Manless climbing: Dorothy Pilley Richards 1894-1986

On 11 November 1918 Dorothy Pilley was 22 years old and in London when news of the Armistice reached her. She rushed to Buckingham Palace, where she spotted an irresistible challenge. ‘I saw in a flash the Victoria Memorial waiting to be climbed: white, untouched, a secret ambition of mine to scale its dizzy heights,’ she wrote in her diary that evening. Pilley was secretary of the British Patriotic Women’s League at the time, earning £200 a year writing newspaper articles to promote the League’s work. But her passion in life was for climbing the mountains of North Wales and Skye. So it was natural that on Armistice Day she would use mountaineering terms to describe her joyous ascent of the 25-metre-high monument. ‘Pitches correspondingly tricky; an arm pull, then followed some ordinary scrambling onto a Cherubim’s head,’ she noted. Standing triumphantly at the peak, holding tightly to the golden statue of the Winged Victory, ‘I was exhilarated as only climbing can make me,’ she recalled.

Dorothy Pilley is one of thirteen women who feature in a new book, Rebel Women Between the Wars by Sarah Lonsdale (which I reviewed recently for History Today). As an experienced former journalist herself, Lonsdale’s focus is on how these disparate women forged their careers in the world of newspapers and magazines in the interwar years, including Shiela Grant Duff, who reported on the Nazi violence following the Saar plebiscite in 1935, and Margaret Lane, whose interview with ‘Scarface’ Al Capone made the front page of the Daily Express in October 1931. Most of these enterprising writers are little remembered today, including Edith Shackleton, who is usually mentioned only in passing as the bisexual ‘last mistress’ of the poet W.B. Yeats, despite being one of Fleet Street’s highest paid journalists in 1930.

Dorothy Pilley’s journalism was mainly a way of funding her climbing expeditions, which her well-off father refused to pay for. After the War ended, she stopped writing articles about patriotic women and took a regular job at the Daily and Sunday Express. She enjoyed ‘the rush of Fleet Street’ and working in a busy newspaper office, noting in 1920 that ‘to write in that heat – among a noisy, moving mob is the most exciting yet nerve-wracking experience’. Journalism gave her the independence she craved, yet she wanted to find a way of combining her skills as a writer with her love of mountaineering. So in March 1921 she co-founded The Pinnacle Club in Snowdonia, with the aim of encouraging rock climbing and mountaineering amongst women (the club celebrates its centenary this year). Pilley took on editorship of the Pinnacle Club Journal, which, like The Woman Engineer, launched in 1919 and published quarterly ever since, provided a public platform for women’s voices to be heard without interference from male editors. Both the club and its journal helped to normalize climbing as something all women could do, not just a few extraordinary individuals: as a lifelong feminist, Pilley wanted to use her experience and enthusiasm to encourage others.

Pilley would continue to edit the Pinnacle Club Journal for the next twenty years. Its first issue contained an article called ‘Three Pinnaclers in the Alps’ by Lilian Bray, describing how she, Pilley and another English woman friend travelled by train to Switzerland in the summer of 1921. There, they covered their hair with cotton bandanas, exchanged their dresses for breeches and hobnail boots, and put ropes and knapsacks on their backs before scaling the Matterhorn together; it was the first Alpine cordée féminine, or female roped party. ‘Manless climbing’ – without male guides or companions – was seen as a dangerous practice and condemned as ‘insane’ by members of the distinguished Alpine Club.

Not all male climbers of the time doubted women mountaineers’ abilities, or their right to climb independently. The Cambridge scholar and literary critic Ivor Armstrong Richards (I.A. Richards, 1893-1979) and Dorothy Pilley first met clambering up Tryfan in Snowdonia in 1917. ‘You were the first original thinker I had met,’ she later told him, ‘and in your conversation I discovered even as barely more than a schoolgirl the “something more in life” which I had ever so vaguely suspected – a country of the mind.’ They soon became close friends and tackled several Alpine ascents together in the early 1920s. But in 1925 Pilley wrote a 60-page letter to him setting out all the reasons why she had to turn down his offer of marriage. She could not marry Richards because, she explained, marriage would mean ‘lots of housework and twenty children’, a prospect that made her ‘go cold and stiff with disdain’.

