Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Women Climbing, by Birkett & Peascod

Bill Birkett and Bill Peascod write a concise history of female mountaineering in Women Climbing: 200 Years of Achievement. Their tome seems like a good start, though its publication in 1989 took place just as women climbers were exploding onto the scene. On the other hand, they catch women's climbing at an interesting time, as the greatest women climbers were beginning to match the exploits of men, such as Catherine Destivelle's climbing Grade 8 rock, Wanda Rutkiewicz's many Himalayan climbs, and the budding career of Alison Hargreaves. Peascod covers the early history, while Birkett writes of the modern climbers. I was already familiar with some of the early history of female climbers thanks to David Mazell's Mountaineering Women, but Peascod's history is considerably more thorough than an anthology such as Mazell's could ever be. I appreciated that he covered an international cast of climbers (though I wonder if female climbing was actually as British as portrayed, or if the British climbers were just more likely to write about their climbs). Peascod covers the transition of women climbers from seconds to leaders to the cordee feminine of the early Twentieth Century. I appreciated Birkett's contribution more, not because of any difference in quality of prose, but because of the first person interviews he gets from many of the icons of modern female climbing history, including Gwen Moffat, Junko Tabei, Evette Vaucher, and Louise Shepherd. I generally feel that I get more out of even a few sentences of someone speaking for herself than several pages written about her.

There are several women associated with Everest in this book: Junko Tabei, Evette Vaucher, Wanda Rutkiewicz, and Alison Hargreaves. This is the first resource in English that I've encountered that tells Tabei's story from her perspective and treats her Everest ascent seriously. Perhaps a lot of men are offended by her considering Everest "just another mountain." Vaucher comes to life in this book, and her trip to Everest involves more than hiding behind her husband and throwing snowballs at Norman Dyhrenfurth. Her climbs in the Alps show her to be one tough lady! Wanda Rutkiewicz has a lot to say in her interviews, and I feel that her feminist climbing philosophy comes through more clearly here than in her biography by Reinisch, A Caravan of Dreams. Hargreaves, in 1989, had yet to climb Everest. She seems excited by the prospects of female mountaineering. I found it interesting that she said in her interview that she doubted she had the stamina for many of the bigger climbs out there, as she would later make a name for herself doing long hard climbs!

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