Climbing Days

History often forgets the whispers of remarkable women. But today, we rediscover Dorothy Pilley, a pioneering climber who co-founded the Pinnacle Club and shattered expectations in a man’s world. Her great-great nephew Dan Richards, gives us a glimpse into her adventures.

By Dorothy Pilley & Dan Richards

Dorothy Pilley’s 1935 memoir, Climbing Days, is a wonderful record of derring-do, delight in high places, a women living her life to the full against the odds, social expectation and constraints of her age. She blazed a trail and helped others up in her wake – perhaps her most enduring legacy is co-founding The Pinnacle Club in Snowdonia, the world’s first female climbing club, with the aim of encouraging rock climbing and mountaineering among women (the club celebrated its centenary in 2021). I first read the Climbing Days in my early 20s and it inspired me to learn to climb and follow her into mountains in the UK, Europe and beyond and eventually publish a book about her amazing adventures.

Pilgrimage is personal and often ambiguous. Memories are abstract, in constant flux. It’s easier to store and organise paper archives than moments in landscape long ago. It’s comforting to think of documents and records as facts, but in Dorothy’s case they often seem more invitations to explore elsewhere. Without physical interaction with rocks, half the story is denied – in retrospect, of course I followed my great grand aunt into the mountains, there was no other option. To be vicarious would have left my book a dimension short and betrayed it subject twice over.

‘Climbing’, Dorothy once wrote, ‘went down into the very form and fabric of myself’, the mountains the place she where she felt ‘most ardently alive.’ This was the case throughout her long life but Climbing Days captures the wonder and elation of her initiation and early years on rock and finding her way in such storied scapes at The Lake District, Snowdonia, and Swiss Alps. One of the reasons I love ‘The Good Young Days’, an article Dorothy wrote in 1956 is the sense that she is unpacking her early memories of the Lakes. Half the recollection is a roll-call of climbers, famous and half-forgotten, heroes and heroines’ who must be mentioned and hroughout there’s a marvellous sense of kinship in landscape – a generous celebration of people and place and that magical third thing, the shared joy of climbing.

Names and anecdotes tumble over the page, her writing is brimful of smiles and fraternity – ‘I am approaching later years (I am trying to stop by 1926),’ she writes ‘and there is a chance that I may accidentally leave out some well-loved name. The minute I let this go a string of deeply remembered figures frequenting Wasdale will stalk across my memory’s screen.’ She quotes part of a letter written by Pat Kelly – ‘to whom I owe so much’ – about a solo climb she made from Deep Ghyll, as an example of what climbing meant to ‘this remarkable personality who was the chief inspirer of the Pinnacle Club’ –


A bite of lunch in Deep Ghyll, some moderate climbing to get warm and to gain confidence, and then a delight which only a rock-climber can appreciate – to stand on a mere inch or so of rock and look down an almost sheer 200 feet: the awesome exhilaration of a delicate, airy, upward step to a toehold on which to balance before grasping a firm bit of rock securely with both hands and so raising oneself on and up to the land of pure delight – out in the sunshine to sit on top of Pisgah and have a view to satisfy all hill lovers. Just across the way was the Pike, with its summit cairn and new War Memorial. Gable, Kirkfell, Yewbarrow, the Screes: the very names will call up the picture to one who knows.(‘The Good Young Days’, Journal Of The Fell And Rock Climbing Club, No. 50, Vol. 17 (III), 1956) There may have been no view in 2015 when I climbed the same route with my friend Erin, but we gleaned more of the world, came closer to knowing.

Climbs are invisible, people pass away, but rocks and stories endure. We had adventures, looked after each other, engaged with the mountains in the same spirit as Dorothy and her circle delighted in the landscape and, through such acts of care and adventure, I hope we honoured them and added to the ongoing story. I’m delighted that Canongate have republished Climbing Days so a new generation can enjoy Dorothy’s writing, passion, wit and all round rizz. Perhaps it will inspire you to journeys out and up, as it did me. If so, good luck. Take care. Go well.

