Elizabeth Main: The English pioneer in the Engadin

From mountaineering to ice skating with Giovanni Segantini and glacier hikes - Elizabeth Main’s photographic legacy shows the many facets of the English lady.
byKulturarchiv Oberengadin

Elizabeth Main wrote history – including in the Engadin. The English photographer, writer and mountaineer (1861 - 1934) accomplished first ascents, including the first winter ascent of Piz Palü; brought all-female roped parties to the highest mountain peaks, and worked as a nurse in France during the First World War. She was a courageous, confident and down-to-earth English lady who never shied away from a challenge. But her achievements were not well received everywhere: Fellow local climbers did not like it that a woman was entering a male domain. They were also suspicious that the “waifish wench”, as she was referred to, was married to three men.

Rope team at Piz Corvatsch with a view towards Piz Bernina and Piz Roseg

Elizabeth Main was not only an enthusiastic alpinist but also a gifted photographer. A total of 400 photographs show Elizabeth Main’s life in the Engadine. The collection comes from the office of the Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz. Andrea Badrutt, former director and owner of the hotel, donated the collection to the Upper Engadin cultural archive. In a narrative manner, Main captured the landscape of the Engadin, the people of the Belle Epoque, spectacular glacier hikes – and an encounter with Giovanni Segantini on Lake Sils:

In the winter of 1897-1898, Elizabeth Main picked up the painter in Soglio and invited him to a black ice sally around Lake Sils. Segantini chose not to venture onto the ice on skates but to be pulled across the ice on a Canadian sledge by a team of well-trained young Englishmen to better admire the mysterious lake bottom under the ice sheet.

Giovanni Segantini poses on Lake Sils

In her biography “Day In and Day Out”, Elisabeth Main describes this day as follows:

"We persuaded Segantini to return with us to the Engadine for a couple of days, for the Lake of Sils was at the moment in all its glory of transparent ice, reflecting deep blue sky, and I knew how its beauty would appeal to him. He was already enthusiastic as we slipped in our gliding sledges past its dark surface the next evening, and later on, I enrolled a team of hefty skaters who dragged Segantini on a flat-bottomed Canadian toboggan over the shining surface of the frozen lake so that he might gaze down and see the wonders of submerges lake dwellings and the depths blue-black against the vertical cliffs of the promontory. Fortunately, the weather was perfection. The sun blazed down from a cloudless sky. The artist, reclining on a heap of cushions and rugs, kept calling his team to halt and let him look through the clear surface…"

Several pictures by Elizabeth Main, including the photographs of Giovanni Segantini, came to the Upper Engadin cultural archive in Samedan in 1994. The pictures are evidence of an unspoilt Upper Engadin landscape, the newly discovered Alpine world and early winter sports.

Without ice skates but with a toboggan: Giovanni Segantini on Lake Sils, 1898
Elisabeth Main on Lake Sils, approx. 1898
View into the depths of a crevasse on the Forno glacier
Sun protection was already important back in the days
Careful look into a crevasse near the Sella Pass
Winter portrait on Morteratsch glacier
On the descent from Piz Bernina surefootedness is paramount
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