Anna Fedorova gives her review of Bill Birkett and Bill Peascod’s book Women Climbing, a 200-year history of female achievement:
Bill Peascod and Bill Birkett bring the 200-year history of women climbing to life in their book.
Women have been scaling Alpine peaks and higher mountains since the 1800’s, but the challenge for those women making the first tentative steps into the world of climbing and mountaineering was far greater than anything we can imagine today – unable to wear trousers or going out on the mountains alone without male companions for fear of being shunned by society, they had to make do with the options they had. With this in mind, their achievements seem all the more impressive.
The best thing for me about the history of women climbing is that it was written by two men, and in the 1980’s no less, when women were still not quite as prominent in the climbing scenes at they are now. Nowadays, when you read any climbing magazine there are stories about Hazel Findlay leading yet another terrifyingly extreme trad climb, or Shauna Coxsey winning yet another bouldering competition, but we forget how hard-earned this level of acceptance is, and what generations of women had to go through to be seen as equals to men.
Bill Peascod and Bill Birkett bring that to life in their book, which recounts some of the key contributors to female climbing during its 200-year history.
Bringing history to life
It is just unfortunate this book was written such a long time ago and doesn’t include some of the names we have come to know and love. But then, it’s those women that have made climbing history that we need to remember and be grateful to, those women who no longer adorn our glossy magazines.
In many ways the book reads like a historical account – in chronological order, the authors go through some of the key events in climbing history and the women who stood out during those periods, but it doesn’t feel dry, like some history books, because each woman’s story is coloured with her personal history, her individual struggle and, sometimes, the tragedy that surrounded her passion and the sacrifices she made for climbing.
It is structured as a variety of short stories about important periods and achievements for women’s climbing through the 200 years of history it covers, focusing on one prominent female figure representing each of these periods.
As I expected, much of the book focused on mountaineering achievements, but I was pleased to see that women preferring sunny days out on the rocks or bouldering at Fontainebleau were not ignored, either. Australian Louise Shepherd, who preferred climbing on rock, and French climber Catherine Destivelle, who honed her skills on the French sandstone boulders, are honoured for their achievements on rock (though both of them have something to be proud of in the world of mountaineering, too), while the authors also hail the mountaineering achievements of the likes of Junko Tabei, the first women to make it to the top of Everest.
The authors give a remarkable overview of the climbing scene in the UK, with pioneers such as Gwen Moffatt shaping the face of British climbing, but they don’t stop there. The book is brought alive through personal interviews, with a particularly touching conversation with Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz, as well as other contemporaries, adding a fresh element of authenticity to the account.
Would I recommend this book?
I learned a lot about the history of women climbing through this book, but at the same time it was entertaining reading material. At times shocking, and times upsetting, and always awe inspiring, the stories of these women who have paved the way for us to be able to enjoy the sport shoulder to shoulder with our male companions should not be ignored or forgotten. It’s something every female climber should be aware of and grateful for.
I would recommend it to anyone, male or female, who wants to know a bit more about female achievement in the world of mountaineering and climbing. You will no doubt find a new level of respect for what women have achieved and how far they have come in this sport since they took their first uncertain steps into the mountains.
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