Dan Richards was born in Wales in 1982 and grew up in Bristol. He studied at the University of East Anglia and the Norwich Art School. He is the co-author of Holloway with Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood. He is also the author and editor of The Beechwood Airship Interviews. In Climbing Days, Dan is on the trail of his great-great-aunt, Dorothy Pilley, a prominent and pioneering mountaineer of the early twentieth century. What emerges is a beautiful portrait of a trailblazing woman, up to now lost to history - but also a book about that eternal question: why do people climb mountains?
Author photo © Steve Gullick
In the Footsteps of Dorothy Pilley
I'm writing this piece on my phone aboard a ferry from Heimaey on the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) back to Landeyjahöfn on the Icelandic mainland. In front of me is a small harbour recently built on the marshy flats of the Markarfljót estuary, behind which rise the brute cocoa cliffs of the Seljalandsmúli outcrop, flashed white in places with beautiful tongue-twisting waterfalls like Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi. High beyond Seljalandsfoss is the Eyjafjalla Glacier from which its cascade stems, an ice cap atop a volcano, and further still, to the east, the white dome of Mýrdalsjökull… massed massive, potent, radiating cold whilst, all the while in its heart, charged cardinal magma churns.
I tell you this, not just to set the scene, beautiful, striking and strange as it may be — the meeting of worlds: this gleaming GPS equipped, wifi-happy car ferry, chock full of snoozing daytrippers, speeding towards the immobile adamaintine heft of Seljalandsmúli's lava topped hyaloclastite — but because my great great aunt, Dorothy Pilley, would have loved this scene, this boat, this place, absolutely. She'd be out on the windswept deck leaning on the rail — a beaming young girl, hair billowing; in middle age, hair bunned Princess Leah-esque, headscarf flapping; in creased but indomitable old age, set with her sticks, eyes narrowed as she scanned the mountainous steeps ahead for possible routes, or regaled and astounded fellow passengers with stories of her life and adventures, steadfastly refusing offers of help back into the warmth where I sit thumb-typing away.
Dorothy — Dorothea within the family — is with me often.
I see her in crowds, sense her with me whenever I go to the wild places she loved and spent a great deal of her life. 'Greatly venturing' she would have called it, with a grin, and Iceland is the quintessence of a Dorothean dream — the hard blue distance of the mountains, plains and lava fields, the beckoning emptiness, the warmth of the people and promise of welcome, hospitality and an excellent meal — the sense of adventure and ancient saga… she was always a fan of stories and 'good talk' and drawn to charismatic raconteurs and fellow travellers, traits embodied by my great great uncle, I.A. Richards. Together they explored, quested and climbed worldwide from the 1910s to the 1970s. Their wanderlust for new adventures and great love for each other spanned more than half a century:
Ivor — great academic and thinker: quiet, thoughtful and patient, yet mischievous, an unsurpassed anecdotalist and lithe athlete in his day.
And Dorothea — fiery, headstrong, fierce yet childlike, playful, always for the underdog, indefatigable… both of them eccentrics of vastly different temperaments, yet apparently complimenting each other completely.
‘Dorothea was an immensely strong willed woman, determined to get her own way’, writes Richard Luckett in his introduction to Selected Letters of I.A. Richards: ‘Her inclination to be a great lady went with an equal and opposite desire to be off with the raggle-taggle gypsies.’
Yet for years I found it hard to get a grip on the pair. There were stories within the family, reminiscences from my father about 'Royal visits' and amazingly dangerous Christmas presents, people jumping into thorn bushes and toast being thrown out of windows; reports of renowned pioneering ascents in North Wales and the Swiss Alps… but they always seemed aloof and out of reach somehow. I'd never met them, they'd died before my time, and I didn't climb.
