Le Blond (née Hawkins-Whitshed; Burnaby; Main), Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Alice Frances (1860–1934), mountaineer, author and photographer, was born 26 June 1860 in Dublin, the only child of Sir St Vincent Bentinck Hawkins-Whitshed, 3rd (and last) baronet of Killincarrick House, Greystones, Co. Wicklow, and his wife Anne Alicia (née Handcock). After her father died in 1871 ‘Lizzie’, as she was known to intimates, continued to live with her mother, becoming a ward in chancery due to property he bequeathed to her in Ireland. As befitting the family’s wealth and status Elizabeth was educated by a governess, retained a personal maid and was initiated into London society.
During her first London season she met maverick soldier and popular hero Colonel Frederick ‘Fred’ Gustavus Burnaby (1842–85). They married 27 June 1879, and she gave birth to their first, and her only child, Harry, in 1880. While Fred was preoccupied with soldiering, travel and ballooning, his taste for adventures and proclivity to write about them, indicate they were a good match. Of her three husbands Burnaby finds most mention in her memoir Day in, day out (1928), and her first two books were secured under his publisher. The high Alps in winter (1883) and High life and towers of silence (1886) recount her explorations in the western Alps.
Her first visit to Chamonix, France, in 1881 was essentially restorative. Sent by doctors to take the mountain air for persistent respiratory problems, she realised that expeditions above the snow line left her feeling physically fitter, igniting her interest in mountaineering and winter sports. She returned in the summer of 1882 (notably making two guided ascents of Mont Blanc), and again in the winter of 1882–3, hiring Edouard Cupelin as her mountain guide; she would dedicate her second book to him. By 1884 she had made a first ascent of the 4,135m-high (13,566ft) summit of the Bishorn with guide Josef Imboden, who named it ‘Pointe Burnaby’ in her honour.
After Fred’s death at the Battle of Abu Klea, Sudan, in 1885, she married mathematician John Frederic Main (1854–92) in 1886, publishing her second book that year under the name ‘Elizabeth Main’, which she dedicated to Cupelin. Although her marital status afforded her some protection from unwanted attentions or suitors whilst abroad, the marriage apparently provided little else. In 1887 John permanently settled in Denver, Colorado, while from 1886–90 Elizabeth retained a suite at the luxurious Kulm Hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, which was already renowned as the birthplace of modern winter sports. She enjoyed tobogganing and ice-skating, becoming the first woman to pass the men’s skating test, and also undertook bicycle tours through the Alps and participated in hill-climbing competitions using early motor cars. Personal wealth rendered her immune from being ‘cut off’ from paternal, fraternal or spousal support due to her radical sporting choices.
This financial and social independence allowed her ventures to Norway over successive seasons 1897–1903. Until 1899 she focussed on summer and winter mountaineering in the Norwegian Artic and completed pioneering work in the company of trusted guide Josef Imboden and his son Emil. Numerous first ascents (accounts suggest twenty-six to twenty-eight) during this period mark her out as one of the most successful mountaineers – man or woman – of the day. On 12 June 1900 she married (Francis Bernard) Aubrey Le Blond (1869–1951) at Kensington, London. She enjoyed a more companionate marriage with Le Blond; the dedication in Mountaineering in the land of the midnight sun (1908) reads ‘To my husband whose love for our northern playground fully equals my own.’ She continued to explore Norway and the Alps, and in the latter she made an unprecedented ‘manless’ traverse (c. 1900) of Piz Palü (Bernina Range) with Lady Evelyn McDonnell (1860–1947). Away from the public gaze, isolated mountain locations were perfect for adventurous women like Le Blond. She avoided offending public sensibilities by cutting a sartorially elegant figure in London society, evidenced in photographs of her which accompanied the occasional features written by or about her in periodicals such as Cosmopolitan Magazine and Pall Mall Magazine.
The measured and informative tone of her many books – including My home in the Alps (1892), True tales of mountain adventure (1903), Adventures on the roof of the world (1907) and The story of an Alpine winter (1907) – secured Le Blond’s reputation as the most authoritative woman mountaineer in Britain and Ireland. In 1907, with her active mountaineering days behind her, she recruited members for, and was elected president of, the newly formed Alpine Section of the Lyceum Club, a women’s intellectual club in London. By 1909 she had steered a fully independent Ladies’ Alpine Club into being – the first mountaineering club exclusively for women – remaining president until 1912. She was also a member of the Lyceum’s Writer’s Circle and its Council of Photographers and asserted in her memoir that photography was her ‘greatest interest’ beside mountaineering.
