‘Not quite a Lady’s expedition’
Anne Lister's climb of Mont Perdu
Marlene OliveiraPublished on 26 August, 2023 · Last updated on 26 August, 2023
Anne Lister was a keen traveller who enjoyed a good adventure and didn't shy away from climbing mountains. She had been impressed by the Alps when she travelled in the region in 1827 and at the time her heart was set on Mont Blanc, but that ascent would never materialise.
By the time she was studying in France in the early 1830s, Anne had climbed five mountains, all of them in the British Isles. Her ascent of Ben Nevis (1,345 m or 4,413 ft) had been her greatest achievement in mountaineering to date. However, in the spring of 1830, Anne started to think about a trip to the Pyrenees, which she debated undertaking with Lady Stuart de Rothesay as her companion. Unbeknownst to her, this would lead her to yet another impressive achievement in her career as a mountaineer: the ascent of Mont Perdu.
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A summer adventure
In the summer of 1830, Anne Lister headed to the Pyrenees. She was accompanied by Lady Elizabeth Stuart de Rothesay (1789-1867), who was the wife of the British ambassador in Paris at the time, and the two children of the couple, Charlotte and Louisa. What had started as a normal sightseeing tour started to evolve into a complicated situation a few days later when Anne and her companions learned about the July Revolution on the 28th of July 1830, whilst at Bordeaux. As usual, Anne makes a few comments in a few short encoded lines, remarking on how the news was a "great sensation in Bordeaux" (Lister 1830 Jul 29). Then they travel forwards to Tarbes via Auch and Anne catches a first glimpse of the Pyrenees from a hill above Vicnau.
By the 2nd of August 1830, the situation in Paris and indeed in other parts of France remained tense. It is when she’s trying to exchange a couple of circulars with the banker in Tarbes that Anne learns about the true dimension of the problem. The banker discreetly talks to Anne about the effects of the July Revolution, which were still being felt throughout the country. The French government was still nonexistent and “the majority of deputies wanted to govern and the majority with the king at their head were determined not to let them” and thus no newspapers and only a few letters had reached Tarbes in the preceding eight days (Lister 1830 Aug 2). The banker also mentions the casualties of the revolution “said to have been thirty thousand people killed in Paris”, but he reassures Anne that the best course of action is to stay in the Pyrenees region and, under no circumstances, cross the border to Spain at that moment in time as it would be wiser to wait a few days (Ibid.). In her journal, Anne observes:
Later that day, when Anne reaches Lady Stuart de Rothesay and the rest of their party at Pau, it becomes evident that a decision must be made as to what they would do about their travels. Returning to Paris might be too dangerous and staying at or near Pau might yet prove equally risky. Lady Stuart’s nervousness in the face of uncertainty is recorded by Anne in her journal:
Lady Stuart expresses her concerns to Anne and mentions her plans to return to England in haste if the situation deteriorates further. However, Anne is of a different opinion:
The sparse news coming from the French capital was often delayed by a few days and did not prove helpful for their decision-making. A letter from Lord Stuart, dated the 29th of July 1830, reporting on the “carnage then going on” in Paris finally reached them on the 3rd of August, just after they had been informed by Colonel Napier that it was “all quiet in Paris and Bordeaux and a provisional government formed in the former Charles Lafitte, Lafayette, Odier, and 5 or 6 others -” (Lister 1830 Aug 3). Regardless, Lord Stuart’s advice was still valid: the women were not to return to Paris yet (Ibid.).
They were still at Pau when, on the 5th of August 1830, a letter from Lord Stuart de Rothesay finally arrived with more advice for his wife. He considered the Pyrenees region safer than Paris at the time and advised the women to proceed with their travels (Lister 1830 Aug 5). Furthermore, he remarked that he would eventually meet them at Nice a few weeks later and, from there, he would escort the women back to the French capital (Ibid.). So the women stay a few more days and mingle with the local society.
