A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

Isabella L. Bird


Why A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and Longs Peak

This is the first book that I have selected for a mountain that I have not previously read. But the life of Isabella Bird is so compelling that I had to select this memoir of her time in the Rocky Mountains. In 1873, Bird completed the ascent of Longs Peak. She was a true pioneer of travel and adventure and her books inspired many people to make their own journey to the American West and the other places that Bird spent her life exploring.

More About A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

After an early life of bad health, in 1872, Isabella Bird, daughter of a clergyman, set off alone to the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) ‘in search of health’ and found she had embarked on a life of adventurous travel. She then traveled to Hawaii, which she loved, and published a second book after climbing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. She then moved on to Colorado, then the newest state in the USA, where she had heard the air was excellent for the infirm. Dressed practically and riding not sidesaddle but frontwards like a man (though she threatened to sue the Times for saying she dressed like one), she covered over 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. Her letters to her sister, first printed in the magazine The Leisure Hour, comprised Bird’s fourth and perhaps most famous book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. They tell of magnificent, unspoiled landscapes and abundant wildlife, of encounters with rattlesnakes, wolves, pumas and grizzly bears, and her reactions to the volatile passions of the miners and pioneer settlers. A classic account of a truly astounding journey.

Isabella_Bird_Bishop_ManchurianBird would then travel to Asia: Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. When her sister Henrietta Amelia Bird died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella was heartbroken and thereafter accepted John Bishop’s marriage proposal. They were married in February 1881. Bird’s health took a severe turn for the worse but recovered following John Bishop’s death in 1886, at which point she inherited a large amount of disposable income. Feeling that her earlier travels had been hopelessly dilettante, Bird studied medicine and resolved to travel as a missionary. Despite being nearly 60 years of age, she set off for India.

Arriving on the subcontinent in February 1889, Bird visited missions in India, visited Ladakh on the borders of Tibet, and then travelled in Persia, Kurdistan, and Turkey. In India, she worked with Fanny Jane Butler to found the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in memory of her recently deceased husband. The following year, she joined a group of British soldiers travelling between Baghdad and Tehran. She remained with the unit’s commanding officer during his survey work in the region, armed with her revolver and a medicine chest supplied – in possibly an early example of corporate sponsorship – by Henry Wellcome‘s company in London.

Featured in journals and magazines for decades, Bird was by now something of a household name. In November 1892, she became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. She was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society on 12 January 1897. Her final great journey took place in 1897, when she travelled up the Yangtze and Han rivers in China and Korea, respectively. Later still, she went to Morocco, where she travelled among the Berbers and had to use a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan. A few months after returning from a trip to Morocco, Bird fell ill and died at her home on 16 Melville Street, Edinburgh on 7 October 1904.