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Female climbing pioneer

Else Hertzberg and her husband Arne Næss discovered new and extremely challenging routes to the top of Mt. Stetind. She was one of the Norwegian female pioneers in mountaineering.

Text: Unni Skoglund 

Else Hertzberg's name will always be associated with Sydpillaren (The Southern Pillar) and Sørøstveggen (The Southeastern Face), since she participated in its first ascent in 1936. It was the first time that new routes to the top of Mt.Stetind were discovered since Rubenson, Bryn and Schjelderup's first ascent in 1910.

Being a woman climber in the early 1900s was audacious. Female mountaineers at that time had to face a lot of additional challenges because of their gender.

The English mountaineer William Slingsby introduced climbing as a sport in Norway when he ascended Store Skagadølstind in 1876. Later he tried to ascend Mt. Stetind, but did not succeed.

Else Hertzberg i Rainbow Canyon @

The first Norwegian female mountaineer was Therese Bertheau, who ascended several peaks together with male companions in the late 1800s. She had been Norway's only active female mountaineer for many years. She became an honourable member of the Norwegian Alpine Club when it was founded in 1908. However, according to the club rules "women were not allowed to become ordinary members of the Norwegian Alpine Club". The first woman received an ordinary Norwegian Trekking Association membership as late as 1968.

The scepticism towards female mountaineers was the reflection of the general mindset in regard to femininity.

Unfeminine to climb

The term "femininity" was essential in the debate about women, physical activity and particularly about the definition of the term itself. Femininity was looked upon as the opposite of masculinity. "To be feminine means, essentially, to avoid all qualities and behaviour that might demonstrate virility. (Bordieu 2000:108)"

Many were afraid that women through sport and outdoor activities would develop a masculine body, and thus also a masculine character. At that time, physical features were interpreted as character traits. Physically strong women were seen as a threat, as they possibly could erase the difference between "the strong" and "the weak" gender. The attitude at the time was that women were supposed to tend their home and their marriage, and not to conquer peaks.

Luckily there were female trailblazers who made their way through prejudices. They developed into skilled climbers and gained respect for their achievements.

Else Hertzberg, Leiken Schjelderup, Elna Nissen-Meyer and Ragnhild Dekke were among these pioneers. Else Herzberg tested out new bolted routes on the almost vertical granite faces of Mt. Stetind, and several other Norwegian mountains. She also travelled to climb abroad, among other destinations, to the Grand Canyon.


"..... Climbing and gender in a historical perspective." Dissertation by Marianne Singsaas, Telemark University College. Article "With Women in the Precipice" from the magazine "Alle kvinners blad" nr. 15-16, 1949.


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