On the 7th of August 1830, Lady Stuart de Rothesay tells Colonel Napier that they should leave on the following Tuesday, much to Anne's surprise (Lister 1830 Aug 7). On asking Lady Stuart about this, Anne is told that nothing is definitive yet (Ibid.). As the days passed and no decisions were made, Anne's frustration at her limitations borne out of wanting to please polite society also grew and she inevitably became more restless. On one occasion, she recounts an episode from her 1827 adventures:
Growing frustrated as she found herself unable to exercise and explore, Anne continues to unburden herself in her journal:
Anne’s travels in the Pyrenees in 1830
From Pau, the women travelled to Eaux-Bonnes, which was a small spa town in the Pyrenees. There, Anne observes that "everything to be seen is at Eaux-Chaudes" (Lister 1830 Aug 11).
The party then goes to Eaux-Chaudes and Anne's comments about the town provide a fairly detailed description of what it looked like at that point in time.
After some debate as to what to do at Eaux-Chaudes and a quick conversation regarding travel times to Gabas, Anne decides to order a horse and a guide to explore the area around Eaux-Chaudes. Finally, Anne has an opportunity to get some exercise. She takes some time to admire the landscape, visit cascades and grottoes, go on an adventure in a cave, and observe the valley of Laruns.
Anne and her party spend a few days in this area and then they finally make their way to Saint Sauveur. It is there that Anne finally hires a Pyrenean mountain guide: Jean-Pierre Charles (1796 - 1842).
Anne Lister’s first glimpse of Mont Perdu happened when she walked to the summit of the Pic de Bergons on the 19th of August 1830. Accompanied by Charles as she made her way to the top of Bergons, she seized the opportunity to have a look at the surrounding landscape. That day, the weather seemed to cooperate and the two enjoyed a good view of the surrounding mountains.
Atop the Pic de Bergons, Anne compares yet again the Pyrenees with the Swiss Alps, which she had admired in 1827 when she travelled around the area with Maria and Jane Barlow.
After walking to the summit of the Pic de Bergons, Anne and Charles spend some time touring the area around Barèges and Saint-Sauveur. Charles takes Anne on walks, hikes, and quick tours of the surrounding Pyrenean towns. As she explores and gets to know this area of the Pyrenees, Anne takes her time to make observations about her surroundings and points out churches and monuments, remarking also on the spectacular views she enjoys along the way.
It is not surprising that, on the 23rd of August 1830, she's preparing for another adventure: a climb to the Brêche de Roland. For this expedition, Anne acquired a pair of crampons, which would re-emerge almost a decade later, in 1838, when Anne climbed Vignemale.
The Brêche de Roland or Roland's Breach is a natural gap in the rock that serves as the border between France and Spain. The Brêche is located near the Cirque de Gavarnie and stands at an elevation of 2,804 metres, measuring 40 metres across by 100 metres high (“Roland's Breach”, n.d.). Legend attributes the creation of the Brêche to Roland - one of Charlemagne's paladins (Ibid.). A myth in particular states that Roland cut this opening on the rock so he could see France one last time before he perished after being pursued by Saracens on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and lost his horse whilst trying to escape (Díaz 2011).
On the 24th of August 1830, Anne and her party travel to Gèdre and thence to Gavarnie. The excursion was intended as a sightseeing and sketching tour that would allow them to enjoy the Cascade de Gavarnie and its environs.
As usual, Anne had some observations about Gavarnie, the cascade, and the environs:
Once they're done exploring and sketching the pretty Pyrenean landscape at the cascade, the party returns to the Inn at Gavarnie. There, Anne informs Lady Stuart de Rothesay that she's not to be expected until the following Saturday at dinner time (Lister 1830 Aug 24).
Anne had previously gotten the final preparations done at Gèdre, so all that was left for her to do now was wait.
