Mountain Literature Classics: The Ridiculous Mountains by GJF Dutton

© Ronald Turnbull

Among mountaineering books, there are some that are fun – but only a select handful that are actually funny. Strange, in a way, given a sport that with its tenuous pleasures, its all too obvious discomforts, and its utterly gruesome style sense, so readily lends itself to being laughed at.

The Ridiculous Mountains  © UKH Articles

When it comes to mocking Scottish hill-going, this series has already covered Muriel Gray's The First Fifty. Well this book is the opposite. Pedantic and classical rather than streetwise; and where Gray is 5' 4" of cheeky Glaswegian, Dutton was six and a half feet of naily-booted academic Edinburgh[*], and mainstream Scottish Mountaineering Club: indeed, the editor of its Journal. His book is male and bearded, and covers all forms of hill activity including proper rock and ice work, top-bagging, and a nasty half-night in a snowhole.

Like Muriel Gray, it's set entirely in Scotland. "But … the Scottish hills are extensive enough to display almost the full horrendous spectrum of today's mountain activity and anti-activity".

The 'today' in question being the 1970s. This was just when Scottish mountaineering of the beard and long ice axe sort was giving way to fiercer, fitter, and less genteel folk with short axes and two of them at a time. Dutton has fun with this social moment, teaming 'The Doctor', six foot two of tweed and naily boots, with 'The Apprentice', young, extremely capable, and probably Glaswegian. The third member of the rope, the unnamed narrator, is there to be shown up by the other two and occasionally vomited on by a fulmar.

Slimy and vegetatious: reading about the Doctor's preferred kind of crag  © Ronald Turnbull
Slimy and vegetatious: reading about the Doctor's preferred kind of crag
© Ronald Turnbull

The Apprentice, quiet, determined, and competent, could perhaps be the young Dougal Haston. But Dutton's main fun is reserved for the Doctor, a nineteenth-century kind of character, always ready with an unexpected way of being uncomfortable around the 3000ft contour line (or in one chapter, actually underground). He could be a portrait of Dr JHB (Jimmie) Bell: the creator of the classic Long Climb (1400ft, VS) on the Orion Face of Ben Nevis; lover of loose and vegetated rocks, ideally ones on Lochnagar. Or it could be a satirical picture of Dutton himself, a man of rugged exterior (though without a beard) and hidden depths.

Geoff Dutton  © GJF Dutton
A biochemist by profession, fellow of the Royal Academy of Edinburgh, poet and gardener, he was also a devotee of white-water snorkel diving. What we used to call 'swimming' is now 'wild swimming' – but Dutton's swimming really was wild.

So, I ask my 98-year-old father and former SMC man, what was he like, Geoff Dutton? Did he indeed resemble the Doctor in the stories?

"Yes," says my Dad simply. "A very nice man."

As editor of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal (and probably editing UKHillwalking is much the same) it's always easier to write it yourself rather than editing somebody else. But apart from filling some odd pages of the Journal, the Doctor's outings do have an agenda of sorts. The two kinds of climber, the old goat and the young tiger, were equal forms of mountain fun, equally deserving of respect. In a time when ice climbers sneer at peak baggers sneer at fellrunners and everybody sneers at people in caravans, it does seem a worthwhile lesson.

Cruach Ardrain: the Doctor snowholed at the bottom and paraglided off the top of this favoured hill  © Ronald Turnbull
Cruach Ardrain: the Doctor snowholed at the bottom and paraglided off the top of this favoured hill
© Ronald Turnbull

Well, apart from those folk in caravans. Both Muriel Gray and Dutton get sarcastic about them lot. But it's for Dutton that they are 'glassy packets of suburbia parked on the Precambrian'.

A second volume, Nothing So Simple as Climbing, brings the Doctor a couple of decades closer to the present day, with episodes of paragliding, mountain bikes and a climbing wall. Some things change, and some stay the same. Long may the Doctor's tricouni-nails continue to tramp across the hills of Scotland.

[*Note: stated altitudes of Gray and Dutton have been estimated by triangulation from other nearby writers and should not be relied on for bagging purposes]

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14 Sep, 2021

On the one occasion I saw him, he did indeed come across as a very nice man. As his photograph suggests, he was wry, ironic, witty, with a fine sense of the ridiculous.


14 Sep, 2021

I was three chapters in before I realised it was fiction 😊

14 Sep, 2021

A classic, which I often return to. It is always as funny and ridiculous as it was the first time. Wonderful.

14 Sep, 2021

he is 98 years of age ??

14 Sep, 2021

trivial point but he was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh rather than a Royal Academy of Edinburgh (don't think the 2nd exists but may be wrong).

I used to look forward to them appearing in SMC journal year by year before they were published as a collection but wonder if today's younger climbers still find them as entertaining ?

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