Gwen Moffat // Interview
Gwen Moffat is an inspiration. She began climbing just after the war, leaving the army to live a transient life in hills, cliffs and mountains of Cornwall, Wales, Scotland and far beyond. She became the first British female Guide. She lived on a boat with her daughter, travelled and climbed widely and latterly moved to the Lake District to continue her extremely successful writing career. As a climber, Gwen broke ground, defying the conventions of the 1940’s and 50’s, paving the way for other female climbers to be different.
For anyone who hasn’t read one of your books, could you give us a brief rundown of your climbing history – when you started, where you’ve climbed.
I started climbing in New Year 1946, in North Wales, aged 21. My first route was on easy slabs, but iced-up; the second harder: walls, cracks and a chimney in the rain, and a hairy descent in the dark. Since then I’ve climbed in Britain from Cornwall to the Isle of Skye; in the French, Swiss, Italian and Slovenian Alps; in the Rockies and the Sierras in the USA.
What inspired you to start climbing?
An aunt climbed in the Himalayas and the Lake District so I grew up with an adventurous woman in my family background. Then with World War Two over and nothing exciting to do I met a climber, deserted from the Army and spent the rest of my life in mountains.
Knowledge and advice for young female climbers? Watch and learn. Read. You quickly weed out the good mentors or leaders from the careless ones; the same goes for the climbing writers. I was inspired by Geoffrey Winthrop Young, Colin Kirkus, W.H. Murray. Others followed but these were the ones who made the initial impact.
Join a club. On the whole women make the best teachers. They are better at judging their own limits and those of their seconds. To sum up: climb for pleasure, not competition. Get to know what you can do and stay within your limits, never forgetting that limits rise with experience. And you learn more from your mistakes than you do from the climbs when everything went right.
Do you think that being a parent and a climber is compatible?
Being a parent and a climber is not compatible. The sense of responsibility kicks in with the first awareness of pregnancy and increases, so your standard of climbing drops. There is the more practical problem of time after the birth of a child at least until she or he is of an age to go with you, but how can an infant hold a falling leader? Fine if both parents are on the rope but what to do if the child doesn’t like climbing – or mountains? Everyone must work it out for themselves. If climbing means most to you, don’t have children. If you need babies, give up climbing for some of your most active years.
What’s the most important thing you’ve done in your life and why?
Perhaps the most important event was taking the decision to desert from the Army and live for six months with honest conscientious objectors, With them I learned self-reliance and started to acquire some sense of responsibility at the same time.
During your climbing career what were the most significant changes you noticed?
The most significant has been in improved safety methods epitomised by highly sophisticated equipment, and a consequent reliance on security. In addition there has been a vast improvement in cold- and wet-weather clothing. All of this has increased the standard of performance on both rock and snow.
You climbed barefoot – why and how is it different to climbing in rock shoes?
Barefoot climbing (in summer conditions) is better because there is direct contact with the rock, and no constriction on the toes.
What’s your fondest climbing memory?
Too many fond climbing memories to relate but the best were not the hardest routes which could be uncomfortable and dangerous. The most delightful times were on dry rock, in warm weather, with everyone in the party on form and having fun. Long routes guiding on Skye for instance or leading my first Very Severe in Snowdonia.
Is there anything you regret not doing during your climbing career?
I have no regrets. I have retreated several times, from big routes, mostly because of bad weather, but retreat was a matter of tactics, and relief that you weren’t going to be benighted, or worse. I do regret that there has never been enough time: to ski more, to ride more horses, explore more wild country….
Who would you like to meet, dead or alive?
The aunt who climbed in the Himalayas.
Is there anywhere you would have liked to have climbed, but haven’t?
The Wind River Range in Wyoming, Mount Kenya, the Weisshorn traverse, the Zmutt ridge on the Matterhorn, the Mer de Glace face of the Grepon. Just for starters.
As a climber we become used to losing friends to the sport. Throughout your long climbing career how did this affect you and how did/do you cope with it?
There is always survivor’s guilt. In the most extreme case, I spent six months following 19th century pioneers trundling across the American West in ox-drawn wagons, concentrating on the women. In becoming involved with them I recovered equilibrium.
When climbing did you ever think ‘I’m going to die’?
Thought of imminent death? Thoughts of coming off the next hard move or of being benighted in bad weather only spur you on to find the last reserves of energy – or the penultimate ones because you’ve still got to get down. In a blizzard, alone on Ben Nevis, I didn’t think of dying. Instinct took over and I just put one foot in front of the other. An even closer shave was lightning striking all around us on the traverse of the Meije and the axes singing with electricity and there was nothing we could do except go on. I found it highly exhilarating but I did think lightning killed you instantaneously.
What made you decide to hang up your climbing boots?
I stopped climbing because I no longer trusted myself not to fall and which would put a heavy responsibility on my second. So I soloed easy routes until I realised that a fall would involve a rescue team and humiliation so I gave up rock climbing in my mid-seventies. Now rising 90, I get as much pleasure pottering on little hills as I did romping in the Cuillins over sixty years ago.
Thanks to Gwen for her time in answering our questions.
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