Let’s get to know it.
Endpaper sketch-maps of mountain ranges led on to stories of thrilling ascents, love, camaraderie and derring-do on mountains around the world. It was vivid, packed with incident and humor, strikingly modern and egalitarian. I read it, then asked my father about the author, a woman who, 1935 memoir aside, I knew next to nothing about. The conversation that followed set me on a quest to discover more about Dorothy, or Dorothea as she was within the family, and her amazing mountaineering life and legacy.
Dorothea was born in Camberwell, south London, in 1894 to a family on the up. Her father, a chemist, teacher, and entrepreneur, had amassed a small fortune manufacturing baby food. Dorothea was sent away to the exclusive Queenwood school in Eastbourne to be groomed for a life of top-end housewifery, but promptly rebelled – a trait and spirit which endured.
As a young woman she kicked forcefully against the life and choices others thought best and seemly. Eventually, she achieved a level of autonomy through journalism (for, among others, the Daily Express, and periodicals including Lady’s Pictorial, the Englishwoman, and the Pall Mall Magazine) and by working as a secretary for the proto-feminist British Women’s Patriotic League. It was also during this period that she began to escape London to climb in the mountains of north Wales and Skye.
Snowdonia was central to Dorothea’s independent 20s. It was there, in 1915, that she learned to climb on the nursery slopes of Tryfan and the Idwal Slabs; there, in 1917, that she first met her future husband and climbing partner, the literary critic and scholar IA (Ivor) Richards; and there, in 1921, that she helped found the Pinnacle Club – the world’s first climbing club established by women for women. So it seemed apt that I began there too.
From the moment I decided to research and write about Dorothea, it felt crucial to engage with her mountaineering legacy in a physical way, to climb the routes and peaks she pioneered with Ivor. I travelled first to the Idwal Slabs – a formation the locals call Rhiwiau Caws (Slopes of Cheese). It is a great fist of rock, dark fingers pushing down into the wet earth. I hiked up the A5 from Bethesda in hard rain, then on into the bowl of Cwm Idwal to stand beneath the rhyolite cliffs and watch others climb the slick rocks, soaking up the scene and the sky.
A couple of months later I returned with members of the Pinnacle Club, a chastening and farcical trip: a circular several-mile walk around Ogwen in a deluge. We climbed nothing. Saturated and silent in a steaming car, we drove to their hut in the valley of Nant Gwynant. Drying out by the fire, we looked through their archive of letters and photographs of the club founders. Theclub members were kind and stoical and I was grateful for their hospitality. Several months later, writing up the episode, I discovered a Welsh phrase for such sodden days: Mae hi’n brwr hen wragedd a ffyn – “It’s raining old women and sticks”.
In the months that followed, I learned the ropes on crags and walls around the UK in all weathers. However, it wasn’t until I took part in a Conville Winter mountaineering course in the Cairngorms that I felt I’d truly experienced real mountaineering. Run in conjunction with Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Sports Centre, the Conville courses were established by Jonathan Conville’s family in the wake of his death on the north face of the Matterhorn in 1979. He was 27. A trust was established to provide subsidy and training to young mountaineers so they might enjoy the mountains in greater safety.
Dorothea and Ivor have been described to me as climbing aristocracy, whose feats and reputations spanned generations. To properly follow them it was vital that I learned to climb and belay safely on snow and ice and get to grips with spiky kit, such as axes and crampons. So, stood with a team of fellow Alpine rookies below the cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda, I was taught to navigate, dig snow holes and take avalanche precautions.
“You need enough in your locker to survive and return to safety if things get out of hand,” explained our instructor, Sammy. This is the crux of the Conville course: that while risk can never be eliminated in the mountains, it can be managed.
“Risk was the salt,” wrote Dorothea, “but he or she would be a stupid cook who thought the more there is of it the better.”