Pilley wrote her long letter from British Columbia, where she was beginning the two-year global climbing adventure that she had always dreamed of. She started by tackling the Canadian Rockies, the Selkirks and the American Rockies, her climbs funded by her journalism for various American and Canadian newspapers. Then, in August 1926, she was joined by a new climbing companion: Ivor Richards, who had travelled to America to persuade Dorothy to reconsider his offer of marriage. That month they climbed Mount Baker (2, 686 metres) from the north-east side together  – Pilley was the first woman to do so – and after several other peaks she was convinced that marrying Richards would not hold her back, or lead to a conventional life. They married in Honolulu on New Year’s Eve 1926 (there’s a photo of them on a climbing trip together here). 

Pilley was, according to her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘one of the most outstanding mountaineers of the interwar and post-war periods’. She became famous when in July 1928 she and Richards made the first ascent of the north ridge of the Dent Blanche in the Alps, together with Joseph and Antoine Georges, thereby solving ‘one of the last great alpine problems’ as the ODNB puts it. She herself wrote about the Dent Blanche ascent in the final chapter of her climbing memoir, Climbing Days (1935) and, thanks to Ivor Richards’ academic appointments in Bejing and Harvard, she continued scale peaks in many different locations including China, Japan, Korea and Myanmar for the next thirty years, sometimes with Richards and guides, sometimes alone.

Pilley Richards described her lifelong love of mountains as ‘the reverberation of one’s life among them. Therein, reflected, is the experience of being ardently alive.’ But her international climbing career ended in 1958 when she broke her hip in a car accident. While she was recovering in hospital, her husband wrote a poem called ‘Hope’ for her, recalling the night they accidentally spent together on a dangerous mountain glacier before they married: ‘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.’

In his touching poem about their shared climbing history Ivor was reminding her that there would be better days to come, and more climbing adventures for her, whether alongside him (as she did so many of her international climbs) or ‘manless’ as in her early career. And he was right. The ODNB records that at the age of 91, the irrepressible Dorothy Pilley Richards spent New Year’s Eve at the climbers’ hut at Glen Brittle, Skye, ‘drinking whisky and talking mountains’ with a party of Scottish climbers.

© Ann Kennedy Smith

POSTSCRIPT: The couple returned to live in Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1973. ‘I.A. Richards, sometimes credited as the ‘founding father’ of modern literary criticism, began as an undergraduate at Magdalene in 1911. After 35 years teaching at Harvard, he returned to the College and lived here until his death in 1979.’ Magdalene College website (accessed 30 January 2021) Dorothea Pilley-Richards left over a million pounds to Magdalene College when she died in 1986. Her great-great nephew, the writer and broadcaster Dan Richards, published a book Climbing Days (Faber & Faber, 2016) about following in Pilley’s challenging footsteps. There is a fascinating 30-minute discussion about her on his recent ‘Dan Talks To Interesting People’ podcast here. For her lifelong work encouraging women climbers, Dorothy Pilley is my nomination for this year’s ‘Woman In History’ campaign by the writer Kate Mosse for International Women’s Day 2021.

SOURCES: Sarah Lonsdale, Rebel Women Between the Wars (Manchester University Press, 2020); ‘The pioneering women who took on Hitler… and Fleet Street’ The Guardian 25 October 2020; ‘Recipes and resolutions’ Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 2020; Dorothy Pilley Climbing Days (1935; 2nd edition 1965): ‘Richards [née Pilley, Dorothy Eleanor] 1894-1986’ Carol A. Osborne, ODNB, September 2004; Dan Richards, ‘ In the footholds of Dorothy Pilley: how my great-great aunt became a climbing inspiration’, The Guardian 15 September 2016; ‘Dorothea Richards’ Magdalene College Libraries blog 7 July 2016. All websites accessed 30 January 2021.

4 thoughts on “Manless climbing: Dorothy Pilley Richards 1894-1986

    • akennedysmith says:

      Many thanks, Godela. She was certainly an inspiring character – and she & IA Richards provided great emotional support to Cambridge students too, according to Cheryl Misak’s excellent biography of Frank Ramsey.


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