Itching to Climb by Barbara James

Review by Sheila Scraton:

“By now I’d led two classic climbs, graded hard severe plus, in the Llanberis pass. They were on a dramatic lump of rock, Dinas y Gromlech, usually abbreviated to The Cromlech that stood, like a vertically opened book, above a steep scree slope. The well- protected ‘Cenotaph Corner’, in the ‘spine’ of the book was a mixture of bridge and balance moves but ‘Cemetry gates’, a climb on the vertical right-hand wall was harder. I needed strong arms because hanging from the fingers of one hand, I needed the other to reach upwards and insert a protecting runner. I used my powerful thigh muscles as much as possible to move upwards”

This book, about the life of the climber Barbara James, stirred many personal memories for me as I read about her many exploits both on and off the rock.  ‘Itching to Climb’ is a very personal account of Barbara’s life, particularly her traumatic struggles with eczema and other serious allergies. The book is the story of a determined, capable woman that not only provides an interesting read but is also focused on encouraging others to follow their dreams and pursue their goals.

Barbara was born with the debilitating condition of eczema and other allergies that meant her childhood was one of ill health, sleeping in a strait jacket to stop her scratching and reducing her body to weeping and bleeding sores. It was a school trip to Snowdonia, Wales that changed her life. Here she fell in love with mountains, breathing fresh mountain air for the first time that allowed unrestricted movement, experiencing the joy of her body in movement and a strong, powerful physicality. She met other walkers, climbers and instructors who helped an inward looking, young woman gain confidence in herself and start to engage in a social life with others. The climbs quoted above may seem fairly ‘ordinary’ to climbers in 2012, but Barbara was climbing in the late 1960s and early 1970s when seeing women lead in the Llanberis Pass was still a very rare event. Barbara was one of the first women to lead these iconic climbs, demonstrating just how far she had travelled from an insecure, sickly child to a strong, pioneer female climber, leading the way for many who followed.

But the story doesn’t end here. The book details wonderful experiences: Barbara as one of the first female climbing instructors; being a member of an early mountain rescue team; being the first and perhaps the only woman civilian employed by the Ministry of Defence to train soldiers in the outdoors; learning to fly at the age of 50 and flying solo around Florida; travelling as a solo woman to the Falkland Islands and visiting St Kilda (a remote island far off the coast of Scotland); living in Tenerife (to gain the benefits of a warm climate for her eczema) as an older woman, learning Spanish and to play the guitar, dealing with a very different culture but coping and becoming a close friend to many local Canarian people. The book also hints at the great difficulties Barbara has faced, personal problems that needed to be overcome but throughout there is warmth and a humour that comes shining through.

For me reading the book was also a personal journey down memory lane. I first met Barbara in the early 1970s. I was teaching in Liverpool and on a course to qualify for a Mountain Leadership Certificate. Barbara was a part-time instructor who came out with us. I remember her taking up a position at the back of the group, shy but very friendly and happy to chat. Most of all I remember just how competent she was, moving over rough ground and rock with superb balance, physically extremely fit….I wanted to be like her! Later as she went through difficult personal times she became a friend. We visited Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel for a week’s climbing. Memories of a wonderful day climbing ‘The Devil’s Slide’, a huge ‘slide’ shaped cliff high above the crashing waves below. Not a difficult climb but a spectacular location. Later on my 40th birthday, which I was celebrating on Anglesey, Wales, I received a phone call from Barbara. She had just gained her pilot’s license and would I like a short flight that morning around Anglesey! In, what seemed to me, a tiny plane she had chartered on the island, the two of us soared over the coast below that normally I was walking around or canoeing along with a backdrop of the mountains of Snowdonia that we both loved so much.  I even took the controls and had my first experience as a pilot, if only for a few moments.

This is not a professional writer, it is a personal story about overcoming difficulties, adventure, travel, climbing, many moments of extreme happiness and some moments of sadness and at times despair. The book is a fascinating read.  Barbara funded the production and publication of the book herself and wrote it primarily to raise awareness of eczema and to hopefully inspire others with the condition to fulfil their own dreams.  Now in her 70s, Barbara continues to have determination and this book contributes not only as an inspiration to others suffering such a debilitating condition but to all those who share her love for the mountains and the outdoors in general.

James, B. (2009) Itching to Climb Leicester, Troubador Publishing.

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