Armchair Travel: 10 books about women in the mountains

A selection of some of the best books about women’s experiences in the mountains.

In time for International Mountain Day on 11th December, this edition of armchair travel retreads a little bit of old ground. I revisited my selection of books with a mountain setting, picked out a couple of titles, and used them to dive deeper into mountain books by, and about, notable mountain women and their achievements at altitude.

Read my selection of my favourite books with mountain settings, with a couple of new choices in the mix. Or how about a selection of stories about survival and disaster.

But first, read on and find inspiration for your next mountain adventure, or enjoy the vicarious thrills of these incredible women that got high.

Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering – Rebecca A. Brown

The literary tradition of mountaineering may seem to mark out high-altitude peaks as a predominantly male space, particularly from the early colonial period of planting flags and appropriating land. But women have been present from the beginning of recreational mountaineering, challenging the historic societal belief that we are too delicate to just go out and do what we want to do. This book gathers lesser-known stories of awesome women from the early days of mountaineering, and reveals that their goals, the need for challenge, the longing to explore, are every bit as relevant and inspiring today. Get it here.

Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat

Moffat is a remarkable woman, who rejected the traditional gender-roles of post-war society in favour of living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK, and making several climbing expeditions to the Alps, hitch-hiking on the way. As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest mountain routes in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as an Alpine mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow. She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming a better connection to the rock. Now in her 90s, she recently contributed to a BBC Radio documentary based on her book, worth checking out if you can find it. Get it here.

Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei – Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe

Japanese mountaineer Tabei is celebrated as the first woman to summit Everest, in the 1975 season, and the first woman to complete the Seven Summits, with her ascent of Puncak Jaya (Carstenz Pyramid) in 1992, though she never felt truly comfortable with the level of fame that afforded. This book is a collection of stories from her personal journals, translated from the original Japanese, that detail the major mountain expeditions she participated in, the relentless drive to success, the deep joy of being in the mountains, and the palpable grief experienced. It also illuminates her struggle against cultural expectations early in her career, and her later work to inspire a love of nature in younger generations. Find it here.

Annapurna: A Woman’s Place – Arlene Blum

This book an account of the 1979 American Women’s Himalayan Expedition, an ascent of Annapurna I, now considered to be one of the most difficult and dangerous peaks, led by American mountaineer Blum. As well as detailing the successful ascent of Annapurna I by the team, and the tragic loss of Vera Watson and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz on their attempt at the subsidiary peak Annapurna I Central, this was the first published mountaineering book told from a woman’s perspective, and precipitated a ground shift in opinions of what women contributed to the world of high altitude mountaineering. Read it here.

Climbing Free: My Life in a Vertical World – Lynn Hill

From the beginning of her rock climbing as a teenager, Hill demonstrated exceptional talent and the drive to push herself to the limit, gaining recognition as one of the world’s leading competitive sport climbers in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1993, she completed the first free ascent of The Nose, a technical climb of 880 metres (2,900′) on the face of El Capitan, over four days, before returning the following year to make a free ascent in just 23 hours. In this autobiography, she details those climbs, and a near-fatal fall, alongside meditations on courage, fear, and harnessing one’s inner strength, in an account of a bold and adventurous life. Find it here.

Going Up Is Easy – Lydia Bradey and Laurence Fearnley

In 1988, New Zealander Lydia Bradey became the first woman to reach the summit of Everest without the use of supplementary oxygen, making the final ascent alone without fixed ropes. To date, she is the only New Zealander to have made an ascent without oxygen. Despite her remarkable achievement on Everest, she was surrounded by controversy and doubt about her claims for years, due to her activity outside of the permits she was granted. The book is a candid account of her climbing career, the politics and relationships that shape the mountaineering community, and her experience of bending and breaking rules. I loved this short film where she talks about her Everest experience. Read the book here.

