When Julia Archibald Holmes stepped onto the summit of Pikes Peak 150 years ago, she not only became the first woman to scale the 14,115-foot mountain in recorded history, she also became the first person to do it with panache.
Sure, rugged men had climbed it, but she read transcendentalist poetry aloud at the top, wrote letters using a summit rock as a desk and donned a radical feminist outfit that later earned her the nickname Bloomer Girl.
On Aug. 5, 1858, the 20-year-old newlywed trudged up the talus slopes with her husband and two other men. They had crossed the prairie from Lawrence, Kan., with a group of gold seekers and camped in what is now Manitou Springs. But what Holmes is best known for, indeed, the only thing often mentioned about her in history books, is that she wore a knee-length dress with loose-fftting pants called bloomers underneath.
Today bloomers sound like the ultimate old-lady undergarment.
“But at the time they were quite scandalous,” said Elizabeth Barber, who played the part of Holmes in a 2008 reenactment of the feat.
Bloomers were a racy symbol of women’s liberation. In the 1850s, women were expected to wear floor-length skirts with several pounds of underskirts and constrictive corsets.
“You could hardly move,” said Barber.
Finally, in 1851, one reform-minded activist named Amelia Bloomer declared, that “this shackle should no longer be endured,” and began to publicize an alternative shorter dress with leggings that bore her name.
The getup was adopted by women’s rights activists across the country and dubbed the “freedom costume.”
Holmes was one of the feisty libertines who took up the cause.
“However much it lacked in taste, I found it gave me freedom to roam at pleasure,” she wrote.
She was one of those radicals who thought all people should be treated equally. She was the daughter and wife of abolitionists and fought for the right of women to vote.
On the 500-mile trip to Pikes Peak, she insisted on walking most of the way with the men instead of sitting in a covered wagon.
When she heard some of the men thought her freedom dress looked queer, she retorted, “I cannot afford to dress to please their taste. I could not positively enjoy a moment’s happiness with a long skirt to confine me to the wagon.”
The group spent several unsuccessful weeks looking for gold around Pikes Peak. Holmes grew bored with the “disgusting inactivity and monotony of camp life,” and set out one day with her husband and two other men to climb the peak.
They took it slow, taking several days to explore the alpine amphitheaters and lonely forests on the east side.
When the group struggled to Pikes Peak’s summit, they were hit by a summer snowstorm.
Holmes wasn’t dissuaded. She took time to write some letters on the top. In one, to her mother, she wrote: “Nearly everyone tried to discourage me from attempting it, but I believed I should succeed; and now, here I am, and feel that I would not have missed this glorious sight for anything at all.
“It was 23 years before another woman climbed a Colorado fourteener. And bloomers never really caught on, but Holmes went on to lead a life of an adventurous journalist and poet.
Before the snowstorm drove Holmes off the peak, she opened her book of Ralph Waldo Emerson and read a stanza aloud from Emerson’s poem “Friendship”:
A ruddy drop of manly blood,
The surging sea outweighs;
The world uncertain comes and goes
The lover rooted stays.
This story first appeared in The Gazette on July 31, 2008.
What We Believe
We are driven by our deep respect for our environment, and our passionate commitment to sustainable tourism and conservation. We believe in the right for everyone - from all backgrounds and cultures - to enjoy our natural world, and we believe that we must all do so responsibly. Learn More