Princess Elena Ghica, the first Romanian on Mönch Peak in the Swiss Alps (4,107 m), where she planted the Wallachian flag

Elena Ghica followed her dream of climbing the Mönch Peak in the Alps at all costs, managing to conquer the Grindelwald slope for the first time, becoming the first Romanian to set foot on this 4,107-meter peak.

Elena Ghica was in such good physical condition that she even surprised the mountain guides

Born on February 3, 1828 in the famous Ghica family that produced lords and great boyars in the Romanian Countries, Elena Ghica had a film life since the age of 5, when she was considered a child prodigy because she was learning ancient Greek and modern Greek , Latin, French, Italian, English and German. Beyond the cultural education, the one who would later sign Dora d'Istria was an active nature and passionate about sports: swimming, riding, fencing and even hunting. All this training and good physical condition would pay off years later, when she became the first woman to climb Mönch Peak in the Jungfrau system in the Swiss Alps (4,107 meters).

But, before arriving in Switzerland and establishing such a premiere, Elena Ghica's life would also take her to Russia, after her marriage in February 1849 with Prince Aleksandr Koltsov-Masalski, posted to Iași as part of the Russian Legation. It seems that the love story between the two started with a grain of bad luck because Elena's parents – the great ban of Craiova Mihail Ghica and Caterina – did not agree with the union between the two. However, the young woman in love follows her husband to St. Petersburg, where she is noted for her intelligence and vast culture. But, not long after, the young woman's patriotism, namely her love for the Romanian Countries and her desire to liberate them from foreign domination or influence, emerges and disturbs the Russian bourgeoisie and society. Although on the verge of exile in Siberia, Elena continued to support and promote her liberal ideas until she decided to leave Russia for good in April 1855. “Elena Ghica stopped dreaming of living in Russia. For six years, the feeling of duty as a wife fought in her heart with the natural aspirations of a liberal intellectual and daughter of the Romanian Ghiculești. In the sixth he decided: he would go to the West to profess his faith in man's power to convince others and help them. The prince and his friends led her to the gates of the fortress. Everyone knew that Dora d'Istria was running towards freedom of thought and action. But they didn't imagine that they would never see her again…”, notes Valentin Borda in the volume “Chronic on the globe”. Thus began her travels in Europe and the first steps towards hiking and mountain climbing, the young woman settling temporarily in Switzerland.

Mönch peak in the Bernese Alps located in Switzerland.  Photo: Wikipedia

Mönch peak in the Bernese Alps located in Switzerland. Photo: Wikipedia

At any risk

Shortly after leaving Russia for good, Elena Ghica wants to follow her dream of climbing the Mönch Peak and begins preparations for the ascent, surprising her friends with these efforts which, in their opinion, had an “unachievable” goal. It seems that for Elena Ghica, the mountain was one axis world: “Idealistic, generous to the point of improbability, with brilliant intelligence and almost unerring intuition, with boundless thirst for knowledge and irrepressible attraction towards mystery, lover of nature – the mountain being for her an axis mundi -, (…) she was a fervent philolatin”, is recorded in the preface of the volume “Dora d'Istria. A female look at the 19th century” signed by Roberta Fidanzia. Having such a character, Elena Ghica tries to find solutions to fulfill her dream. “When he announced his project, his friends were stunned. Some thought they were braving. Others, on the other hand, knowing her well, did not doubt her decision”notes Valentin Borda.

Determined, with a well-analysed goal, Elena Ghica sends letters requesting that the most skilled guides be sent to her from the villages around the mountain. Nothing stood in the way of the one who had defied her parents and an absolutist regime, even if her friends – including Pierre – hoped that, once she learned the difficulties involved in such an ascent, she would give up this thought: “He, restless at the top, brought to the hotel room all kinds of books with the description of tragic events during previous climbs. To dissuade her, he read aloud the most frightening passages to her. In vain, though! She remained steadfast in her decision: she would climb the Alps at any risk”.

