The Library: Climbing Days, by Dan Richards – Review and Extract

Read by Paul Scraton:

We are extremely pleased to be adding to the Elsewhere Library on the blog not only a review of Climbing Days by Dan Richards but also an extract from the book. The co-author of Holloway with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, published in 2012, in writing Climbing Days Dan Richards has been on the trail of his great-great-aunt Dorothy Pilley, a pioneering woman mountaineer and author of a 1935 memoir about her adventures in the hills with her husband I.A. Richards that shares a title with this book. Using the memoir as a starting point and a destination list, Dan Richards heads off on a journey of discovery, as he writes a portrait of a remarkable woman and the places she has guided him to, as well as a book which also asks of us the question: why do people climb mountains?

Perhaps it is my own bias of place shining through, but if you start a book with a description of Llyn Idwal in Snowdonia – one of my favourite places in the world – then you have got off to a good start, and the book continues to fascinate throughout thanks some great descriptive writing about people and places; along the way Richards heads off to Cambridge, Wales, Scotland, Catalonia, the Alps and the Lake District. He interviews people who knew her, learns about his own family, and writes a convincing portrait not only of his great-great-aunt but also the society in which she operated, all with a wonderful turn of phrase and a dry sense of humour that you need if you are going to spend a considerable amount of time on the footpaths, hillsides and slabs of British mountains.

One of the strongest elements of the book is the exploration of the position of women, both in Dorothy Pilley’s class and era, but also in the mountains themselves. As Pilley herself wrote: “One had really done something drastic by becoming a climber.” Women such as Pilley were, in Richards’ memorable phrase “stabled more like horses than people,” and in one of the digressions that makes Climbing Days such an enjoyable read, Richards explores the life of Edwardian women and how, if escape for Pilley meant heading for the hills, for one of her friends it meant the Left Bank in Paris and modernist literature. The destination might be different, as well as the means of getting there, but the result was the same: Escape. 

All the while Richards makes use not only of Pilley’s published memoir but also letters and diaries, and it is through these writings that he begins to get towards an answer of the key question of the book – if not, at first, “why do people climb mountains” but “why did she?”:

“Reading Dorothea’s letters and diaries, mountains are always framed as free egalitarian space, territories unencumbered by the ho-hum regimes or social baggage.”

Now, I did not grow up in the same class as Dorothy Pilley, in the same era or of the same gender, but I can recognise what Richards is getting at here. Why do we climb mountains? Walk the hills? Explore the clifftops? What is it about landscape that draws us there, to follow the trodden path or the empty shore? Reading Climbing Days I was provoked into asking these questions of myself, which is a great credit to the book. In the process of that journey, of Richards’ journey and of Pilley’s as well, I was also entertained along the way. Enjoyable, funny and thought-provoking. What more could you want from your mountain literature, or any other book for that matter?

Extract from Climbing Days by Dan Richards:

The Pinnacle Club is a women’s mountaineering club founded in 1921 and of which Dorothy Pilley was one of the first members. In an early chapter, Dan Richards heads to the club’s hut in Wales to meet present-day members, climb with them, and explore the pioneering role of the Pinnacle Club in the years between the wars:

We arrived at Ogwen car park in light drizzle. It was good to be back but the sky looked foreboding so we hastily unloaded our kit from the boot and regrouped in the shiny new visitor centre.

Left alone in the atrium whilst the others went to the loo, I began to mull the coming hours, automatically picking up Hazel’s rope, which she’d earlier noted was badly wound. Rewinding it about my neck, I drifted off, pondering how the slopes above would be, whether the weather would clear up, how dark the valley would be this time, should I put my over-trousers on?

I came to with a jolt to find Hazel returned and staring at me with a face like thunder. She blinked and, raking me a look somewhere between revulsion and pity, advanced and took her rope from around my shoulders, before rapidly relooping the line with the deft automatic movements of a seasoned pro. In no time at all she’d formed a neat, symmetrical, unkinked spool devoid of twists – the opposite of what I’d done. Her idea of ‘badly wound’ I now realised would have been a major accomplishment for my ham hands.

The silence that followed was loud.

Emily and Margaret had now returned too – mourners at the wake of my self-respect. Even the day trippers inspecting the scale models and video displays around us seemed to be holding their breath.

Rain spat on the roof.

‘Shall we go?’ suggested Margaret.


The four of us walked out from the tourist centre into strengthening, blustery rain.
I carried some kit in a nylon bag which got steadily saturated and heavier as we went. Margaret had already raised the question of whether I was going to carry my kit in ‘that bag, like that’ and I had replied cheerily that ‘yes, yes I was’. Now it was becoming clear that I had made a bit of an error but, determined to brazen it out, I strode on, arm aching, implausibly jaunty.

We stepped up our pace along the stone path which follows round the lake. Wind swept past like buses, pushing us off balance. It became obvious to me that, after the rope incident, someone was now going to fall into the lake and die. Probably Margaret. That was all I needed.

First the rope debacle, now a death.

Hazel would never forgive me. It would be written up in the Pinnacle journal and I would not be allowed back to the hut, or Wales, ever again.

I walked on in resigned dudgeon and drizzle.

Earlier on our group had passed a man coming down the path who knew Hazel and Margaret. Wherever were we going? he asked, bemused. ‘To climb the slabs!’ we’d chorused, brightly . . . over-brightly perhaps. ‘It’s good practice to carry the kit up and back anyway,’ said Hazel with a tight smile.

That’s it, I thought to myself as we stumped wretchedly on, that’s what they’ll write: ‘Humouring the idiot who’d already destroyed a perfectly serviceable rope, the put-upon representatives of the Pinnacle Club carried all their kit up to Hope in a monsoon, during which fool’s errand Margaret drowned, Emily froze to death from shame and only Hazel’s volcanic rage spared her serious injury . . .’


At the slabs the weather was horrendous. The wind was blasting a vuvuzela cacophony. The rain thumped about and water sluiced down the sliding face. The rocks looked slick and soapy. We were not climbing here, that was clear. Yet we still stopped and took in the scene rather than turning on our heels and I was suddenly grateful for everyone’s forbearance. Emily took a hopeful stance upon a low flake pitch but the sodden ropes stayed bagged and looped about shoulders. A Promethean Joe Brown might have shinned up the glassy rock in socks without a backwards glance, but he was not around so, stopped, we stood. Too wet to sit down, we huddled to discuss how one might have gone about the slabs on another day – were the day a better day; were the day not bloody awful. Then we turned and started down, back the way we’d come. It was too miserable for the scenic route – a bloody awful day to be out.

Climbing Days by Dan Richards, is published on 16 June by Faber & Faber (£16.99)