On a blustery November day in 1984, I walked along the shore of Lake Geneva with the Swiss alpinist Louise “Loulou” Boulaz. At age seventy-six, she was as engaged in the mountaineering community as she had been fifty years before. Our conversation about alpinism was far ranging. When I asked the obligatory why, she didn’t hesitate, “I climbed for climbing.” She wanted to climb hard and she did. “I have no photographs.” She gestured ripping up prints. “Why?” I asked, stunned. “I think it’s vanity–all is vanity,” she said.
Loulou’s generation of women had gained a sense of independence and opportunity following the chaos of Europe during World War I. In 1927 she became a stenographer for the International Labor Organization in Geneva, a career that lasted until 1973. It was a good fit: the ILO supported workers’ rights and equal pay for women, ideals consistent with Loulou’s leftist and feminist leanings. Some climbing friends came to call her “Loulou la Rouge.”
By the early 1930s, she began devoting weekends to climbing the limestone cliffs of the Saleve near Geneva and Miroir de l’Argentine and the granite routes on the Mont Blanc Massif above Chamonix. It was an era of nationalistic fervor in the Alps as mountaineers raced to solve the “last great problems” on the daunting north faces of the Eiger, Matterhorn, Grandes Jorasses, Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Petit Dru and Piz Badile. Loulou and aspiring guide Raymond Lambert were both in their early twenties when they decided to join the race–“as clueless as we were ambitious,” Loulou wrote in Der Bergsteiger in 1983. They would climb two of the faces together: the Grandes Jorasses by the Croz and the Walker Spurs and the Petit Dru. The Croz Spur and the Petit Dru were second ascents, and all were first female ascents. They climbed as friends and equals, not as client and guide.
The Eiger North Face had yet to be climbed when Loulou and Pierre Bonnant attempted the legendary wall in 1937. Journalist Othmar Gurtner claimed that Loulou, the first woman to attempt the route, would “insult” the Eiger should she try again. Gurtner wasn’t the only man of the time to say that a female’s presence tainted a climb. In 1929, after Miriam O’Brien and Alice Damesme traversed the Aiguille du Grepon, French mountaineer Etienne Bruhl lamented, according to O’Brien, that “no self-respecting man could undertake it, now that it had been done by women alone.”
Like O’Brien and Damesme, Loulou also climbed “manless.” She and Lulu Durand made the first all-female ascents of the Requin’s ordinary route (1932), the southwest face of the Dent du Geant (1933), and a traverse of Les Droites’ east summit (1935). In 1959 Loulou joined Claude Kogan’s international team for the first women’s expedition to an 8000-meter peak. Loulou struggled unsuccessfully to acclimatize, however, and she had to be evacuated from Camp I (19,700′). The team faltered when Kogan, Claudine van der Straten-Ponthoz, and Sherpas Ang Norbu and Chewong died in avalanches. The survivors ultimately chose to clear the mountain rather than continue the expedition. It would be fifteen years before a group of women claimed an 8000-meter summit. In 1974, with Jambu Sherpa, Japanese female climbers Naoko Nakaseko, Masako Uchida, and Meiko Mori summited 8163-meter Manaslua–thus becoming the first women to break that barrier.
In the meantime, Loulou continued to pursue Alpine north faces: the Cima Grande di Lavaredo (1960, first female ascent), her fourth and last attempt on the Eiger, to the Ramp (1962), and Piz Badile (1964). “Her alpine achievements,” Andre Roch wrote in the Alpine Journal, “put her without question amongst that small elite of very great alpinists of the 20th century.” Roch surely had in mind more famous European climbers such as Heinrich Harrer and Anderl Heckmair, Riccardo Cassin and Emilio Comici as her peers. Members of the Ladies’ Alpine Club in London recognized Loulou’s stunning record of ascents with honorary membership in 1960, as did the Swiss Alpine Club’s Geneva Section.
After I said goodbye to Loulou, I stopped in a small climbing shop, a natural magnet, after our walk. It was dark, now, and a damply chill evening. I admired innovative clamp-on crampons and sticky-soled rock-climbing shoes. “Magic shoes,” I thought. I knew Loulou’s eyes would have lit up. She would see the possibilities.