This section is from page 97 to 103 and taken from Chapter 4: CHAPTER IV THE LAKE DISTRICT

The Napes Needle—Cairns or no cairns—Handholds of the Great—Club climbing—A fatal delay—Coleridge on Borrowdale—My room or yours?—Rain-charm—Lost in the mist—A Niagara of scree on Gable—Foodless for twenty days—Owen Glynne Jones—Fell walking—Natural hazards—Scafell Pinnacle Face—The Pinnacle Club—Peace Night. One glorious May morning there was a stir at Wasdale. Eustace Thomas was expected at early breakfast-time. He was to drop in for refreshment on one of the preliminary surveys or trials for his famous Fell Walk. ‘Drop in’ indeed he seemed to do. Pat and H. M. Kelly—who gave me so many memorable climbing days—were lounging with me in the lane on the look-out, our eyes straying over the slopes of Yewbarrow.

Suddenly, like two little, rolling, hopping balls, he and Wakefield (who held the record and was pacing him) came dashing incredibly down the fell. In the Complete Walk the following times for this section are recorded: ‘Yewbarrow Cairn was reached by Dorehead and Stirrup Crag at 7.13¾. Doubling back obliquely on course 65°, a good run of small scree was struck, and Wasdale Head was made at 7.30½.’ No one who saw them would consider this counting of split-seconds a mere pedantry. There followed a pause for a bath and rub-down. Then off they went for Scafell. It was an exquisitely clear morning and they came out, as sharply as shadow-figures in a Chinese silhouette-show, against the sky. All the way up the sky-line the eye could follow them till they vanished over the top. It was hard to believe that Wakefield was teaching him not to go too fast!

In 1922, having learnt this lesson, he completed the round from Keswick, over Robinson, Hindscarth, Dalehead, Honister Hause, Brandreth, Green Gable, Great Gable, Kirkfell, Pillar, Steeple, Red Pike, Yewbarrow, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Great End, Bowfell, Fairfield, Helvellyn, Great Dodd, Saddleback, Great Calva, Skiddaw, back to Keswick in 21 hours 54 minutes. The estimated height climbed is 25,500 feet! Unsatisfied, Eustace Thomas continued until the 30,000-foot mark had been reached by ascending all the peaks of the Grasmere group.

I have left Scafell, that transcendent cliff, to the last. It is surrounded for me by a peculiar halo, partly due no doubt to accounts from Holland before ever I came to Wasdale of his early explorations of the Central Buttress and Pinnacle Face with Herford. And Scafell is fitly associated with Herford, the climber on whom, in the years just before the War, the mantle of Owen Glynne Jones seemed to have fallen. With him the standard of superlative performance seemed suddenly to have taken one of those puzzling upward leaps which make men say, ‘This was never thought possible before and beyond this there is no going’. But looking back one can see that in a cycle of some ten years the leap comes again and where the limit of possibility lies cannot yet be known.

Nowadays, with the new climbs on Scafell East Buttress and Clogwyn Du’r-arddu in mind, he would be rash who pointed to any line upon a cliff, however overhanging, grassy, slimy or loose, as beyond the power and taste of some future technical ‘tiger’. Praise, in fact, of climbs which possess ‘natural hazards’—disadvantages which used to be known as ‘objec¬tive dangers’—is beginning to be sung.

8 On these cliffs—long reputed impregnable—a series of extraordinarily severe climbs have lately been achieved. Leaders: J. M. Edwards, A. T. Hargreaves, C. F. Kirkus, M. Linnell, J. L. Longland, A. S. Pigott.

A. B. Hargreaves, in a spirited comparison between Welsh and Lakeland climbing, has indeed suggested that the ‘best’ Lakeland climbs are too sound, too clean, too well provided with belays! He writes: ‘When once one has tasted the joys of negotiating in conscious safety pitches which, in the Lake District, would be written off as unjustifiably dangerous, one is inclined to be bored with climbs the only reason for falling off which would be just letting go. However!’

Nearly all the classic routes on Scafell, it must be admitted, come into this last category. Some of the easier ones tend to be a little slimy, Keswick Brothers as I remember it in a rain-storm, or Collier’s, even mossier; but the Pinnacle Face on a dry spring evening, with the late sunlight staining it, as it seems, an inwrought crimson, has an almost unbelievable perfection of clean structure. One wants to pat the rocks, so keen is the pleasure of moving over them! As to ‘just letting go’ as a reason for falling off them, I tried that once. Holland and I had been wandering happily up and down the Pinnacle Face all day and to finish off we traversed across to the ‘Oval’, the ledge immediately below the famous Flake Crack where many climbers have stood and wondered.

