Anne Lister, a self-assured 19th century English woman with relentless energy and an inheritance, made mountaineering history here. In 1838, she was the first non-local person to climb Vignemale, the second highest peak in the Pyrénées. Lister inherited the income from her family’s farms in England and could afford to hire guides to organize expeditions. Of course the local guides had scaled these mountains regularly and probably their daughters, sisters and wives with them.
Anne Lister decided to try mountain climbing after a walking vacation in Switzerland in 1827. By 1830, she had climbed a few peaks in the Pyrénées Mountains and in 1838, returned to the Southwest for more mountaineering. She was hoping to tackle a mountain not yet conquered by an amateur climber.
Local shepherds and hunters regularly hiked these mountains, and once the foreigners with heavy purses arrived looking for mountain adventures, the shepherds were scouting new routes up the daunting peaks. One guide, whom Anne had hired during previous journeys in the Pyrénées, told her about a route up Vignemale, the crown of the Pyrénées rising behind Cauterets.
Local mountain guides, Henri Cazaux and Bernard Guillembet climbed the 3,298 meters of Grand Vignemale in 1837 via the Ossoue Glacier. They fell in a large crevasse, found their way across a glacier for a free-form descent into the Rio Ara side of the mountain. This circuitous southern route was used by Anne Lister to make the first ascent by a visiting amateur climber.
Though it was August, Anne prepared for cold weather, always wise in high altitudes. Like me, she wore layers of clothing. Unlike me, her garments were capes and petticoats, not pants and fleece jackets. The guides brought along crampons for crossing ice. With her guides, Lister left Cauterets before dawn on August 7, 1838 and pausing only for brief rest stops, the group reached the summit of Vignemale by 1 p.m. They wrote their names on paper enclosed in a bottle left at the summit. That should have been undisputable proof of the accomplishment.
But the next day, Lister’s lead guide escorted Joseph Napoleon Ney, known as the 2nd Prince de La Moskowa and the eldest son of Napoleon’s trusted military general Marshal Michel Ney who was given the title Prince de La Moskowa for leadership during the Napoleonic Wars, to Vignemale’s summit. The guide let the Prince think he was the first amateur climber to reach the top. When Anne discovered the guide’s deception, she refused to pay him until he rectified the matter. The guide admitted to Joseph Ney that he’d lied and signed a certificate asserting Anne had conquered Vignemale first. The proof was the bottle with the signatures and statements by the other guides.
Climbing Vignemale was a point of honor for Anne, but her achievement faded from public notice. Nearly a century later, when women mountaineers were looking for role models, Anne’s diaries were published, revealing the details of her intriguing and adventurous life. I don’t exactly consider her a role model because she had an independent income while I work to support myself. Lister spent a great deal of her time pursuing high-level social contacts, again, not my modus operandi. But I liked the idea that the first recorded non-local to summit Vignemale was made by a woman. And that was one reason for staying near Vignemale; another was the breathtaking scenery and the opportunity to make my own much more modest hikes.