Higher Love: Skiing the Seven Summits – Kit DesLauriers

In 2004, ski mountaineer and world freeskiing champion DesLauriers became the first American woman to climb Denali, the highest peak in North America, then ski from the summit. This prompted her to follow up with expeditions to ski from the highest peaks on all continents*, and in late 2006 she pushed off from the summit of Everest to complete her challenge. This gripping book covers from the inception of the idea through to completion, giving insight into her personal grit and determination, but also the support and partnership from her husband, and the challenge of maintaining a relationship when participating in extreme adventures. Read it here.

*DesLauriers substituted Puncak Jaya (Carstenz Pyramid) in Papua New Guinea with Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, a variation on the Seven Summits defined by Reinhold Messner and completed by Junko Tabei, used by Richard Bass. Unlike the other peaks in the list, Kosciuszko, at 2,228 metres (7,310′) is a popular summer hiking route and doesn’t require specialist mountaineering skills to reach the summit.

Edge of the Map: The Mountain Life of Helen Boskoff – Johanna Garton

In this riveting book Garton gives the us story of Christine Boskoff, tracing her first steps as a high-altitude mountaineer from a two-day climbing course in 1993, to leading challenging technical climbs in just a few years. In 1997, along with her husband, she took over the leadership of the legendary Mountain Madness guiding company following the death of owner Scott Fischer in the 1996 Everest disaster (described in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air), and was a rarity; a woman leading otherwise all-male mountain expeditions. The book culminates with her disappearance in 2006, along with climbing partner Charlie Fowler, on the remote Ge’nyen peak in western China, and the desperate search to find them. Find it here.

No Map Could Show Them – Helen Mort

Mort is a climber and trail runner, a poet and writer, and in No Map Could Show Them, her most recent collection of poems, she dives into the passion and grit that run through the history of women’s mountaineering. The collection pays tribute to some of the greatest British women in mountaineering, those who broke new ground both on mountain and against male hegemony in the sport. Several poems honour Alison Hargreaves, the first climber to make solo ascents of the great north faces of the Alps in a single season, and the first woman to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen or Sherpa support. Hargreaves died in a brutal storm on the descent from the summit of K2 in 1995, aged just 33 and mother to two young children, which garnered large amounts of criticism at the time, grossly disproportionate to any condemnation levelled at male mountaineers with children. Pick it up here.

Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow: The Dark Side of Extreme Adventure – Maria Coffey

Many women that move in the circles of high-altitude mountaineering have been drawn in through their relationships with male climbers, and Maria Coffey found this world through her partner, Joe Tasker. Tasker, along with his climbing partner Peter Boardman, disappeared while attempting the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1982, forcing Coffey to confront the harshest reality in mountaineering. With insider insight from interviews with top climbers and bereaved families, she explores the allure of the high mountains, the compulsion to live a life in pursuit of the exhilarating risk, the stress of separation and the threat of loss, and the lives shattered in the wake of accidents. Get it here.

Have I included your favourite book about women in the mountains? What books would you recommend to me?
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*Maybe enough for a coffee.  Not enough for a yacht.

What I’ve been reading this season | Autumn 2021

Another little collection of interesting, thought-provoking, and beautiful essays, articles and blog posts from around the internet I’ve found over the past few months that I want to share with you. This autumn, I’ve been inspired by thoughts of island escapes, the meaning of remoteness, and the real isolation of a disaster.


The Irresistible Lure of Island Life

Island explorer Gavin Francis examines the ideas of isolation and insulation, community and connection, and the contrast between city and island life, in an introduction to his latest book, Island Dreams.

Of Pirates, Volcanoes and Irishmen: The Westmann Islands

Tracing the old transatlantic links between Ireland and Iceland, Marcel Krueger winds through the events that have shaped the history of Vestmannaejar, also known as the Westmann Islands, off the south coast of Iceland.

Land of the Faroes

The Faroe Islands achieved notoriety in 2021 once again for a traditional whale hunt, this time at a scale exceeding any previous grindadráp. This article by Jamie Lafferty looks into island life beyond the whales and the wild weather.

From the Frayed Atlantic Edge

Historian and paddler David Gange connects coastal communities around the British and Irish Isles, using his kayak as a means to explore and form an understanding of maritime histories along the Atlantic littoral.

