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Meet history’s most daring female mountaineers

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Anna Brech
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Fancy climbing a mountain? Take inspiration from the best

Since time began, both men and women have been lured by the call of the mountain summit. But it’s men who have generally made the history books.

Female climbers have taken on the same towering peaks and near-impossible feats, but their achievements have often gone unsung. What’s more, many have faced an extra battle with the sexism of a male-dominated world.

But times are changing, and increasingly, the mountaineering world is opening up to everyone: not just crampon-wielding pros, but normal people looking to stretch their limits and achieve something incredible.

Radha Vyas, co-founder of group travel experts Flash Pack, says women make up 70% of customers who’ve booked a mountaineering expedition with the company in the past year.

“Climbing a mountain is a huge act of physical and emotional courage,” says Vyas. “People tend to assume it’s an elite activity, but we’ve seen a lot of beginner routes open up in the past few years.

“With the support of experienced local guides, anyone with a good level of fitness can tackle these trails. You’ll get a workout in the most amazing setting ever, and the sense of achievement at the top is unbeatable.”

With that in mind, we’ve picked out the stories of six amazing female mountaineers to inspire you, along with safe yet exhilarating beginner climbs to try yourself. 

Junko Tabei

When Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei tried to break into the male-dominated world of climbing in the 1970s, few people took her seriously. And when she aired the possibility of climbing the world’s highest mountain, she was told she should be raising children instead.

Undeterred, Tabei formed her own Ladies Climbing Club, and in 1975, became the first woman to summit Everest. “There was never a question in my mind that I wanted to climb that mountain, no matter what other people said,” she says.

She didn’t stop there. By 1992, Tabei became the first woman to conquer the Seven Summits; the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. And in her 70s, she attempted to climb the highest mountain in every country; a gigantum feat that saw her casually tick off 70 peaks worldwide.

Cecilie Skog

Norwegian explorer Cecilie Skog developed a passion for climbing in her teens, and later used her nursing career to fund ambitious summit quests. She is the first woman in the world to complete the “grand slam” of standing on both poles and completing the Seven Summits.

In 2008, Skog’s life changed forever after she lost her husband and adventure partner, Rolf Bae, in an avalanche while they were descending K2 together (10 other climbers perished the same day). During that difficult time, she found her strength again in the Great Outdoors, including a mission to cross Antarctica on skis.

Skog remains one of the most inspiring figures in mountaineering, with a deep love of the natural world. “When I am climbing or bouldering with friends; that is when I am happy. I just can’t get enough of being outside doing these things, it is the best thing in the world,” she says.

Lynn Hill 

American Lynn Hill was one of most iconic faces of the free-climbing movement in the 1980s and 90s. In 1993, her reputation was sealed after she became the first person ever to carry out a free ascent of The Nose, an apparently “impossible” route up the sheer El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park.

Then 32, Hill stunned everyone by pulling off the major milestone (considered by many to be undoable) over a four-day climb. A year later, she topped her own record by achieving the same coup again, this time in just 23 hours.

“When you’re really sticking your neck out, you must be fully responsible for yourself and if you make a mistake there’s nobody to save you,” she says. “You learn to take those risks, when it feels right and when it doesn’t.”

Arunima Sinha

Indian volleyball champion Arunima Sinha lost her leg in a violent train robbery in 2011. Even as she was still recovering in hospital, she vowed to turn the amputation - and her artificial leg that followed - into a strength.

Two years later, aged 28, she became the first woman amputee in history to climb Everest. “When I reached the summit, I felt like screaming at the top of my voice. I wanted to tell the world: here I am. I have saved that moment inside me,” she says.

Sinha dedicated her achievement “to those who lost hope”. At “my darkest hour”, she says, “I decided to challenge myself with the toughest sport. And I chased my dream with passion”. 

Alison Hargreaves

Princess Anne presents a posthumous award for Alison Hargreaves to her husband Jim, in 1995

In 1995, British alpinist Alison Hargreaves became the first woman to hit the summit of Mount Everest without bottled oxygen or fixed ropes; an incredible feat only previously matched by one other person; the Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner.

Her victory was short-lived after she died in a storm on K2 just three months later. At the time, she faced fierce media criticism for “selfishly” choosing such a risky career as the mother of two young children.

Such a backlash was “wrong and incredibly short-sighted,” her daughter, Kate Ballard, later said. “Twenty years later with more equality and thinner glass ceilings, would they have written the same? No.” Hargreaves is now recognised as a trailblazer, who broke down barriers of what it meant to be a woman, a climber and a mum.

Sophia Danenberg

Seattle-based alpinist Sophia Danenberg ended up claiming a world record on a whim. In 2006, she became the first African American and the first black woman from anywhere to summit Everest.

The climber battled bronchitis, frostbite and a storm to reach the top on the unguided ascent, but had no idea that she was making history in the process. “Someone actually had to tell me that I was the first [black woman to reach the summit], I wasn’t doing it for that reason,” she says.

Incredibly, Danenberg achieved this record with just two months’ notice, having just taken leave from her job as a Boeing analyst. “I didn’t train to climb Everest,” she says. “[…] I had already requested the time off from work and I didn’t want to waste two months away from work and not go climbing.”

3 beginner climbs to test your mettle with 

Feeling inspired? Try these safe yet challenging routes with the help of experienced guides, to tap your mountaineer within. 

Rainbow Mountain, Peru

Nestled in the slopes of the Peruvian Andes, “Vinicunca” stands at 5,035 metres above sea level. Climbing this giant is no mean feat - you may well struggle with the thinning air, and a series of icy crevasses - but the extraordinary summit is more than worth the sweat. Camp overnight at altitude (with a private chef and star-gazing) then beat the crowds to hit the peak at dawn, and watch the rainbow layers come glow in turquoise, maroon and golden streaks.

Table Mountain, South Africa

You can actually take a cable car to the flat-topped summit of South Africa’s legendary landmark, but climbing is more fun. There are a number of routes up, and the steep ascent will lead you 1,086 metres above sea level. The mountain is a biodiversity hot spot, so keep an eye out en-route for colourful alpine flowers, and wildlife such as jackal buzzards, booted eagles and African harrier-hawks. At the top, you can see the whole of Cape Town spread out before you on a clear day, with the opportunity to abseil part of the way back down if you’re feeling brave.

The Everest Trail, Nepal

A dedicated crew of porters will support you in this rigorous nine-day hike through the hazy foothills of the Himalayas. Dial down in a world of gilded stupas, fluttering prayer flags and remote Sherpa villages. At a certain point, the trek veers off from the mainstream Everest route, following in the path of mountaineering greats such as Tenzing Norway to the viewpoint at Farak Ri (5,000 metres). Expect stylish alpine inns and a champagne breakfast in the shadow of Everest.

See more climbing adventures at flashpack.com 

Images: Getty, Flash Pack

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.