A tribute to Chamonix and one of the many lessons I learnt here. Read Time: ~7mins
Standing on the endless white plateau of the Argentiere glacier I silently weighed up my options, hold on and try to forget the universal need to pee or expose my derrière to the elements and the other ski touring groups approaching rapidly. I skied a little away from the skin track and crouched down “at least don’t pee on your ski boots” I muttered to myself, as I wobbled slightly struggling to maintain my balance while wishing to be invisible.
Not for the first time I cursed being born with the inability to pee discreetly while standing upright. “Is this why more women don’t go ski touring/mountaineering/climbing?” I wondered to myself on the next long ascent. Living in Chamonix I had heard plenty about the large numbers of men compared to the very few women populating the town. I found it intriguing. Was it true? Or just a confirmation bias from intoxicated Casanova’s disappointed not many women dared to stray in to TOF, one of the town’s only nightclubs.
The internet seemed full of firsthand accounts of large gender discrepancies in many ski towns. I even found an article promoting a “singles” chalet in Chamonix where due to the gender imbalance, women were encouraged to visit this chalet where they would have their choice of suitable matches. However, the last census of the permanent population of Chamonix in 2015 said the gender discrepancy was negligible, but the large influx of a residence during the season made the results of this census seem somewhat negligible themselves.
A “retired” engineer, I started carrying out my own statistics. At the bottom of La Vallee Blanche there were 26 humans putting skis on packs, 3 of them were female. At Grand Montet I stepped in to a gondola, there were 7 men and me. Sitting in Hotel Buet, at the end of the Berard Vallee a popular ski touring spot there were 18 men and 4 women, two of those women were serving behind the bar. ‘Are all the women working, while the men go skiing?’ I wondered to myself watching the homely French women greet each thirsty ski tourer that walked through the door. I continued to think, ‘Who was the first women to climb Mount Blanc?’ followed quickly by ‘Why did I not know that already?”
The first man to climb Mont Blanc is immortalised in stone in the town centre. Yet, I couldn’t tell you the name of the first women to follow. I was disappointed by wikepedia later. The first women to climb Mont Blanc in 1808, Maire Paradis, became so fatigued on the final ascent she was basically carried up by her guides. Maire was in such poor condition on the summit she wished to be thrown in the nearest crevasse to end her suffering. She was not quite the heroine I was expecting but still noticeably badass considering at the time of her ascent was a staggering 137 years before women even attained the right to vote in France.
The second women to summit, 30 years later, Henriette d’Angeville, was reported to be strong and agile, climbing as well as the men and reaching the summit without assistance. She continued to climb mountains throughout her life her last alpine ascent being Oldernhorn at the grand age of 65. She achieved all this while wearing the most ridiculous outfit one could imagine, reliving yourself must’ve been an effort in such a garment.
The women here in Chamonix, like in my engineering class, seem to excel. If you’re so keen on the mountains, adventuring, and exploring you will show your bare bum to the world on a regular basis, you’re probably going to do it right. There is no shortage of rad women who I aspire to be like, if I ever get around to growing up. I wonder if the key to changing those skewed statistics is simply being there, being present, and being able to talk about our inability to pee standing up or our likelihood to cry when we are scared or our fear of not keeping up. I used to think of these things as weakness, something to hide away or ignore. But the more time I spend in the mountains the more I see the importance of sharing our experiences, good, bad, and ugly, so we can laugh and we can learn. Hi, my name is Felicity and I love to spend time in the mountains, messing about on my skis, and trying not to pee on my ski boots.