Some climbing books grant you insights into geography, or topology, or human psychology. Some climbing books simply scare you to death. Just now and then, there's one that conveys the sheer fun of it all. The "lying among the bilberry tufts, glowing with the enjoyment of having led the New West Climb (VD) [on Pillar Rock, V Diff] for the first time – the criss-cross traverses and the movements up the slab still alive in the fingers and toes."
The climbing days in this book happened between 1910 and 1928. The nights in between are in the Wasdale Head inn before 'baths and modernity' came to it; Alpine huts when they really were huts rather than hotels; and a yak-herd's bamboo shelter on the approach to Kanchenjunga.
Has climbing ever been as much fun as it was in the years between the two World Wars?
The climbs range from the Central Route on Glyder Fach to the first ascent of the North Ridge of the Dent Blanche.
The Dent Blanche ridge, climbed in 1928 with her husband I A (Ivor) Richards and two guides, was one of those routes considered at different times as the 'last great problem in the Alps'. It wasn't climbed again for 15 years and today is graded at TD+. (I don't know the Dent Blanche: there appear to be two 'North Ridges', the somewhat easier one of 1899 being the climb that killed the famous Owen Glynn Jones.)
Most of the climbs, however, are easier and more ordinary than that. Here and there, there's even some fellwalking. Her description of circling Great Gable by Moses Trod in the mist reminded me of Dorothy Wordsworth crossing the Kirkstone Pass, both writers appreciating the cloud-shrouded view of nothing much at all:
I went up into the obliterating mists, those drifting veils which thickening hide all distance, close in the sodden turf to a dim travelling region of the unexpected. The wind blew a fine rain into my face from the mysterious wall, wind brushing past, damp earth under my feet. What is that sensation that excites me so unaccountably?
So yes, her writing style is vigorous and a bit literary. Hardly surprising, given she was hobnobbing with TS Eliot and underrated poet Kathleen Raine, as well as her husband and climbing partner IA (Ivor) Richards, who really did write a book called The Meaning of Meaning.
Her book, and her life, inspired her great-grandnephew Dan Richards to take up climbing, just so's to follow her up the Dent Blanche. His book is also, confusingly, called Climbing Days. One over-excited reviewer in the Guardian described great-great-auntie as an "art deco goddess kitted out in knickerbockers and rolldown boots".
Climbing, in the 1920s, was already a pastime for peculiar people. One needed to be only slightly more peculiar to practise it while not being a bloke. And Pilley was far from alone. She followed Mary Mummery and Lily Bristow. Not to mention Gertrude Stein (a mountaineer as well as traveller) and Mrs Aubrey Le Blonde, who traversed the Zinal Rothorn and then traversed it back again to retrieve the respectable full length skirt she'd switched for breeches at the start of the climb. And in 1921 Pilley was one of the founders of the Pinnacle Club, dedicated to the idea that a woman won't ever experience the full delight of leading exposed rock until she gets rid of the patronising or over-anxious bloke at the other end of the rope.
Has climbing ever been as much fun as it was in the years between the two World Wars? I suppose you could say now is better, on the basis that back then you didn't get any climbing at all, enjoyable or otherwise, unless you were middle class and quite wealthy and moved among the small subgroup of academics and rural vicars who actually got the point of it. You could also say no on the basis that climbing with hobnailed boots on your feet is pretty awkward way to do it (Pilley fell over in hers while still inside the Wasdale Head Inn…).
The 1920s was when climbing was still simple: a rope and a couple of slings. Your climbing time was spent climbing not faffing around putting in protection, and it was reasonable to spend an afternoon climbing not one but all four of the Napes ridges on Great Gable.
Climbing was still dangerous. Even in the Lake District, the leader was not allowed to fall – though if the rope did break (it quite often did) at least the second wouldn't get dragged off the mountain as well. Still more so in the Alps, where the weather forecast consisted of looking at the stars at two in the morning and the avalanche forecast consisted of looking at the snow and hoping it wouldn't suddenly swoosh away. Pilley and her husband very nearly got killed in a crevasse collapse on their way down from the Weisshorn; in which case the world would have lost The Meaning of Meaning. But also, one of the best accounts we have of the sheer fun of climbing rocks, hills and mountains.
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