In Search of the Golden Eagle

An expedition to photograph the majestic golden eagle is David Dinsley‘s key to unlocking the incredible wildlife of the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides.

Shipwrecks, Sailing, and Icy Silence

Arctic Horror is Having a Comeback

In a year giving us the hottest July on record, a summer of extreme heat and wildfires across the Arctic, we were transfixed to our televisions by historical horror from an icy realm. This essay by Bathsheba Demuth explores the nostalgia for a north of our darkest imaginations.

New discoveries from the lost Franklin Expedition

This blog post by Claire Warrior of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich is a fine diving off point for deeper reading around the fate of the Franklin expedition, and the archaeological work on the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror.

A dead whale or a stove boat’: whaling in the 19th century

Historian Kate Jamison reveals an insight into the challenges and faced by sailors in the Arctic whaling industry, which provides the backdrop for the psychological horror of the television drama series The North Water.

Sailing Antarctica: Vendée Globe veteran’s memorable return to the frozen south

Ocean racing veteran Nick Moloney shares an account of a sailing voyage south to the Antarctic Peninsula on sailing ketch Ocean Tramp, including a visit to Bransfield House at Port Lockroy, and meeting the UKAHT team.

Armchair Travel: 10 books telling the stories of cities

A selection of some of the best books that dive deeply into the daily lives of cities and the hidden worlds that lie within.

This instalment of Armchair Travel dives deeply into cities around the globe through rich and engaging histories, compelling travelogues, and works of fiction where the city setting is as much a character as the protagonists. These books really are the essence of armchair travel, capturing the character of a place and time yet unvisited.

Here are 10 of the best books that explore cities around the world, plus a bonus that looks into what makes an urban environment so alluring.
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Five Reasons Why You Should Explore Cities on Foot

There’s something about walking. Studies continually show us that walking can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, in addition to the benefits to physical health from moving our bodies just to get around.

Cities, generally, are designed to be walked. Walking means we can dictate our own tour schedules, with no peak time travel charge, and possibilities open up beyond bus stops, tram routes, and metro stations. choosing to skip out on places or stop and linger longer. It means a journey from A to B can be just that, or run through the entire alphabet of diversions en route as we invent our own routes and build new connections.

The distinctive structure of V&A Dundee, a world-class design museum that was part of the revitalisation of the Scottish city.

I think there’s so much to be gained from setting out to stretch our legs and test our bearings whenever we visit new places, or become reacquainted with the old familiar streets.  Here are my five top reasons why exploring cities on foot is the way to go.

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Round the World Recipes: Greek Spanakopita

While international travel isn’t possible, I’ve been playing around in my home kitchen and recreating some of my favourite foods from around the world.  I thought my take on Spanakopita, a Greek spinach and feta pie, would make a great second summery serving of my Round the World Recipes.

What is spanakopita?

A real Greek classic, spanakopita is a delicious savoury pie found in every bakery in Greece and features on the menu in most tavernas. Made with earthy-tasting spinach leaves, sweet sautéed onion, and salty-sharp feta cheese sandwiched in crispy-crunchy filo pastry, it’s actually really simple to cook but looks like you’ve made a great deal of effort in the kitchen.

Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe, there’s plenty of opportunity to get creative, and play around with different flavours and techniques. Try other green leafy vegetables, using leeks rather than onions, or adding other cheeses like ricotta or halloumi. Or try using different herbs depending on your taste.

Continue reading “Round the World Recipes: Greek Spanakopita”

Gear Review | Alpkit Numo Sleeping Mat

Whether or not you get a good night of sleep (or even just a series of small naps during the darker hours) on a backpacking trip has a real impact on how much you enjoy the experience. A comfortable sleeping mat helps with rest and recovery at the end of a long day of walking or biking, turning your multi-day expedition into an enjoyable undertaking, letting you push yourself on a personal challenge, rather than make an arduous slog back to civilisation.

