Exploring women’s climbing; from London to the Dolomites of Beatrice Tomasson

Leah Crane with Angela Soper at the Women's Climbing Symposium

Leah Crane with Angela Soper at the Women’s Climbing Symposium

I recently attended the 2013 Women’s Climbing Symposium at the Arch Climbing Wall in London. My report on the event for the BMC can be read here and photos of the day are up on the Arch Climbing wall’s Flickr site here.

The event, which is in its 3rd year, is dedicated to ‘connecting, developing and inspiring women in climbing’ and we certainly all left feeling better informed, inspired and more connected to other female climbers.

I often climb at The Arch, and a (male) friend who I regularly climb with, jokingly complained ‘it’s not fair… there are no events for men like this, with some of the top athletes in the game all in one room! ’ Well, tough luck boys- as in my opinion- exploring the female experience of anything- let alone climbing is often neglected. For centuries we’ve mostly heard things from the masculine point of view and historians are now busy rewriting the past with the female perspective included.

The symposium opened with a fascinating talk by Angela Soper, ex-president of the women only Pinnacle Club. Angela described the evolution of female climbing culture since the 1900’s and what we need to go forward.  For more interesting reading on the subject, Angela recommended  The Pinnacle Club’s: History of Women Climbing by Shirley Angell, Rising to the Challenge: 100 years of the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club by Helen Steven and Space Below my Feet, by Gwen Moffat. Anyone interested international female only climbing meets should also get in touch with Rendez  Vous Hautes Montagnes.

The talk reminded me of a trip this summer to Alta Badia, where I attempted to walk/climb in the footsteps of one of the early contributions to the climbing history of the Dolomites- yes- you’ve guessed it- a woman.

Beatrice Tomasson and guide, Arcangelo Siorpaes, in Cortina ,1898

Beatrice Tomasson and guide, Arcangelo Siorpaes, in Cortina ,1898

In early 1900s there were a handful of ambitious female climbers in the Dolomites vying for new routes- women such as Ilona and Rolanda von Eötvös and Käthe Bröske, who were instrumental in a number of first ascents.  You can find out more about them and climb some of their pioneering climbs with Dolomite Mountains.

My focus however was on Beatrice Tomasson, who made the first ascent of the south face of Marmolada (650m / 2,133′, Grade 5) the highest mountain in the Dolomites, with the guides Michele Bettega and Bortolo Zagonel in 1901. This route is one of the great classics of the Dolomites and is long and involved. It was Tomasson who had done all the groundwork, exploring the line with various guides until she finally succeeded with Bettega. They completed the climb in a single day and during a storm – an impressive feat for the time and a major step forward in climbing.

Despite being one of the major promoters of climbing between the 1800’s and the 1900’s, she was seldom referred to in the Alpine Journal. The daughter of an industrialist, she was a good horse rider and worked as a Governess for families of Prussian generals and the English nobility. At 62 year old she married a Scottish noble. Tomasson started her Alpine career in 1892 in the Austrian mountains with Edward Lisle Strutt (who was the head of the first English expedition to Everest in 1922). From 1896 she made various important ascents in the Dolomites, taking the lead on over 100 climbs.


The Torre Berger (2861m) ® FREDDY PLANINSCHEK

My initial plan was to follow in her footsteps and climb the ‘Dënt de Mezdì’ (teeth of the Mezdì valley,) in the Sella Group. However, walking to the Dent would have taken several hours. As I only had half a day or so, we opted instead to climb the Torre Berger (2861m), which offered impressive views across the Sella mountains.



I’m met by guide Francesco Tremolada and we take the Sass Pordoi cable car up, watching climbers on its south face. The limestone rock faces of the Dolomites are some of the largest and most accessible in Europe, yet they have a more wild, backcountry feel than other busy mountain playgrounds.

150-® FREDDY PLANINSCHEK   2013Walking from the lift station across the moon- like landscape for about 30 minutes, we reached the Piz Boe hut. There was still more snow around than usual for this time of year, and the mountains reminded me of a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. Francesco says he loves them as despite being small, which means they are great for children and not too long a walk in, for more ambitious climbers there is all the technical climbing you could want. We stopped for a hot drink and continued on for about 20 minutes to the impressive needle that is the Torre Berger.

180-® FREDDY PLANINSCHEK   2013The scramble down to the base of the Torre Berger was actually more nerve wracking than the climb itself, with loads of loose scree. But the climbing was enjoyable, juggy, with great exposure and no particularly hard sections.



We made the top in three pitches and were rewarded with stunning views across the Sella range, although we could barely make out the Dent du Mezdi itself as it was far in the distance.

125-® FREDDY PLANINSCHEK   2013When we reached the top of our climb, we found, encased in a metal box, an old, damp book and pencil for climbers to write down their names and date of ascent. The last entry was dated 1997.

@Francesco Tremolada

Berger tower, SellaClearly  (and judging by the loose approach) we were climbing where no one had been for years. An adventure in itself and a very picturesque one at that…and perhaps in the spirit of Beatrice Tomasson  herself.

More pictures of the trip can be seen on my Google Plus page here.

One response to “Exploring women’s climbing; from London to the Dolomites of Beatrice Tomasson

  1. Pingback: La “Distintissima alpinista” | I camosci bianchi·

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