by Rachel Colenso
pics by Hilton Davies Collection
In 1901, a determined British governess, Beatrice Tomasson set out to make Alpine history. She employed the services of two keen mountain guides – Bettega and Zagonel – in an endeavour to be the first team ever to ascend the elusive South Face of the Marmolada, one of the great Alpine mountain walls, and the highest mountain in the Dolomites.
They were a strong, fit and experienced team and managed to climb an unforgiving ‘Grand Course’ in the Alps from the base (where they bivouacked) to the summit in just one day. It was a late August evening in 1901 when they reached that summit.
This route, and Beatrice Tomasson’s ascent, which is considered her finest climb, was a huge breakthrough in Alpine climbing at the time, and women’s climbing in particular. It has become known world-wide in the history of climbing. This is one of the very few times in Alpine history that a woman has been in the first party to summit a classic Alpine face. At the time, and for years after, it was considered the most difficult mountain ascent recorded.
There is a museum at the base of the northern slopes of the mountain dedicated to the mountain’s history, including details of Tomasson’s ascent. Also on display are artefacts and photos from the Great War, where more soldiers lost their lives surviving the harsh winters high on the mountain slopes than through defending their land in battle.
And so it was, in August 2018, our South African team of two fit, strong men (Jeremy Colenso and Hilton Davies) and one keen South African woman set out to follow in Beatrice’s footsteps. Our ice axes were sadly not wooden shafted, and our crampons were slightly more modern, colourful and definitely lighter, but at least I, the woman on the team, had the outfit.