Dan Richards on the trail of his great-great aunt Dorothy Pilley, (and by association her husband I.A. Richards, the father of literary criticism) and to be honest we were on the trail of the man himself at Port Eliot Festival. As I recall this was a case of book in book tent selling the event to me and the Happy Campers because, having read the end-flap information of Climbing Days as we browsed, we all realised that this was one we couldn't miss, except it wasn't in the programme so had to be a late addition.
'In Climbing Days, Dan Richards is on the trail of his great-great-aunt, Dorothy Pilley, a prominent and pioneering mountaineer of the early twentieth century. For years, Dorothy and her husband, I. A. Richards, remained mysterious to Dan, but the chance discovery of her 1935 memoir, Climbing Days, leads him on a journey. Perhaps, in the mountains, he can meet them halfway?
Following in the pair's footholds, Dan begins to travel and climb across Europe, using Dorothy's book as a guide. Learning the ropes in Wales and Scotland, scrambling in the Lake District, scaling summits in Spain and Switzerland, he closes in on the serrate pinnacle of Ivor and Dorothy's climbing lives, the mighty Dent Blanche in the high Alps of Valais.
What emerges is a beautiful portrait of a trailblazing woman, up to now lost to history - but also a book about that eternal question: why do people climb mountains?'
Someone asked someone who asked someone until eventually we had a day and time, so there we were, parked on the wobbly benches in the Caught by the River tent ready and waiting.
With apologies to Dan Richards this is probably the worst picture ever taken of him but it is the only one I took. There he is seated, holding a copy of his book as he is introduced and there's the interviewer, gripping the sides of his chair in expectation. Never mind, at least you get the gist...big tent, lots of amplifiers, sun shining and had I still been doing the dovegreyreader tent at Port Eliot Dan would have definitely been on my list to talk to...there were lots of 'women-orientated' questions I wanted to ask.
Climbing Days is a testament to the life of Dorothy Pilley, born in 1894, the eldest of four siblings and growing up in the Edwardian era when
'The unlicensed thoughts and actions of independent female minds were to be snuffed out at source.'
Dan creates a clear and unambiguous picture of 'infantilised middle-class young Englishwomen suffering a kind of de-humanising house arrest', all of which makes Dorothy's life even more remarkable given that at the age of nineteen her father won't even let her travel alone across London in broad daylight. Yet there she is, some years later, climbing the North Ridge of the Dent Blanche in the Swiss alps, not only the first woman to do so, but the first person to do so.
Woven into his discoveries about the life of his great great aunt is Dan Richards own quest to follow in her footsteps...except that...well it would be fair to say that Dan is not an experienced Alpine climber. A crash (maybe wrong word) course in mountain survival in the Cairngorms goes some way to preparing him for a bit of belaying and bivouacking but not quite enough for the expedition with his father to summit the Dent Blanche by Dorothy's route for themselves.
'I didn't really know what to expect; this was not much like the Cairngorms. It was not like anything I'd done before. And it came as a shock when Tim said that he didn't remember it being such a massive undertaking; that he didn't remember it being such hard hard work.'
It's deadly serious but alright to laugh I think because obviously Dan makes it back down or no book, but it's all a lot harder than his dad remembers it on the one occasion that he had climbed it as a young man. For Dan it must have been terrifying, though throughout the book he coats his fear in humour which makes for some wonderful reading. Dan barely makes it to the mountain hut, which is the starting point for the climb (Dorothy of course had been up and down there like a whippet) so it is little wonder that things go wrong and the pair are benighted on the mountain fearing for their lives. Benighted as in trapped overnight...Dan talked about this at Port Eliot and it took slow old me a while to catch on that this didn't involve kneeling in front of HRH and arising a 'Sir'.
It all gives credence to the skills and tenacity of Dorothy and her husband Ivor Richards who were doing the same climb without the benefit of polar fleece and mobile phones. In fact Dan's phone conks out, but not before he has managed to send a text message to friend Robert Macfarlane. If you are going to 'phone a friend' whilst stuck at umpteen thousand feet I can't think of a better one.
He set out with his dad, sending lovely photos to me, then I heard nothing for 15 hours. I woke up to find a text saying, "We're benighted in Dent Blanche, can you ring the hut keeper [at the foot of the mountain]." So I rang but no one answered and I thought, "Crap they're all out looking for Dan and his dad!"
In fact no rescue required but as if a night perched on the bare mountain wasn't bad enough, waiting for them back at the hut is the hut guardian on the warpath...
'...the guardian appeared holding the most passive-aggressive pair of binoculars I have ever seen in my life. She gave us a prolonged shellacking and we took it.'
With self-effacing humour and humility and much respect, Dan Richards pieces the book together, interspersing family history and anecdotes with his own adventures and Dorothy's whilst building a fascinating picture of her life. The difficulties that Dan encounters added to the success and appeal of Climbing Days for me, serving to emphasise just how remarkable Dorothy's achievements were, revealing a woman who was level-headed, self-sufficient and capable, fearless but not foolhardy. Practical solid people, stoic but not self-deceiving and climbing in the days when to be a pioneer was still possible.... but to be a woman and do it was nigh on unheard of.
Singular and different and proudly so, like Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain), Dorothy feels alive and whole in the mountains and was still walking in the hills into her nineties, though a car accident resulting in a hip injury would end her climbing career. But my favourite image of her and Ivor and one remembered and much-appreciated by the children in the family, is that of the childless aunt and uncle returning from their travels bearing gifts 'with just a hint of danger' ...the bows and arrows with sharpened tips, the Davy Crockett gun and holster.
We always got the best presents from those childless aunts and uncles too. Sadly our bow and arrows were confiscated after my brother and I invented a game whilst my mum and dad were at Evensong. It involved one of us standing in the back garden and one in the front to see if we could fire the arrows over the roof of the house. As it turned out we couldn't, but by some fluke my brother did shoot one straight through a tiny open window which then fixed itself firmly to the bedroom ceiling. The damage looked minimal to us but clearly wasn't and then the neighbours ratted on us so it was game over.
But I digress, there is much more to Climbing Days than I have covered here, most importantly Dorothy's own book of the same name in which she writes about her mountaineering life and which provides a blueprint for Dan's own journey. My next big hope, having met her through the pages of Dan's book, is that somehow, like Nan Shepherd's book, The Living Mountain, Climbing Days by Dorothy Pilley will be rescued by a publisher from obscurity, and the astronomical pricing of original copies, to make it available for us all to read.