The Brêche de Roland and the Spanish side of the Pyrenees
Monte Perdido, or Mont Perdu in French, is a mountain on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. It rises to 3,355 metres (11,007 ft) and is the third-highest mountain in this range (Wikipedia 2022). The first ascent of this snow-clad peak is attributed to Rondo and Laurens, two guides from Barèges, who were scouting a route to the summit (Beraldi 1898-1904, 75). This route would then be used by the celebrated naturalist and mountaineer Ramond de Carbonières, who reached the summit of Perdu on the 10th of August of 1802 (Ibid.), accompanied by these two guides. Interestingly enough, Anne doesn't seem to have mentioned Rondo and Laurens’ or Ramond’s ascents of Perdu in her journal entries of 1830. However, in a letter to her aunt on the 13th of September 1830, it becomes evident that Anne was aware of Ramond's ascent:
Anne’s adventure started early on the 25th of August 1830 with a quick breakfast and a ride “to the foot of the corniche” en route to the Brêche de Roland (Lister 1830 Aug 25). When they’re halfway to the Brêche, Anne’s party stops to eat and rest for a moment. Anne takes some time to make observations about the view, which she recorded in her travel journal.
The party resumes their ascent towards the Brêche de Roland and reaches the glacier a little after ten in the morning, where they once again stop to eat and rest. Anne remarks that she feels comfortable despite the glacier and the cold air. A little while after they’re crossing the glacier.
From their vantage point, they can see the surrounding mountains. Once again, Anne comments on the view:
When she finally climbs the steps they cut on the ice with the ice axe, Anne slips and apparently falls into the Brêche de Roland. After getting herself upright, she is rewarded with a stunning view of the Spanish side of the Pyrenees:
Looking at the rock at the Brêche, Anne makes a note of the inscription left by the Duchesse de Berri and her party at the foot of the right wall just two years earlier.
The descent from the Brêche proves rather difficult for Anne and her party:
They make their way forward for another hour and a half. When Anne leans on a rock to rest for a moment, she once again observes the Pyrenean landscape, this time on the Spanish side.
Two Spanish shepherds approach the group and strike up a conversation with Anne’s guide, Charles. This serves as a good opportunity for Anne to snooze for a moment after writing some notes in her travel journal. Nearby, their contrabandier (smuggler) decided to do the same and snored audibly. After her little nap, Anne eats some chocolate she had carried with her and the party is moving again. They arrive at the cabane at Goriz a few minutes before four in the afternoon.
After having a quick look at their accommodation for the night, Anne goes outside again and admires the view of the Pyrenean landscapes on the Spanish side of the border.
Anne’s climb of Mont Perdu
The 26th of August 1830 started very early for Anne Lister. Having slept very little after dining and laughing with her guide and two shepherds at the cabane de Goriz, Anne was awakened a little after 1 a.m. when Charles mistakenly thought it was much later. The party would only leave the cabane around 3 20/’’ and they’d start their ascent of Mont Perdu in a perilous way: by candlelight.
If progress had been slow before, now it became more arduous:
Anne had finally conquered the summit of Mont Perdu and she took the time to observe the landscape from her vantage point.
Though Anne had completed one of the greatest mountaineering achievements of her career, the description of her ascent recorded in her journal was relatively brief (merely four lines).
The travel journal entries from that day, cited throughout this section, provide many more details than she included in her main journal entry. The travel journal also includes a draft of Anne's accounts for this part of her travels, which isn't included in the surviving main account book and private day book from that period. In these travel journal accounts, Anne adds a note regarding the payment to the contrabandist who accompanied them to the summit of Mont Perdu:
However, it is in a letter to her aunt that Anne elaborates on her motivation to undertake this climb as well as her feelings when she reached the summit of Perdu.
After her climb of Mont Perdu, Anne and her guides return to the cabane at Goriz and rest. She sits on the same rock she had used as a makeshift bench the day before and observed that she was "glad to have finished [her] ascent to the Mt. Perdu instead of having it to begin" as she felt "a good deal fatigued" (Lister 1830 Aug 26). She tried to drink some water and get some rest, but the sun was too hot and prevented her from sleeping outside and she "would not venture to sleep in the cabin" (Ibid.). Almost a decade later, Anne would remember this day and remark to Lady Stuart de Rothesay:
From Goriz, Anne and Charles, accompanied by two Spanish shepherds, would descend into the valley of Ordesa.
