lister’s strength of body that got her up and down Vignemale, and her strength of will that prevented deceitful men from taking away what was rightfully hers. She was, completely and indisputably, the first champion of Vignemale. 

Lister’s resolve to climb mountains and experience new views from outstanding advantage points was well in-sync with the Romantic trends circulating Europe at the time. Previously, in the more practical-minded Enlightenment era, mountains were regarded as something of a nuisance to travelers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs alike. Obstructive. In the way of progress. They couldn’t be cultivated. They couldn’t be fully conquered. 

It was the poets and artists of the anti-industrial counterculture who reclaimed mountains as symbols of unravaged natural splendor which should be regarded with nothing less than awe and respect. In 1817, for example, the poet Percy Shelley published “Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni,” an admiring tribute to the divine humbleness and creative awakening he felt when faced with the Alps in Switzerland: 

“Thou art the path of that unresting sound—

Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee

I seem as in a trance sublime and strange

To muse on my own separate fantasy,

My own, my human mind, which passively

Now renders and receives fast influencings,

Holding an unremitting interchange

With the clear universe of things around.” 

Lister was a devoted reader of Romantic literature, and it was no doubt their influence that spurred her on to walk, climb, and explore the world so vigorously. Like Shelley, she also effectively transcribed her most affecting life events into writing for the convenient use of academics. Once again, as a woman, she was more than a match for the men of her epoch.