Top 6 women’s mountaineering books

Posted by Team BMC on 08/03/2024

Long-time BMC volunteer Lynn Robinson became the first female BMC President in 2018. Lynn’s contribution to the BMC has been huge, ranging from co-editing climbing guidebooks, judging the Women in Adventure film competition, co-chair of the Women’s Development Group and trustee of the charity Blackdog Outdoors.

However, you might not know she is also an avid collector of women’s mountaineering books. Lynn now has over 500 written, edited or translated by women, dating back over a hundred years. She says, “When I was chatting to Gordon Stainforth [renowned filmmaker, photographer, author and climber] about it recently, he commented that he thought it might be the most extensive private collection of its type. Who knows!” We interviewed Lancashire-born Lynn, now based in Nottingham, to find out more about her and share her top 6 women’s mountaineering book recommendations.

How did you get into the outdoors?

From hill-walking and scrambling, I took up traditional climbing and joined my local university mountaineering club, climbing my first route outdoors at Froggatt in Derbyshire in the late 1980s. Since then I’ve climbed, walked and mountaineered around the world including Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America. My local climbing community is around Nottingham and the Peak, where I climb and boulder indoors regularly, taking part in local bouldering competitions, where I can challenge myself. On a wider scale, I have mountaineered around the world, including Nepal, Ecuador, Egypt, Caucasus, and The Alps. I’ve winter climbed, aid climbed, and sport climbed extensively. Being in the mountains, whether I am walking or climbing, is where I ‘recharge my batteries’. 

Your mountaineering highlights?

Highlights include: soloing long grade II winter routes in Scotland; leading 5.10 routes in Joshua Tree; trad new routing in Sinai; completing both the Cuillin Ridge traverse and Lake District four 3,000 foot peaks in under 24-hours. Also, ever since attending an Alex Roddie talk on light-weight long distance walking I’ve been inspired to complete several long distance walks, including the TGO challenge across Scotland and the Pennine Way.

When did you start your women’s mountaineering book collection?

The collection is by or about women, or both. Given the lack of coverage, I originally had little idea that there were more than a few volumes. In the early 2000s I was bought a second-hand copy of “Women on the Rope - The Feminine Share in Mountain Adventure” by Cicely Williams (published in 1973) from the shop at the National Mountaineering Exhibition at Rheged. Up until then, most of my mountaineering books were by men, about men. I was intrigued to learn about women’s contribution to climbing and mountaineering and so started to buy and read the books listed in the bibliography. I was also bought a 1989 paperback edition of “Climbing Days” by Dorothy Pilley: this was so enjoyable. 

As I was beginning to explore the mountains more, I became interested in the history of routes. I especially remember climbing Nea [Wales] and feeling totally inspired in the knowledge that the first ascent was by Nea Morin in 1941. This climb also features in another of my books, “A Woman’s Reach” published in 1968. My attention turned to Gwen Moffat when the film Operation Moffat was produced in 2015.

More recently I’ve expanded the range of my collection to cover broader topics that relate to wider BMC activity. I currently have about 450 separate titles and an even larger number on a potential ‘to buy’ list. It’s amazing that such an extensive contribution to mountain adventure and writing is so little known.

Which female author do you have the most of and why?

Gwen Moffat, by far! I currently have 25 titles (multiple copies of some) and am still collecting. I’m currently working my way through reading her Miss Pink crime novels, set in the mountains of course. I have found Gwen’s autobiographies to be incredibly inspiring. My local book club in Nottingham, even read, “Space Below My Feet”. Okay, I admit it, the book club members are women, mostly climbing friends, but thanks Gemma for getting me to read it…again. 

I like to alternate reading autobiographies with reading fiction and thrillers that are set in the mountains, what’s there not to like?

Most exciting find?

My most exciting book find is an edition of Elizabeth Coxhead’s, “June in Skye” (1938). After having read “One Green Bottle” by the same author, a close friend, who is also an avid book collector, starting talking to me about “June in Skye”. He had been searching for a copy for about 20 years. I happened to locate a copy: I bought it with the promise to lend it to him so he could read it. I have very special memories of mountaineering in both North Wales and Skye, the location where the books are set, but I actually enjoyed “June in Skye” more than “One Green Bottle”. I don’t know whether it’s to do with the luck in obtaining such a rare book or the twist in the tale that emerges over the last few pages (don’t worry, no spoilers!), or how the inspirational female central characters are portrayed. Despite being fiction, it’s obvious that they are written by a climber, as with Gwen’s crime novels.

Your top 6 women’s mountaineering books? 

This is a really tough question to answer, mainly because there are so many different genres that I collect, be they novels, autobiographies, biographies, collections, travelogues, mountain environment, poetry, photography, books translated by women, guidebooks, journals (for example The Pinnacle Club Journals are packed full of exciting accounts of all-female expeditions), instruction manuals, comedic writing, children’s books, and even cartoon satire. I’m going to cheat a bit, and give it ‘as read’ that I would recommend all the books already mentioned, which are classics for a reason!

Also, it’s fair to say that I haven’t read all my collection yet, but I’ve just been and picked six favourites off my book case, so in no particular order:

  1. “The Living Mountain” by Nan Shepherd. I’ve so many happy memories and experiences of the Cairngorms, in all seasons, and this book immersed me straight back into those memories and has so much relevance to modern conservation.
  2. “A Hard Day’s Summer” by Alison Hargreaves. Just because what she achieved and in such circumstances, makes her such a truly remarkable role model.
  3. Winter 8000” by Bernadette McDonald…or anything by Bernadette to be fair. She totally brings to life the suffering involved in climbing 8,000 metre peaks in winter based on such meticulous research.
  4. “Black Car Burning” by Helen Mort. A fantastic, creative novel. Intertwining the real life event, the Hillsborough disaster that I remember so vividly, with rock climbing – brilliant (as is anything by Helen). 
  5. “Four Miles High” by Josephine Scarr. An adventure from 1961 that would still be classed as adventurous in 2024. The edition published in 2021 to celebrate 100 years of The Pinnacle Club, includes an interesting up-to-date appendix.
  6. “The Carbon Cycle” by Kate Rawles. Not strictly a mountaineering book, but most definitely a book about adventure, conservation and sustainability. I finished reading it about a year ago, and I’m still thinking about it and asking questions.

Anything else you would like to mention? 

I love going to Kendal Mountain Festival and always try to attend the sessions by female authors. In the past few years I’ve been to the most inspirational readings. For example, I remember going to the eclectic session by Sarah-Jane Dobner, which featured readings by her from her book “A Feeling for Rock”. Also, I still have shivers going down my spine when I remember Faye Rhiannon Latham reading an extract from An Avalanche that features in her book “British Mountaineers”. Listening to Helen Mort read some of her poems is also a very special experience.

I’m very much looking forward to finishing working my way through my book collection, and of course adding to it. 

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