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.
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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