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"Nothing but mountains in her head"

Main combined pioneering photography with her love of the mountains. Elizabeth Main

Mountaineer, photographer, author, aristocrat, fundraiser and mother, Elizabeth Main was anything but your average visitor to Switzerland.

This content was published on September 23, 2003 - 14:48

Seventy years after her death, the life of the intrepid British alpinist is being re-explored in a new exhibition and book.

The alpine museum in Pontresina is presenting a selection of Main’s photographs, many of which were taken during first ascents of local peaks.

Personal belongings and biographical details have also been gathered together to bring Main’s extraordinary story back into the public gaze.

“Of course many local people will be interested in the photos because of what they say about how we lived back then, and how the landscape looked,” says exhibition organiser Dora Lardelli.

“But I hope that we can also pique their interest in the extraordinary life of the woman behind the lens.”

Although Main’s blue blood could be traced all the way back to Catherine the Great, it was her lungs which first brought her in 1880 to the Engadin valley.

Like many wealthy Brits, Main was sent to the mountains to help her recover from a respiratory disorder.

Her love affair with the Swiss Alps proved much harder to shake off, however, and she was soon making regular visits to the Graubünden and the Valais.

Important contribution

In between her various climbs, Main found time to author 18 books, including a hotel romance set in St Moritz and a factual guide to photographic techniques in snowy conditions.

Married three times, Main also helped promote the region to fellow tourists and raised money for invalids who were unable to meet the high costs of Swiss recuperation.

“Many of her photos act almost like a diary, giving insights into Main’s lifestyle and that of her contemporaries,” says the exhibition’s photographic advisor Florio Puenter. “But it’s her work in the mountains themselves that is really important.

“She seems to have been a pioneer in combining mountain climbing with photography, taking a camera with her to record first ascents. As far as we have been able to discover, she was the first person ever to do that.”

Main’s fascination with the Alps and with alpine sports often saw her “intruding” on traditionally male pastimes, a situation which did not go unnoticed by the men of the region.

Mixing with the men

“She didn’t just go into the mountains,” Lardelli points out. “She actually led groups of men into the Alps as well as setting up all-women climbing parties.

She was also the first woman ever to pass the men’s ice-skating exam.

“Of course the men were very critical about her behaviour and there were some particularly harsh comments in the Swiss Alpine Club newsletter which described her as ‘a spindly woman with nothing but mountains in her head’!"

“But she just went her own way and didn’t concern herself with the comments. She seemed happy to let her actions prove what she was capable of.”

The recent research into Main’s life began in 1994 when more than 400 of her photos were discovered at the Palace Hotel in St Moritz.

Beyond her life in Switzerland, it’s been shown that Main was also a keen (and daredevil) cyclist, an early car rally fanatic and an unflagging traveller.

And, tantalisingly, there are some parts of her legacy that still remain hidden.

“We found a list describing ten films shot by Main, but so far we haven’t managed to unearth them. They were filmed in the Engadin in around 1900, and are therefore the earliest films by far to be shot in the region, or in fact anywhere near the region.”

The Elizabeth Main exhibition at Pontresina’s alpine museum runs until October 18. For those interested in reading more about Main, a book has also been produced and is available from Lucerne-based publishers Diopter.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Pontresina

Elizabeth Main

Born in 1861, Elizabeth Main first came to Switzerland in 1880 as a patient recuperating from a lung disorder.
She became a keen mountaineer and photographed many first ascents in Graubünden and the Valais.
Main also found time to write 18 books, cycle from St Moritz to Rome and marry three times.

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