Through the Telescope

Posted on: November 28, 2017

[This story first appeared in Alpinist 60 as part of the Mountain Profile of la Meije. The issue is now available on newsstands and in our online store.—Ed.]

LA GRAVE, AUGUST 24, 1888: Mary Paillon pressed her eye to the telescope's cold lens as she anxiously scanned the ridgeline of la Meije. Morning light cast the upper rock face in shadow. Moments before, the hotelier at the Hotel Juge had shouted that a woman was poised to reach the summit. As Paillon focused on the apex, a figure in silhouette, like that of an overturned wine glass, caught her eye. The British mountaineer Katharine Richardson had just made the first female ascent of la Meije. "It was on this pedestal, on this alpine apotheosis, that I saw [her]," Paillon later reflected. "Destiny led me the discovery of a precious friendship."


Although Mary Paillon and Katharine Richardson started alpine climbing within a year of each other, the two didn't meet for sixteen years. As a child in southern France, Paillon wandered the forested hills of the Grand Chartreuse between Savoy and Oisans with her mother and brother. Paillon began to pursue roped ascents in 1872, two years before the formation of the Club Alpin Francais. "I was an alpiniste before that word existed," Paillon declared in the 1891 Annuaire. Richardson had first visited the Alps in 1871 at seventeen, when she scrambled about the rocks of the Matterhorn's Hornli Ridge. Within a decade, she became known for her speed and endurance. A guide once commented, "She does not sleep, she does not eat, and she walks like the devil."

Emile Rey, Katharine Richardson and J.B. Bich at the foot of the statue of Horace Benedict de Saussure and Jacques Balmat, Chamonix, France, 1890. [Photo] Courtesy of the Alpine ClubEmile Rey, Katharine Richardson and J.B. Bich at the foot of the statue of Horace Benedict de Saussure and Jacques Balmat, Chamonix, France, 1890. [Photo] Courtesy of the Alpine Club

In mid-August 1888, Richardson was in Chamonix when she opened the local paper to a startling announcement: a British woman had arrived in the village of La Berarde, intent on claiming the first female ascent of la Meije. Richardson, with the guides Emile Rey and Jean-Baptiste Bich, had just made the first-ever ascent of the Aiguille de Bionnassay and the first traverse from that peak to the Dome du Gouter: a feat that male climbers had declared "impossible." (The Morning Post later called it the most impressive climb of the season: "The honors of 1888 fall to a lady.") Anxious that another woman might beat her to la Meije, Richardson and Bich set out in haste for La Berarde. "When she arrived," Paillon recalled in La Montagne, Richardson found "that she had been chasing her own shadow, for the lady in question was herself."

Once in town, Richardson enlisted the services of the famous "Pere" Gaspard. The party of three set out from La Berarde at 9 p.m. and continued in a single push—without spending a night at the Chatelleret camp, as all previous parties had done. Because of their rapidity, they had to wait two hours for dawn to break before they confronted the steep rock, but they still reached the summit at 7:30 a.m.

Even after Richardson's death thirty-nine years later, Paillon could recall the hour they finally met: at 6 p.m., August 26, in the hotel dining room. Paillon reflected, "Our acquaintance, which for me had begun through the telescope, gaily cemented itself into friendship." The two made plans to climb together. Soon, Richardson moved into Paillon's house on the family estate in Rhone, France. Amid walks in the hedgerows, cups of tea, and other quiet splendors of ordinary life, they shared stories of enchanted granite ridges and shifting winter light, fragile and dazzling, like a secret between them.

A mutual wanderlust drove Richardson and Paillon to explore innumerable peaks. In 1891, with Rey and Maximin Gaspard, they set out for the first female ascent of the Aiguille d'Arves. Richardson persisted in wearing her dress, which she pinned up to her knees for the more difficult rock. Paillon ditched her dress at the base and climbed in breeches. As the rope brushed against loose stones, a small, egg-sized rock hit Richardson in the head. She concealed the blood with her hand and reassured Paillon that she was all right.

Near the summit, Richardson said to Paillon, "Climb up first! I have the Meije; you take the Aiguille d'Arves." At the apex, with misty eyes, Paillon turned to embrace her friend, "and delivered my soul to the sweet emotions that invaded it," she wrote.

Two years later, with the guides Rey, Jules Mathon and Joseph Pic, they left at midnight under a brilliant moon to attempt the Pic Central of la Meije. Partway up a rocky arete, Paillon noted a tinge of malice in the breeze. Ahead, the verglas glimmered darkly. They switched their goal to the Meije Orientale, where Rey could cut steps in solid ice. This time, Paillon made sure that Richardson tied in ahead of her, so that her friend could have the first female ascent. They spent over an hour on the summit while Richardson sketched the Doigt de Dieu that "looked as if it were going to crush the Etancons Valley," Paillon recalled, "as menacing as [its name], 'The Finger of God.'"

Doigt de Dieu, watercolor. [Image] Katharine RichardsonDoigt de Dieu, watercolor. [Image] Katharine Richardson

Over time, Paillon's eyesight began to fail. In 1897, descending the Pelvoux, she slipped on an icy step. Richardson caught the rope and held her friend, "in perfect alpinist form," Paillon recollected. Afterward, she decided, "The state of my eyes didn't allow me to flirt with danger that way anymore." Richardson, too, gave up alpinism, "so as not to aggravate my pain," Paillon wrote. Try as she might, Paillon said, "I could never convince her to go back on that decision."

In later years, Paillon and Richardson ambled about the lower hills. During the evenings, perhaps Paillon read aloud from her mountaineering articles as her companion bent over a clean sheet of paper, tracing their two figures into the sky. Upon Richardson's death in 1927, Paillon wrote:

This faithful climbing partner has left for her last ascent. Alas, the rope has ripped between us, and while she ascends toward the summit of the hereafter, I have stayed in the deep pit of irreparable mourning, most of all at the hour when "the shadow spreads over the mountain."... The lessons of mountain life, that I started learning with my mother, and completed with my friend, taught me that, at the very least, one must endure...always...just to the end.

[This story first appeared in Alpinist 60 as part of the Mountain Profile of la Meije. The issue is now available on newsstands and in our online store.—Ed.]

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