born October 10, 1853 in Amsterdam
died August 20, 1929 in Milan
Dutch mountaineer. First woman to climb on difficult rock
Jeanne Immink achieved glory and honor in the male-dominated field of Alpine mountaineering. At the end of the nineteenth century mountaineering was exclusively a male activity. This Dutch woman showed, however, that women too are quite capable of dealing with risks and dangers. Jeanne Immink is credited with inventing the climbing harness and was the first woman to wear sports gear (pants instead of a skirt). Moreover, she elevated mountaineering to her purpose in life. It is hard to imagine today how revolutionary her behavior seemed at the time.
Jeanne Immink, née Diest, was from a German-Jewish family, and very early took charge of her own life. Her father, a commissionaire, died young, leaving a wife and four daughters to fend for themselves in an impoverished Amsterdam. Jeanne finished high school, where she was a good student. A university education was not an option for her – women were not admitted – and female professions did not exist at the time.
To escape her poverty she married the businessman Karel Immink. The newlyweds emigrated to South Africa and settled in Pretoria. The living conditions in the capital of the Transvaal, however, were just as limited as in Amsterdam.
The marriage did not last. Jeanne could not bond with her first child, a boy. A few months after the child’s birth, she took refuge in an affair with the British dragoon captain Henry Douglas-Willan, who was briefly stationed in Pretoria upon return from a punitive military expedition against the Zulu. When his regiment was transferred to India, Jeanne went with him and in this way managed to escape a lawsuit initiated by Karel Immink on grounds of adultery. She left her baby with acquaintances in Pretoria.
Jeanne did not stay long in the troubled northwest territories of India. Her pregnancy ended the affair. A British officer was not permitted to marry before the age of 30, and children were not welcome around the troops. Jeanne returned to Europe and had her child, a son, out of wedlock in Switzerland. She gave him the name Louis Immink. Generous financial support from her former lover now made her an independent woman. Henry Douglas-Willan came from a prominent military family. He rose to the rank of colonel and was later responsible for supervising the guard at Windsor Castle.
In Switzerland, Jeanne got to know the mountains. She pretended to be the widow of Karel Immink, travelled with her little son in the Alps, and before long was climbing the most difficult peaks. During the Belle Époque mountaineering developed into a favored expression of the brave and manly life. Although it was considered unseemly for a woman, Jeanne Immink also discovered this challenging and adventurous sport as a means of self-realization herself. Her daring endeavors were frowned upon by society at large, but within mountaineering circles she was considered an equal. Her stamina and agility were such that the men simply could not ignore her.
Immink’s climb of the Fünffinger Peak in 1891 created a sensation. This mountain in the Dolomintes was the ne plus ultra of climbing. When Robert-Hans Schmitt, the most daring climber of his time, climbed a mountain through a chimney that was later named after him, he announced that no one would probably ever repeat his feat. Hardly a year later, Jeanne did exactly that, accompanied by her guides. She had carefully prepared her undertaking, knowing full well that a success at the notorious Schmitt Chimney would cement her reputation as a climber.
Jeanne Immink always picked climbs that were at the center of current discussion. She managed to climb the most difficult ice and rock routes in the Wallis Alps, among which were two traverses of the Matterhorn, and the newest climbing routes in the eastern Alps. “Madame Immink” – as she signed her entries in the guide books – repeatedly overcame elevation differences of between two and three thousand meters, a feat that is difficult to imagine today. The Italians called her “La Donna Instancabile,” the Tireless Woman.
She was educated and likeable, but never shied away from critical confrontations. She knew Wilhelmina Drucker personally, the first great Dutch women’s rights activist (also from Amsterdam); like Drucker, Immink used her pen as a weapon. After one of her first ascents, she wrote: “As I happen to be the only person who knows all the routes up this mountain, I can permit myself to say that my route is without question the most difficult one.” Often she was downright provocative: ”I challenge the male mountaineers to follow in my steps”, she wrote into one mountain-top log book.
The publications of Theodor Wundt brought Jeanne Immink true fame for the first time. In 1893 the German professional military officer and innovative mountain photographer published the first photographs of a woman climbing. His images of Jeanne Immink on the vertical rock of the Cima Piccola are a glowing documentation of the equality of woman and man in the mountains.
At a time when Alpine clubs looked rather skeptically at female climbers or even excluded them from membership, Jeanne Immink was a member of two clubs. She belonged to the – even today exclusive – Austrian Alpine Club, as well as to the Club Alpino Italiano. Jeanne Immink took the initiative to open new routes, used young and ambitious mountain guides, and helped them establish their careers. Especially in collaboration with Sepp Innerkofler (later a South Tyrolean war hero), she mastered a number of first-class ascents. Jeanne Immink was the first woman who could make climbs of the fourth degree of difficulty, at that time the most difficult. Very few men were her equal.
Around 1890 the expression “The path is the goal” was coined. Reaching a peak was no longer the foremost objective; rather, the logic and aesthetics of the climbing route became most important. In this area Jeanne Immink was also a leader. With the splendid mountain guide Antonio Dimai from Cortina d’Ampezzo she opened up a new route along the north face of the Cusiglio, a peak of the Pala group; this path is now considered to be virtually the first sport climbing route. Jeanne Immink also initiated winter climbing on steep rock. She was already 40 when she climbed the ice-covered north face of the Cima Piccola.
Jeanne Immink’s significance lies in the strong individuality inherent in her chosen activity. She loved the extreme, set her own goals and held onto the reins of her life, undeterred by the conventions of her day. This female cliff-walker showed other women a new path to the mountains.
Two peaks are named after Jeanne Immink. The peaks are called Cima Immink and Campanile Giovanna (Jeanne’s Tower). They stand next to each other in the Dolomites and are thus a calling card that no other mountaineer can lay claim to.
(Transl. Ute Methner and Joey Horsley)
“The strength of a woman is in no way as low as people generally believe” (Jeanne Immink)
Richter, Eduard: Die Erschließung der Ostalpen. Verlag des Deutschen und Österreichischen Alpenvereins, Berlin 1894.
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