High Heels at High Altitudes

Elizabeth Main Le Blond carted a camera with her whenever she went mountain climbing, documenting the many expeditions she led.  Image Courtesy the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

Elizabeth Main Le Blond carted a camera with her whenever she went mountain climbing, documenting the many expeditions she led. Image Courtesy the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Ginger Rogers, cartoonist Bob Thaves once said, did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.

Although her name isn’t particularly well known to most Kansans, something similar could be said about Elizabeth Main Le Blond: she did everything male mountain-climbers did, all while wearing floor-length skirts and heeled boots.

Le Blond was a pioneer in women’s mountaineering between 1881 and 1903. She devoted much of her life to battling the prejudice facing women climbers.

She was pretty successful, too, leading the first “man-less” summit of the Alps, defying the conventional wisdom that women were too weak to be mountaineers. In fact, according to the Women’ s Museum of Ireland, Le Blond’s home country, the all-male Alpine Club would eventually declare that her abilities were “‘never surpassed…in any mountaineer, professional or amateur, of the so-called stronger sex.’”

Her passion for climbing led to an interest in photography, too. Wanting to share her beloved sport with the world, Le Blond soon began hauling a camera up the mountains with her, producing thousands of photographs documenting the beauty of the high-altitude landscapes she loved.

Although Le Blond climbed year-round, she was best known as a winter alpinist. Living much of her adult life in Scandinavia, she developed interests in other winter sports, too, and became the world’s first sports filmmaker—female or male—when she produced 10 films covering the topics of bobsledding, figure skating, hockey, and tobogganing.

The films, sadly, seem to have been lost to time, but Kansans interested in learning more about Le Blond can plan a visit to the Martin & Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, which houses a collection of more than 2,000 of Le Blond’s photographs and personal archives. Some of the photos can be seen in Queen of the Mountain, a gallery dedicated to Le Blond’s mountaineering adventures.