Tweed proves no problem for intrepid Alpine explorers

Team member Alison Henry surveys the Alps all dressed in tweed

Scaling mountain peaks and trekking for hours through snow drifts to remote and primitive Alpine huts is part of the climbing experience, but at least today's mountaineers have the comfort of the latest clothing and equipment.

This content was published on September 1, 2001 minutes

In a bid to recreate as faithfully as possible the climbing conditions enjoyed or endured by their 19th century predecessors, the select Alps Walk team of seven British climbers and Swiss guides decided to kit themselves out in Victorian costume.

But just how much has the decision to wear turn-of-the-century tweed jackets, long, flowing skirts and lace-trimmed bloomers had an effect on a team of climbers more used to 21st century Gore-tex and fleeces?

Alison Henry, the only female member of the climbing team, admitted she was not entirely convinced before the journey began about the virtue of climbing not just in the spirit but also in the clothes of her 19th century predecessors.

"I was certainly worried that I would be very uncomfortable most of the time," Henry said, "but it turned out to be not as bad as I thought."

Dripping with sweat

"It was really hard for everybody when we first set out," Henry told swissinfo.

"It was so hot and I was wearing a long, tweed skirt, which was incredibly uncomfortable because I was just dripping with sweat, but so were the people dressed in modern clothing."

But Brown's long, flowing, turn-of-the-century Victorian skirt turned out to be an unexpected pleasure to wear on a long trans-alpine trek.

The tweed of the dress, Henry notes, is very densely woven, which makes it far more windproof than more lightweight 21st century attire.

"There were times when there was a chilly wind blowing down the glacier from the Jungfrau and the skirt kept me warm. Conversely, when it is more sheltered and we are climbing on the rocks, it allows enough air to circulate and so it keeps you cool."

Leaping in bloomers

Though her costume may have kept her intermittently warm and cool, Henry admits the necessity of trekking occasionally forced her to perform very unladylike leaps across crevasses.

"I had to hitch the skirt up with one hand, hold my ice-axe in the other, and leap across. I'm sure no Victorian lady would have crossed a crevasse that way," she said.

"I was also wearing some lace-trimmed bloomers, which were revealed for all to see whenever I made a jump, much to the amusement of the rest of the party," Henry joked.

Les Swindin, a member of Britain's Alpine Club who has been climbing in the Alps since 1965, agreed with Henry's upbeat assessment of the team's daily attire.

"Despite the strong, cold wind, I've always been quite comfortable in my tweed waistcoat, Norfolk jacket, breeches and hat," Swindin said.

"By contrast, my modern gloves left me with cold fingers," he added.

Weight is disadvantage

But fellow Alps Walk climber, Philip Martineau, points to a disadvantage of wearing tweed in the mountains.

"The one drawback of tweed appears to be its weight," Martineau said, "but my tweed Norfolk jacket and plus fours have generally performed very well."

But of all the Alps Walk team members, it is perhaps Henry above all who received the most attention for volunteering to climb the Alps in a long tweed skirt.

"I got a lot of sympathy from other members of the team who pitied me floundering through the snow in my skirt," she says, before adding that she "didn't tell them I would have been just as slow in modern clothing."


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