Finally, Pierre is by her side in preparing for the expedition and meeting the guides who would help her achieve her new goal. Guides Pierre Bohren, Jean Almer, John Juan de Meyringen and Ulrich Lauener de Lauterbrunnen explained to him what the route entails, how important the weather is, what equipment he needs. One of them even said that “thanks to this lady's courage, the action can begin. I have seen, before my ascents of the Jungfrau, enough men trembling with fear. Or, countess…”. When all the preparations were ready, with the special suit placed in the luggage— “black and white striped woolen trousers, knee-length coat with buttons, round felt hat similar to those worn by mountain men, wide boots” –, Elena Ghica set off for the village of Grindelwald with her friend Pierre and the four guides, as well as four other helpers who had the mission of carrying the food, the ladders, the ropes and the threads. But on the first day the weather was capricious, with thunder and lightning and strong gusts of wind, so the hikers began their ascent the next day, June 10, 1855.

Elena Ghica was a great lover of culture and travel

Elena Ghica was a great lover of culture and travel

Superhuman efforts

The group of mountain lovers began their climb on a sunny Sunday, seemingly under the watchful eye of the surrounding Schreckhorn, Eiger and Vieschorn mountains. The ascent on the glacier soon followed. The guides, convinced of the safety of Elena Ghica's journey, entrusted her with the management of the caravan: “Thus, they all crossed the 'sea of ​​ice' and started to climb the steep slopes of the Zabenberg. From Grindelwald could be heard, carried by the wind, the faint echoes of the bells”it is also reported in “Chronic pe glob”.

“At one point, the climbers ended up in the middle of a desert of rocks. They were jumping over the sharp stone blocks with snowy peaks to their left. The climb was getting harder and harder. From time to time, in order to move forward, they crawled on all fours or, on the contrary, had to jump from one stone to another. In order not to fall, especially when there were no fissures in the rock for support, they held onto the clumps of thorns they met, as if by a miracle, with their hands. Because of the stings, drops of blood were dripping from their palms… They were walking like that, with superhuman efforts. They rarely stopped to catch their breath. They observed, in such moments, delighted, the majesty of nature. They could see, below, a few steps away, the crevasses of the glaciers in the depths of which the sun's rays glistened playfully. High above their heads, rocks and more rocks. Far away, in the valley, among the clouds, the small houses of Grindelwald”this is how part of the 27-year-old Romanian young woman's expedition looked.

After a stop on a promontory, where they warmed up by a fire and drank hot tea made from rhododendron flowers and juniper, Elena Ghica, her friend Pierre, the four guides and their helpers set off again in search of shelter for the night to come – a grotto known to one of the guides. “They spent the night here, safe from the danger of avalanches, the wind and the cold that had set in with the evening. The men lit the fire again. They heated the food and prepared coffee. After dinner, they urged Elena Ghica to sleep, wrapped in warm blankets, watched over by their insomnia. She couldn't put an eyelash on an eyelash. The experience he was having seemed completely and utterly out of the ordinary. Therefore, together with the guides and porters he spent there – in the snow-covered grotto – a white night, drinking coffee and humming popular Swiss arias”reports Valentin Borda.

Absolute premiere

With the coming of the morning, after the three guides went ahead and made the path in the thick layer of snow, Elena Ghica and her group continued the ascent crossing more and more crevasses, overcoming the fatigue of the body: “With every meter of the climb, the air thinned. Powers were beginning, as if, little by little, to leave Elena Ghica. At one point, he noticed a thread of blood on the snow that licked from his mouth along with the lumps he took with thirst”. But, letting her body be guided by the burning desire to reach the top, Elena Ghica arrives at 10 o'clock in the morning at the foot of the Mönch Peak, where, although the guides advise her not to go any further because of the weather, the princess decides to go on. “After five hours of continuous walking, at three in the afternoon on June 11, 1855, Elena Ghica reached the peak”. Although she has been away from the Romanian Countries for many years, she sticks the tricolor flag on the top: “on it, embroidered in large letters, written the name of his country: WALAHIA!”thus marking a Romanian first: the first woman from Romania to conquer Mönch Peak.

“The ascent of the Mönch Peak in the Alps – then conquered for the absolute first time on the Grindelwald slope – was the third achievement in the world history of mountaineering practiced by women. Romanian had been preceded only by Maria Paradis (1808) and Henriette d'Angeville (1838)”, it is specified in the volume “Chronic pe Glob”.