It was not until I studied I.A.R.'s work at university and read Dorothea's 1935 memoir — a record of her early climbing life and mountaineering feats with Ivor — that the people behind the outlandish accounts and outright myths began to come into focus. I found that I couldn't help but read as an interested party with a forensic eye, looking for the writer in the writing, the real people between the lines but, on first reading, Dorothea kept shifting, avoiding my eye, the narrative constantly switching tenses, viewpoints and locales; soaring, alighting, dwelling, darting elsewhere. I couldn’t make her out. There seemed so much unsaid or, perhaps, I wanted something more than the text could give.
I couldn’t just enjoy the book like a civilian, it threw up too many questions… but then I found a poem named HOPE which Ivor wrote for Dorothea in their later years to cheer her up after the car accident which effectively ended her climbing life; the full title is ‘HOPE ― to D.E.P. in hospital for a broken hip’
My dear: Wales has a slab
Named Hope―a tall, buff, tilting thing.
It listens, these late centuries,
To querulous, lost, impatient lambs
And the ambiguous sheep
Conversing through the mist.
There, leading, one cool Spring,
Rope out, the holds glare ice,
You found your pocket scissors:
stab by stab
Picked enough clear, floated on up.
A memory of that for other jams:
Who know when to persist.
Recall the Epicoun:
Night, welling up so soon,
Near sank us in soft snow.
At the stiff-frozen dawn,
When Time has ceased to flow,
―The glacier ledge our unmade bed―
I hear you through your yawn:
‘Leaping crevasses in the dark,
That’s how to live!’ you said.
No room in that to hedge:
A razor's edge of a remark.
[HOPE held in the Richards Collection, Magdalene College, Cambridge]
I know some people write poetry to limber up the brain and in my mind I see an aged I.A.R. drafting HOPE, reaching back to the sure-footed agility of years past, his lines nimble, the poem flowing with an assured fluency ― deft tribute to a cherished place and partner. The more I read it, the more it felt like a way into the pair’s relationship and work — a Richards/Pilley Rosetta Stone — a bridge between the two apparently disparate figures for here was Dorothea as Ivor saw her, reveling in the wildness of her element: liberated to be herself in the mountains which were to be the fulcrum to their partnership — a watershed for Dorothea and a healing force for the pulmonary tuberculosis which cast a shadow over Ivor’s early life; a harsh topography which tested yet suited them — Dorothea’s frenetic energy counterpoint to Ivor’s logic and precision — specifically the Ogwen Valley in Snowdonia, the place where they first met, the situation which drew them together. As some walk or swim to think — the act fulfilling as much a cerebral as physical role — so climbing, for Dorothea, keyed into her soul. She was a climber in the 1920s, first and foremost, an amazing thing to be at that time.
The mountains were her true domain, anathema to the repressed Edwardian London of her youth; the mountains: egalitarian, sovereign and free. And so, my interest piqued, I set out to meet the pair, but particularly Dorothea, in the peaks of their precipitous domain. And I grew very fond of them and proud of their accomplishments — their 1928 ascent of the Dent Blache's North Arête remains the stuff of legend.
So I learnt to climb, became vaguely proficient with crampons and an ice axe, and began to travel in their footsteps and handholds around the more vertiginous parts of the UK and Europe, using Dorothea's memoir as my guide and I wrote a book about the journey and I named it, Climbing Days… and since then I've carried on roving and writing in wild, inspiring mountainous places whenever possible, inspired by them.
Soon this great white boat will dock and I'll climb aboard the blue and yellow coach I can see now on the dockside to continue the research for my next book — still nebulous at the moment but probably revolving about ideas of wilderness and the structures man builds and has built in their interior and edgelands.
Yesterday I watched puffins fly and land on the nobbly grass cliff tops on the southern tip of Heimeay in a crazy green birders box — 'stop flying and drop' might be nearer the mark, they always looked very surprised and doubtful when attempting it. Iceland is such a strange, surprising and gorgeous country. The constant daylight would surely drive me mad if I lived here... or not? I guess people get used to such things with the aid of adventurous living, good beer and thick curtains. Dorothea would have loved it, I'm sure of that, but soon enough she would have been itching to get back on the road to the wild unknown.