Almost every mountain.
Publisher: Faber & Faber
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 15th August 2016
Dan Richards discovers his great-great aunt by marriage, Dorothy Pilley, was a well-known mountaineer in the early 1900s. He sets out to find out more, staying in Cambridge to read the letters and articles left there by his aunt and her husband, Ivor, interviewing friends and family, and making various journeys of his own to cover the routes taken all those years ago.
Climbing Days is a humorous and intelligently written book that blends biographical history with a personal journey and nature writing. For its mix of subjects and the overall tone, it has wide appeal.
The book sports history in abundance. Richards spends a good few chapters sharing his research and the day to day of his time in Cambridge before he goes on to detail his own climbing ventures, adhering to his own chronology to set the scene. This means there’s a lot to get through but it’s peppered with anecdotes; the pace is swift. When it comes to Dorothy and Ivor themselves, the author favours subject over timeline, sectioning his text by mountain climbed. Richards writes from his own interests, telling the stories from a certain viewpoint with the result that you feel you know the couple very well. And he’s big on facts, using quotations liberally so you’re always hearing the thoughts of others.
As a reading experience it’s a delight. Richards’ style is friendly and inviting. There are footnotes aplenty, sometimes for reference purposes but mostly because the larger story surrounding the one being told he finds too good to leave out:
My mother’s Scottish grandmother, Margaret Greenland, was also famous for wearing a hat but she wore hers whilst she did the housework so that, should anyone come to the door, she could claim that she was ‘just on her way out’ and so not have to invite them in. She was a great exponent of ‘You’ll have had your tea’ as well, I’m told, from earliest afternoon onwards.
The writing is incredibly readable with the sort of attention to detail that means errors are few. It’s got that literary factor, good language, and articulation that at times may require a dictionary but never suggests the author used a thesaurus – there’s no pretentiousness here.
I picture the Pinnacles assembling – travelling to North Wales by train and motor car, collecting each other like raindrops on a window pane.
A lot of learning is part and parcel to the reading experience. Much of the studious detail is down to Ivor’s career in academia. Want to know why we as students in school and university have those difficult, often annoying exams in which we must study poems without knowing the context or who the poet is? Ivor Richards. Author Dan includes his own schooling, his time following the exam structure without knowing he was related to the man who created it.
‘In those days, even up in the Lakes, a girl couldn’t walk about a village in climbing clothes without hard stares from the women and sniggers from the louts.’1
Naturally there’s a lot of focus on women and independence. Women were not allowed to venture up a mountain alone so Dorothy’s younger brothers had to learn to climb. She left them far behind her when the time came. There is information about the first ladies’ climbing clubs, one of which Dorothy co-founded. And there are the blue prints for Richards’ 21st century follow-up journeying – Dorothy’s memoir, the original Climbing Days.
The climbs themselves see Richards travel to The Dent Blanche, The Lake District, and Barcelona among other places. Not a climber by nature, there are technical details included but a lot more about the room for error and danger, about training, and the process of climbing when you don’t know what you’re doing, all contrasted with Dorothy and Ivor’s passion and competence in a time when there were fewer safety measures.
It is Richards’ passion that makes Climbing Days what it is, that creates the broad appeal and enjoyment. There are no big surprises, no plot-like thrills, just that overall pleasure of reading, of the slow progress of the journey. It’s both escapist and anything but.
1 Taken from Pilley, Dorothy, ‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, no. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956; cited on page p.67.
August 17, 2016, 2:39 pm
My friends husband who is a keen climber would absolutely love this book. Having spent some time with her last week looking for the ideal birthday gift for him I think I might have found what she is looking for.
August 17, 2016, 5:35 pm
This sounds delightful. I love the bit about his Scottish grandmother! What fun discoveries to make about one’s relatives.
August 18, 2016, 9:39 am
Having spent many years researching my great grandfather’s life in the army, I i can relate to the fascination Richards developed when he learned about his relative’s life. Love the image of his grandmother doing housework in her hat. Pity is we can’t do that for annoying telephone cold callers
August 22, 2016, 4:26 am
This sounds like something I would enjoy reading, not just because of the topic, but to follow his research journey.
August 23, 2016, 4:51 pm
I think I would like this for multiple reasons–I love mountains and hiking (though not a real climber), travel, memoirs, and gutsy women doing interesting, non-conventional things. I like that it’s humorous and intelligently written–not all memoirs are.
August 31, 2016, 1:55 pm
Tracy: Awesome! I do think it’s a good choice for climbers and non-climbers alike. There’s something for both.
Stefanie: That’s currently my go-to reference when I’m trying to explain why it’s so fun.
Bookertalk: Yes, when you find something interesting and then think ‘and we’re related!’, it’s pretty great. Too true about callers!
Laurie: It is really good for that. You have the chapters completely focused on it but there’s never a point when it stops completely, the discoveries are relayed throughout.
Janet: Yes – it is all of those things :)