Photograph at Glacier National Park taken by Ray Bell, showing Dorothy Pilley sitting with her climbing rope on the Ptarmigan Wall, over Elizabeth Lake


Looking upwards at that overhang I shared their feelings of awe and reverence. The shadows of the boulders in Hollow Stones were sharp-etched upon the golden grass and a tiny figure was wandering among them as we climbed down. In the valley at Wasdale dinner was calling; but could I hurry down those smooth rocks? No. Holland’s hunger grew and he began to wonder audibly whether I was developing a paralysis. As he became more urgent, so my balance perversely diminished. A voice from aloft said, ‘If you can’t find any holds, just let go!’ I did. Down I went through clear air. An incredible experience, more surprising than unpleasant. Time to wonder what landing would be like, but the shock was quite swallowed up by satisfaction at nothing serious having happened, as Holland lowered me gently but firmly the last few feet to Rake’s Progress.

On another day which, for a better reason perhaps, stands out in memory, H. M. Kelly led Morley Wood and myself up Central Route, Deep Ghyll Slabs. It was raining hard. We had done Jones’ Route to Low Man and were coming down Jones’ and Collier’s when it occurred to Kelly to wander up a shallow slab in some rocks which no one had particularly noticed before. He came back in a meditative mood to suggest that we attempt an entirely new route up the slabs. In such casual fashion are new climbs discovered.

As Kelly wrote, ‘Ascents of an existing route make one acquainted with the surroundings of that climb, and, by observation—there is plenty of time for observation in rock-climbing—one can locate rest-places which, if only linked up, would provide pitches for a new climb!’

The patient leader, waiting at the top of a pitch for his companions to join him, has leisure to look about him. From each fresh vantage-point the perspective of the cliff changes. What from another stance seems a vertical wall, is revealed as a slab not too repugnantly inclined, and the speculative eye divines a course to be taken upon it. But it is not usual for the course to be followed on such a rainy day as this. I recall my sympathy for Kelly when, after some of his most magnificent climbing, he had at last to get Morley Wood to make a detour and lower a rope to safeguard the three or four remaining feet of the hardest pitch. This, of course, made our climb not legitimately a first ascent. But Kelly had his revenge later in the year and added to his long list of discoveries a route that only ‘just fails to reach the sublime’. (A category reached, I suppose, by his Moss Ghyll Grooves, climbed in 1926 with Mrs Eden Smith.) Under the then conditions, I felt that it almost passed it.

It was a pity Pat Kelly was not there, but she, as so often, was leading another woman up a neighbouring climb. This passion of hers for independent women’s climbing was just then, in fact, bringing the idea of the Pinnacle Club into actual being. It had been a long conspiracy, prompted by the feeling we many of us shared that a rock-climbing club for women would give us a better chance of climbing independently of men, both as to leadership and general mountaineering.

This was no mere feminist gesture, it was a rooted sense that training in the fullest responsibilities of leadership in all its aspects is one of the most valuable things that climbing has to offer, and that women could hardly get such training unless they climbed by them¬selves. A women’s club would make such climbing seem normal, would collect those who shared this aspiration, would help them to form real climbing ropes as distinguished from strings of people who happened to be climbing together. And for those who did not lead, but still desired to take the share of responsibility which falls to any genuine member of a rope, a club would help. The qualification for membership, ability to lead an ordinary difficult climb, was designed not to force those who are not naturally leaders into undertaking more than they should, but to ensure competence in route-finding, in estimating the character of a terrain, and in the management of a rope.