Charles and Anne would eventually arrive in Torla, a town on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. On the way, they cross the river Ara via the Puente de la Glera and are followed by children.
On arriving at Torla, Anne is asked for her passport, but a merchant she and Charles had met previously vouched for her.
Anne and Charles would spend the night at Torla and take some time to rest. Anne would also take the opportunity to have "a good wash of my person" (Lister 1830 Aug 27). The following day, Anne's papers are inspected by a Captain from Broto, who had been told that Anne was travelling around and making military sketches.
With this matter cleared, Anne would explore a little bit of Torla during that day and she also tried the Spanish hot chocolate:
The two departed Torla in the afternoon of the 27th of August 1830 and made their way back to France via the Port de Bujaruelo or, as she writes, Port de Bouchero. At the port, Anne gets to stand in two countries at once:
Anne spends the following night at Gavarnie and rejoins the Stuart de Rothesay party on the morning of the 28th of August 1830. That evening, she'd sit and talk with Lady Stuart de Rothesay and that's when Anne tells her travel companion about the ascent of Mont Perdu.
After they left Saint Sauveur, Anne and her party travelled eastwards and settled for a time at Bagnères de Bigorre. From there, Anne would embark on a few excursions around Bagnères de Luchon and cross into Spain again, where she would eventually run into some trouble with a Spanish Customs Officer at Benasque. On the 2nd of October 1830, she would meet the Stuart de Rothesay party again at Saint Gaudens. After being lectured by Lady Stuart de Rothesay due to her unfortunate encounters with officers of the law in Spain, Anne writes:
Anne Lister would leave the Pyrenees that day and the party would then travel to Toulouse and thence to other towns in the south of France. Anne herself would stay away from the Pyrenees for almost a decade. She found herself back in the Pyrenees in the summer of 1838. This time, Anne was accompanied by Ann Walker, who had been prescribed baths in the thermal springs of the Pyrenees to cure an ailment (Lister 1838 Jun 4). When the two ladies arrived at Saint Sauveur on the 9th of July 1838, it became evident that Anne had left an impression in the minds of the locals.
After Anne’s pioneering ascent of Vignemale, and whilst she tries to prove that she reached this summit before the Prince de la Moskowa, she encounters another aubergiste (innkeeper) who was aware of her climb of Perdu:
Earlier that same day, Anne makes one rare comment about people’s reactions to her ascent of Perdu:
It seems that the intrepid Yorkshire mountaineer left an indelible impression in the minds of the locals in 1830, which her Vignemale adventure of 1838 and subsequent proof and recognition of her achievement cemented for posterity.
Archival documents and Mont Perdu
When Anne Lister went to Mont Perdu, she took very little baggage with her. Though she doesn't make a very detailed description of the items she took, some of them are mentioned in the journal and travel journal pages in which she recorded her adventure for posterity. Items such as her crampons, her Maclean tartan cloak, and her great cloak are mentioned in connection to the ascent of Mont Perdu. But what about her papers?
On the 25th of August 1830, Anne comments that she sat on a rock eating chocolate and looking at her map (Lister 1830 Aug 25). This map is not, unfortunately, the same she used in 1838 as that one had been acquired that year along with Anne's copy of Vincent de Chausenque's book (Lister 1838 Jun 29). However, two other items can be proven to have gone to Mont Perdu with Anne: one of her travel journals from that trip and her passport.
As she travelled around in the Pyrenees, Anne diligently made notes in her travel journal. These notes were often copied into her main journal. However, in a few journal entries about this trip, there's a clear separation between the level of detail that goes into the main journal and what Anne kept in the travel journal. Her journal entries are often less detailed and more focused on the social aspects of her travels with Lady Stuart de Rothesay, whereas the travel journals keep the details and observations about the places Anne visits along the way.