Dorothea was every inch the swashbuckling heroine, a fierce trailblazer, yet always caring
And so, mindful not to be stupid cooks, we set about learning our place within the Cairngorm’s wild sphere.
There followed two trips to the fabled Dent Blanche in Switzerland: a beautiful, savage, massive Sphinx-like peak that forms the apex of Dorothea’s memoir. The first time, I travelled over with my father and we set about the mountain with great zest and enthusiasm but we suffered: poor fitness, altitude sickness, failure to reach the summit, arguments, angry hut guardians and then a benighting. That is a beautiful word but a horrible reality: the light broke down, visibility was low so we stopped for the night, sat on a freezing ledge above Zermatt with an intermittent grandstand view of the Matterhorn. That rather took the shine off the expedition.
My second attempt, made several months later with Swiss guide Jean-Noël Bovier, while far better organised and successful on paper, was equally eventful – and occasionally fractious. He got me to the summit, for which I’ll always be grateful, but at the cost of a thorough dragooning. The climb was a vertiginous boot camp of sarcasm, tough love and swearing. On the descent I fell through a snow cornice and nearly began to descend at a speed incompatible with life. It all happened in a flash but Jean-Noël’s skill and hawser strength saved me. We may have argued, but I love that man, won’t hear a word against him. I can’t thank him enough.
Would Dorothea and Ivor have approved? I hope so. They were fantastic climbers, but at the same time, wonderfully droll, funny people with a strong sense of the ridiculous. Dorothea was every inch the swashbuckling heroine, a fierce trailblazer, yet always caring. I hope they would have been pleased that I went out to meet them in their element. I grew to love and value them enormously along the way.
“It is the reverberation of one’s life among them,” wrote Dorothea of the mountains, “In each case the sense of an uncapturable significance will arise, and its secret – for the mountaineer as for any pilgrim passion – is almost an open one. Therein, reflected, is the experience of being ardently alive.’
Hang on! Six tips to inspire women climbers
1. Getting started
If you want to start climbing outdoors, most local clubs will have introductory days for beginners. You could go on a “wall-to-rock” course or go for the full works with a weekend or week-long course at somewhere such as Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre in Snowdonia. The gritstone edges in the Peak District offer hundreds of easily accessible, short climbs for starting on, or you can scramble and do easy multi-pitch climbs in the mountains of Snowdonia.
2. Join a meet
The Pinnacle Club organises around 30-40 meets a year, many at our club hut in Snowdonia, but also in different parts of the UK and abroad. Most are for experienced traditional climbers, but we also have introductory meets for women who don’t have much climbing experience. They are a great way to meet other female climbers and be inspired. As well as the climbing they’re sociable and great fun whatever the weather.
3. My favourite UK climb
I’ve climbed in fantastic locations from Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides to Land’s End in Cornwall, from Fairhead in Northern Ireland to the gritstone edges in the Peak District. One of my favourite climbs, only 12 minutes’ drive from my house, is Croton Oil on Rivelin Edge, on the outskirts of Sheffield. It features an awkward wide crack, followed by balance-y moves standing on improbably sloping footholds, to finish dramatically on top of a pinnacle, where you can sit and admire the view.
4. The films to watch
There are great short films on BMC TV where you can pick up tips about technique, gear, clubs and all aspects of climbing. I recommend: Pinnacle Club/BMC Women’s International Climbing Meet 2016; Arc’teryx Lakeland Revival: Middlefell Buttress; Mina Meets Godzilla; and the multi-award-winning Operation Moffat.
5. And finally …
The great thing about climbing is you get to go to beautiful places in the pursuit of your sport. It can really challenge you physically and mentally and, unlike team and competitive sports, people carry on doing it well into their 70s. In fact, there’s an active climbing scene for pensioners on the Costa Blanca in winter when it’s too cold to climb in the UK. You can see a short film of Pinnacle Club “senior” members Dorothy Russell, 76, and Judith Brown, 58, climbing in the Lake District on Middlefell Buttress.