But from the idea to the reality seemed a long step, and without Pat Kelly’s powers of inspiration it might have been indefinitely delayed. Or have never been made, we may think, if we take the anti-feminist tendencies visible in Germany seriously as a contemporary world-trend. I do not know if even Pat ever really hoped for a club as vigorous and successful as the present Pinnacle Club with its eighty members, its Hut in Cwm Dyli and its brilliant galaxy of leaders, among whom Evelyn Lowe and Brenda Ritchie shine out. Thanks to them the standard of women’s climbing has leapt up with a remarkable suddenness, and climbs are now being made regularly as a safe and normal thing which ten years ago were thought of as suited only to the strongest parties of men. But, indeed, with many types of climbing there is no reason why a woman should find them any harder than a man. Her balance should be at least as good, since her centre of gravity is lower. Her hands and feet are smaller, which means that the holds are relatively larger for her. When sheer muscular power is necessary, she will be at a disadvantage, but such places are rarer than would be expected. It is not the force available but how it is disposed that counts.


Solitary climbing was a speciality of Pat’s. She enjoyed it for the peculiar heightened consciousness it gives, and she was so complete a mistress of the craft that with her even very difficult solitary climbs were perfectly justified. Here is Holland’s comment about one such climb. ‘On a certain day on Scafell, a party of men, of whom I was one, sat under “Jones’ from Deep Ghyll” and succeeded in finding quite a number of excellent reasons why it would be most unwise for us to climb it, the real reason being that the day was rather cold and we all funked it. So we proceeded to the top of the Pinnacle by the easy way. While seated there, a solitary figure emerged on to the Low Man; it was that of a well-known lady climber who had done “Jones’ from Deep Ghyll” alone. I am thankful to say that my feeling of smallness has long been swallowed up by my admiration for what was a very gallant performance.’

And here is a letter from Pat herself about the same climb. ‘As a rock-climber, you will understand the joy of getting to the pinnacle, the greatest pinnacle, surely, in the world—the Scafell Pinnacle. Not the greatest in size, you will understand, but greatest in that it gives the supremest rock climbs to be found on any pinnacle. Then think what it meant to climb up from Eskdale on a perfect morning, to reach that ribbon-like track called “Lord’s Rake” (what a place it must be in snow, with its tiny cols between rocky walls!), to meet other climbers in Deep Ghyll. How impres¬sive the Pinnacle looks from the West Wall Traverse, and there as of old we saw the bogey man, which I really must describe to you, if I can. It is formed of a light-grey patch of rock for face, legs, and pointed fingers of a hand—his right hand—and the hand is stretched out as if to do an enormous traverse. He is under and to the left of Herford’s slab. He either wears a black cape or a black rucksack, as you wish (formed by shadow and incut rock); he comes out splendidly in a photograph, and I will send you one some day to see. With a vivid imagination and in twilight, one might see him take the long outward step with his right foot, then down he’ll crash, and the grey face and skeleton legs will rattle, and a groan will startle one—in imagination! Doesn’t it sound gruesome? But on Sunday he looked so friendly I almost waved my hand to him, and had he waved a hand to me I do not think I would have been surprised.

A bite of lunch in Deep Ghyll, some moderate climbing to get warm and to gain confidence, and then a delight which only a rock-climber can appreciate—to stand on a mere inch or so of rock and look down an almost sheer 200 feet: the awesome exhilaration of a delicate, airy, upward step to a toehold on which to balance before grasping a firm bit of rock securely with both hands, and so raising oneself on and up to the land of pure delight—out in the sunshine to sit on top of Pisgah and have a view to satisfy all hill lovers. Just across the way was the Pike, with its summit cairn and new War Memorial, Gable, Kirkfell, Yewbarrow, the Screes; the very names will call up the picture to one who knows.’

In one thing she was unique: she was as interested in other people’s climbing as in her own, imaginatively able to enjoy what they had done. This, with a strange selflessness, inexhaustible energy and a clear-headed organizing ability, created the Pinnacle Club in 1921. She had, too, a gift for thinking of delicious surprises—stolen week-ends on the Derbyshire gritstone; she arrived, I remember, at the foot of Castle Naze with a basket of strawberries. A hundred slight incidents—nothing to relate in themselves—were framed in the settings she created, lighted by a grace of spirit as remarkable as her deftness on the rocks. Few have ever moved more lightly or surely, with better balance or more tranquil confidence.

Get your copy of Climbing Days by Dorothy Pilley and Dan Richards here.

Follow Dan on Instagram here.

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