By Sheila Scraton:
Last week in the Guardian I was fascinated to read a piece about women’s involvement in mountaineering in the early days of the development of the sport. It talks about some of the women pioneers, such as Lily Bristow and Lucy Walker, examples of the Victorian and Edwardian women who sought Alpine adventure and so often outraged those who thought that women had no place in such activities. This story certainly wasn’t new to me as I have been involved in women’s sport including mountaineering and climbing for the past forty years myself. The article traces the development of women’s early climbing, from the days when a woman sharing a tent with a man on an Alpine ascent scandalised society, through to the early part of the 20th century when women climbed the Matterhorn in skirts, making tenuous links between these early pioneers and the developing suffragist and feminist movement.
What was most interesting was not only the article itself but the responses it provoked on the site the next day. As always many criticised the article for failing to mention certain pioneering climbers and not recognising the achievements of climbers today. Of course these criticisms are valid although no brief newspaper article can cover everything. What it did for me was get me reminiscing about my early days climbing! I never managed to be a pioneer of mountaineering or indeed a hard climber. I learnt to climb in the 1970s. By then women were benefitting from those who had gone before. I don’t mean Victorian women but women such as Nea Morin, Gwen Moffat, Jill Lawrence, amongst others, who throughout the 60s and 70s were pushing the boundaries of their sport. My memories are of early days in the Llanberis Pass, Cwm Idwal, the cliffs on Holyhead mountain, the Devil’s Slide on Lundy Island. Of course there are many other days out in Scotland and the Lake District but it is these that are most precious in my memory bank.
Yet even when I was climbing in the 1970s, I was still very much in the minority. Very few women were out on the crags and those that were tended to be following a male leader. I was also developing my own feminist consciousness, so to head off with a woman friend and a rope to spend the day making it to the top of a multi-pitch climb, even if only VD or Severe was a fantastic experience. To feel the warm rock, to know you are moving in a balanced way reliant on your partner, sitting on a belay stance taking in the view, sharing responsibility……a real sense of freedom. Certainly not all women climbers are, or have been feminists. But climbing, like other physical activities, can give you a sense of control, enjoyment of moving, physical and mental challenges and the development of a skilful body. For me, my love of the mountains, be it walking in the Dales or those earlier experiencing of climbing steep rock, links to the confidence I have gained in other areas of my life and definitely to my feminism.
However, I hesitate here because I also know that in climbing as in many other areas of life women continue to have to strive to be accepted on equal terms. You don’t have to go back to Victorian times to hear these tales of stereotyping and inequalities. They may be more subtle but you only have to read about the lives of women climbers in the past decade to know that many views and behaviours still influence women’s experiences on the rock and in the mountains.
Meanwhile we can also marvel at the skill, grace, strength and ability of climbers today. We need look no further than Lucy Creamer, at the forefront of professional climbing, to realise that those early pioneers certainly must have helped pave the way for women who want to climb, be they like me in my earlier years as a recreational climber or indeed like Lucy Creamer, herself at the very top of the climbing tree/crag! Young women are now pushing the frontiers of climbing and I’m sure will be the inspiration for the generations to come.
Words: Sheila Scraton