Indeed, she was a pioneer of mountain photography from the early 1880s. The high Alps in winter (1883) contains examples of her early work, and by 1895 her technical knowledge of process and composition had advanced significantly enough to enable authorship of Hints on snow photography, which belied her extensive photographic knowledge. By 1894 she had over 1,000 Alpine views on sale at the print sellers Spooner & Co., of the Strand, London. Indeed, when mountaineering in Norway she took a bespoke tent for developing plates ‘on the spot’. Acquiring a film camera, drawing on her photographic skills, around 1900 she filmed bobsleigh racing, tobogganing and ice skating in the Engadin Valley in the eastern Swiss Alps. Undoubtedly the first to film mountain pursuits, Le Blond was also one of the very first women filmmakers and likely sold some of these films. However, she does not mention these exploits in Day in, day out.
Mountaineering in the land of the midnight sun (1908) contains seventy-one photographic illustrations charting her explorations in Norway. Thereafter, advances in film and shutter speeds allowed Le Blond to turn her skills to the photography of ‘action’ sports in the resorts of St Moritz (famed for the development of the Cresta Run for tobogganing) and Davos (notable for skiing). E. F. Benson was impressed enough to include forty-seven reproductions of her black and white photographs to illustrate his book Winter sports in Switzerland (1913). Le Blond used her photographs in her own books and sold copies to raise money for philanthropic causes. She inaugurated the St Moritz Aid Fund to support those who could not otherwise afford to go to the Engadin in search of health, as she had in the early 1880s.
In common with all sportswomen and travellers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods Le Blond endured inconveniences on account of her sex; given her social status, she also had to be sensitive to public sentiment. Her grand-aunt, Lady Bentinck, pleaded with Le Blond’s mother ‘Stop her climbing mountains! She is scandalizing all London and looks like a Red Indian!’ (Day in, day out, 90). Although she always took care to don a conventional skirt at the beginning and end of her mountain expeditions, away from the public gaze she changed into rational dress for safety and encouraged others to do so in her writings. She also used a cloth mask when climbing, deployed by ladies fearing damage to their complexion. Writing for Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1904, Le Blond reassured readers that ‘proper judgement’ was the antidote to the various dangers posed by the climbing of snow peaks. Reflecting on her expeditions in Norway she asserted that there had been ‘no narrow escapes’ because she had been ‘too well guided’. In always readily acknowledging the importance of her professional guides, she was, perhaps, being too self-effacing. One obituarist observed: ‘Her staying powers were quite outstanding, she was slight but very strongly built, with the finished stride of the first- class guide’ (‘In memoriam Mrs Aubrey Le Blond’, 383).
Besides her books and articles on mountaineering, Le Blond published an account of one of her ancestors, Charlotte Sophie, countess Bentnick her life and times, 1715–1800 (1912) and translated and edited The autobiography of Charlotte Amélie, princess of Aldenburg (1913). Her travel guides included Cities and sights of Spain (1899) and The old gardens of Italy. How to visit them (1912) while later publications included The Dunkelgraf mystery (1929, with O. V. Maeckel) and Marshal Lyautey's Lettres du Tonkin et de Madagascar (1932). During 1912–13 she travelled with her husband Aubrey to China, Korea and Japan, returning via Russia. With the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 she served as a nurse in the Hôpital Militaire at Dieppe until late 1916. She led the Appeal Department of the British Ambulance Committee, which dispatched an Alpine Motor Kitchen (funded by a Ladies’ Alpine Club appeal) to the Vosges, eastern France. At the request of the War Office, she gave lantern lectures, exhibiting her photography, to troops in Britain and France. After the war she established the British Empire Fund for the Restoration of Rheims Cathedral. She was founding honorary secretary of the Anglo–French Luncheon Club (1926) and also played a role in having a statue of General Foch erected in London. In 1933 she was made a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur for her work promoting Anglo–French comity.
Elizabeth Le Blond used her talent with the pen, the camera, and as a speaker to familiarise the public with the wonders of mountaineering, simultaneously retaining an aura of social respectability in keeping with her aristocratic background. She adeptly navigated a period of transition in public attitudes, between overt censure and greater acceptance of women participating in physically demanding sporting pursuits. In the process she became a role model for daring to challenge gendered norms of behaviour. Her contribution to the development and promotion of women’s mountaineering is well illustrated by her re-election to the presidency of the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1933. Following an operation, she died unexpectedly on 27 July 1934 at her brother-in-law’s home in Mangalore, Llandrindod Wells, Radnorshire, Wales, and was buried in Brompton cemetery, London. The Burnaby estate in Greystones, Co. Wicklow – one of the first such housing developments in Ireland – is named after her first husband.