So what am I looking for in an inflatable sleeping mat? Mostly I want to be able to have a comfortable night of sleep*, without my hips sinking through to touch the ground. I want to be able to move in my sleep without it rustling like I’m sleeping in an empty crisp packet. And I want it to be lightweight and packable for backpacking and bikepacking trips.

*I’m not expecting it to silence the cuckoo that starts to call from around 3am anywhere in Scotland where you can see a tree during May and June.

Continue reading “Gear Review | Alpkit Numo Sleeping Mat”

Armchair Travel: 10 of the best books about cycling adventures

A selection of some of the best books about cycling adventures and exploring the world by bike.

This instalment of Armchair Travel sets out on a two-wheeled adventure, looking at some of the best books about exploring the world by bicycle. These books capture the beauty and simplicity of a self-propelled adventure, whether you’re planning to take inspiration for your own trip or just travel vicariously and avoid being saddle-sore at the end of the day.

Here are 10 of my favourite books about engaging pedal-power and travelling on two-wheels.
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Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live

A selection of my favourite books about other people’s lives: those living traditional lives in remote communities; people living in unique circumstances as a result of conflict or disaster; and ways of life now long gone.

This edition of Armchair Travel is all about those lives less ordinary, experiences often far removed from our own everyday existance. These books explore different cultures from around the world, written by insiders as well as outside observers; lives in a state of transition and those being rebuilt after conflict and trauma; and snapshots of a traditional way of life now irreversibly changed.

Here are 10 books that bring an insight into a way of life that we’ll never live ourselves.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 books about lives we’ll never live”

Round the World Recipes: Vegetarian Haggis

While international travel has been off the cards for a while now, I’ve been recreating my favourite meals from around the world in my home kitchen, and I’m now feeling confident enough to share some of them with you. 

I thought with Burns’ Night just around the corner, I’d start off with my recipe for a vegetarian haggis.

A vegetarian haggis fresh from the oven.

What the hell is a haggis anyway?

A smallish beastie, endemic to the highlands, islands, and rough country of Scotland, a haggis has been compared to creatures such as lemmings, marmots, and guinea pigs*. With a long, golden brown mane, they are perfectly camouflaged against the heather-clad hillsides of the highlands. Highly adapted to their mountain homes, wild haggis have longer legs on one side of their body than the other, enabling them to traverse the most precipitous of hillsides without losing pace, which could leave them highly vulnerable to predation by eagles (probably).

A wild haggis trail following the contour on the side of Schiehallion.

*By me, just now.

It takes considerable hill tracking skills and many hours of watching to observe a wild haggis in its native environment. The best place to see one for yourself, especially if your time in Scotland is limited, is in the natural history section of the excellent Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.  They’re known to have a particular aversion to bagpipes, which are said to sound like the distress call of an adult haggis caught by an eagle. The skirl of the pipes can cause a haggis to start in fear and tumble downhill, which is why professional haggis hunters often play the bagpipes, and why you never usually see wild haggises on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh in August.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking

A selection of the best books about travelling on foot, from arduous hikes in far-flung lands to rambles much closer to home, and meditations on the nature of walking.

A few years ago I learned about the Icelandic tradition of Jolabokaflod, which translates into English as the Christmas book flood, and was immediately hooked by the intention. Icelanders gift family and friends with new books on Christmas Eve, with the idea that the evening is spent reading together in cosy company gathered around the fire, while sipping hot chocolate, mulled wine, or a traditional Icelandic concoction of ale and soft drinks known as Jolabland*.

*It sounds very much like a shandy made of Guinness and Fanta if you’re tempted.

So for this festive instalment of my Armchair Travel Series, I encourage you to cosy up by the fire among friends and family, and crack open the spine on a new book about an adventure on foot (or given the lateness of this post, treat yourself to an e-book download). The list includes feats of endurance in remote and challenging environments, more gentle rambles close to home rich in observations of history and nature, and some journeys on foot where the landscapes tramped are as much internal insights as outwith the mind.

Here’s my selection of the best books about walking.
Continue reading “Armchair Travel: 10 Books About Walking”