Given its ubiquitous nature as a place to safeguard notes in the heat of the moment, the travel journals are relatively small volumes and would easily travel with Anne without becoming cumbersome. Her notes in the travel journals from this period are often made in pencil and inked later on in an attempt to preserve them. In the case of the travel journal in use when she went to Mont Perdu (SH:7/ML/TR/6), most of the notes were written in pencil and many were also crossed off after Anne transposed some or all of their contents onto the main journal.
In reading this travel journal, it becomes evident that one note that occupies a page and a half is penned by someone other than Anne Lister herself.
The note was written by a captain from Broto, who had inspected Anne's papers in Torla, after she had climbed Mont Perdu. Considering that Anne went to Torla from Mont Perdu and that this same travel journal includes the pencil notes of her expedition, it is safe to say that the travel journal went with Anne to the summit of that mountain and then continued to travel with her until she ran out of space to make notes in it.
The other item that went with Anne Lister to Mont Perdu is her passport from 1830. The document was made in the spring of 1830 and included travel permits from various embassies, such as that of Spain. As Anne travelled, the document would be checked by the authorities and new stamps and notes would be added to it. In the summer of 1830, this document accompanied Anne to the Pyrenees and it was also checked by the Spanish authorities when she went to Torla in August 1830.
When Anne returned to France after her short expedition in Spain, her interest in that side of the Pyrenees didn't abate. In fact, she became more interested in Spain and even considered travelling to Barcelona by diligence (Lister 1830 Sep 10). Those plans didn't materialise, but Anne did indeed return to Spain again. This time, she went to the source of the river Garonne and stopped at Viella. It is there that her passport was checked and stamped as we can see below.
Since she never changed passports and brought this document to Torla (after climbing Perdu) and later to Viella, it's safe to say that this is indeed another document that survived the climb of Mont Perdu.
Thus, we can say that both the travel journal and the passport went to Mont Perdu with Anne Lister and are seemingly the sole surviving items from that trip.
Beraldi, Henri. 1898-1904. Cent ans aux Pyrénées - vol 1. Paris: Impr. de L. Danel.
Díaz, María. 2011. “Leyendas de Huesca: El Salto de Roldán - Clubrural.” Club Rural. https://www.clubrural.com/blog/leyendas-de-huesca-el-salto-de-roldan/.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 5. Journal entry 5 August 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0072. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 7. Journal entry 7 August 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0074. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 10. Journal entry of 10 August 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0075. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Sep 10. Journal entry of 10 September 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0085. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 11. Journal entry of 11 August 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0075. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 27. Journal entry of 27 August 1830, SH:7/ML/TR/6/0011. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Jul 29. Journal entry of 29 July 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0068. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 2. Journal entry of 2 August 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0070. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 3. Journal entry of 3 August 1830, SH:7/ML/E/13/0071. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 24. Travel journal entry 24 August 1830, SH:7/ML/TR/6/0005. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 25. Travel journal entry 25 August 1830, SH:7/ML/TR/6/0007 and SH:7/ML/TR/6/0008. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1830 Aug 26. Travel journal entry of 26 August 1830, SH:7/ML/TR/6/0009. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1838 Jun 29. Journal entry of 29 June 1838, SH:7/ML/E/21/0134. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
Lister, Anne. 1838 Jun 4. Journal entry of 4 June 1838, SH:7/ML/E/21/0115. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale.
“Roland's Breach.” n.d. Wikipedia. Accessed August 16, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland%27s_Breach.
Wikipedia. 2022. “Mont Perdu — Wikipédia.” Wikipédia. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont_Perdu.
Thank you to Kat Williams and Steph Gallaway for their feedback and assistance in proofreading this article. I would also like to thank the team at West Yorkshire Archive Service, Calderdale, for kindly allowing me to reproduce the images from their collections included in this article.
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