The Great Corset Caper: Pen y Fan in Period Costume

With a group of fabulous and inspiring women I took on the challenge of hiking up Pen y Fan in period clothing, including wearing a corset.

Inspired by pictures of the pioneering women that founded the Ladies’ Alpine Club in 1907 and Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club in 1908, the first mountaineering organisations for women, we wondered what it would be like to take to the hills wearing the fashions of the times; heavy tweed long skirts and jackets, buttoned-up blouses, big bloomers and boned corsets.

I’d long admired the early outdoors women, who not just tackled some challenging routes in the hills, but were also some of the first to break down barriers for women in other areas of life; in society and politics, education and employment, fashion and convention.

After chatting together on Facebook, we came up with a plan to experience it for ourselves.  I really liked the idea of the challenge, but was nervous about the corset.  I’d never worn a proper one before (though I had one of those corset-style tops in the 90s when we all wore our underwear as outerwear).

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Living our best Edwardian life.

In my day job I wear a lifejacket everyday.  There’s such a feeling of relief at the end of the day when you feel the weight of it lifting off your shoulders.  But that was nothing compared to wearing a fully-boned corset.

Meet the team

Getting outdoors on your own is wonderful, and can sometimes be all you need, but it’s true to say that some things are even better with friends. You should know a little bit about me already, but meet the others that were part of the Corset Capers team.

  • Lucy Hawthorne: a baby troubleshooter (think modern-day Mary Poppins) who spends as much of her free time as possible outdoors, wild swimming and paddleboarding with her family.
  • Wendy Searle: though just a normal mum of four with an office job, she’s heading to Antarctica to take on the challenge of reaching the South Pole, unsupported and unassisted, in record time.
  • Lauren Owen: a polar explorer-in-training, heading for the Greenland ice cap in 2020, with a background in fashion history and amazing costume construction skills.
  • Jo Symonowski: combining the unlikely careers of corporate leadership trainer and circus promoter, Jo founded My Great Escape born of her experiences.

With corsets laced tightly and bloomers hidden away under billowing tweed skirts, we took our lead from those pioneering ladies of 1907, and headed for Pen y Fan.

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Ready to take on Pen y Fan!  Or die of a chill like a lady in a romance novel.
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Heading up the mountain on the Brecon Way footpath.

My Great Escape

Although our challenge wasn’t a huge undertaking, and really just a silly way to spend a day, we had a serious side to what we wanted to do.

My Great Escape is a programme to support survivors of domestic abuse in regaining their confidence and self-esteem through outdoor adventure. By providing opportunities for challenges and activities that are a break from daily life, we can help people get the space to overcome their trauma and start to heal.

Leaving an abusive relationship often leaves survivors with little or no support, both emotionally and often financially, and hugely depleted confidence.  This all makes getting out and doing new things really difficult.  That’s where My Great Escape can help.

All of the money raised goes directly into running confidence-building adventures.  Everyone on the team is a volunteer.

By rekindling an early love of adventure and being outside I grew in confidence and self-esteem. I conquered real and personal mountains. I found that through connecting with the great outdoors I was able to heal and then build a wonderful new life.

Jo

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Fighting the wind as we approach the ridge below Corn Du.

Why Pen y Fan?

At 886 metres (2,907′) high, Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons is the highest peak in the south of the UK.  It also has a notorious reputation:  the UK’s special forces use the mountain to train, completing a 24km (15 mile) route over the mountain carrying 30kg (50 lbs) of equipment, in a challenge known as the Fan Dance.

Though we contemplated the whole Fan Dance route, from Storey Arms to Torpantau station, the fickle Welsh weather wasn’t on our side.  With a big weather system moving in from the Atlantic, heavy rain was forecast from around 11am with strong winds, gusting up to 40 knots (46mph), on the tops.  So we settled for just reaching the summit in our skirts.

The Great Corset Caper

Setting off from the carpark at Pont ar Daf the route follows the Brecon Way, with a steady rise in the gradient.  It took a while to get used to breathing with a corset, especially the first time I needed to take a deep breath using my diaphragm.

The view of the peak was obscured behind the clouds all the way, so the only clue to our whereabouts was the wind funnelling down the gap below Corn Du.  Then suddenly we were just below the summit.

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On the top of Pen y Fan, launching My Great Escape into the wild!

Though safe where we were, it was difficult to strike a pose by the famous marker on the summit cairn with our full skirts catching the wind.  We quickly unrolled our banner for some pictures, holding tightly to the corners.  We’d made great time to the top, and really enjoyed chatting with the others out on the mountain.

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Looking like we’re at the cover shoot for our new album of folk music.

With showers growing heavier, we turned around to head back down to Pont ar Daf.  Our outfits  had been unfamiliar, though not as awkward as you might imagine.  The inconvenience of the wind pushing against my skirt, and having to hold it down to cover my long bloomers, the woollen suits were warm and waterproof enough in the drizzle.  I’d probably find a good hat pin, or a scarf to tie around my head for the next time the desire to dress up and head for the hills takes me.

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The Corset Capers ladies, looking most dashing and windswept from their mountain adventures.

The outdoor gear we women wear now has moved on a long way since 1907 (though there’s still room for improvement when it comes to pockets #pocketsfor women), but we’re grateful to those women that came before us. The ones without whom so many of us wouldn’t have the freedom to take on our own adventures, in whatever we want to wear.  I feel that we’ve were able to get a better appreciation of their courage to challenge convention.

Thank you!

We’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who we met out on the hill; your support and enthusiasm for what we were doing was infectious, despite the miserable weather!  And another round of thanks to everyone that supported us remotely via social media.

Additional thanks to Bristol Costume Services, who kitted us out with appropriate clothing, and didn’t mind things getting damp* in the hills.

*completely soaked.

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Jo gives a flash of a corset to prove the challenge was complete.
You can continue to support our silliness at https://mygreatescape.org.uk/climbingcorsets/
Your donations help to get survivors of domestic abuse get out and achieve something amazing.  Please donate what you can to help this great cause.
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Armchair Travel: 10 Books on Mountains

Welcome to the first edition of Armchair Travel for 2019, and a breath of pine-fresh, mountain air for the New Year.

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The weather outside might be frightful, though not as bad as conditions in some of the books I’ve recommended, so in this post I’m planning on making myself a massive mug of cocoa, wrapping up an a blanket, and vicariously scaling the heights in ten of my favourite books about mountains…

  • Into Thin Air – Jon Krakauer

Dispatched by Outside magazine to write about increasing commercial expeditions on Everest, journalist and mountaineer Krakauer becomes eyewitness to the 1996 disaster.  On summit day, with several teams tackling the mountain, a fierce blizzard left several climbers stranded in the death zone* (above 8000m / 26,000′), with eight ultimately losing their lives.

*The altitude above which atmospheric pressure of oxygen is so low, it is considered insufficient to sustain human life for an extended period.

  • Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination – Robert Macfarlane

A compelling cultural history of how we discovered our love for the mountains, at one time considered nightmare-inducing, monster-filled voids, and continue to indulge that magnetic fascination, alongside a personal account of Macfarlane’s attraction to climbing and eventual rejection of the pursuit of thrills.

What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die.

Robert Macfarlane

  • The White Spider – Heinrich Harrer

A classic of mountaineering, detailing Harrer’s legendary first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger, a notoriously challenging climb nicknamed Mordwand (Murder Wall, punning on nordwand, the north wall).  He provides accounts of several tragic expeditions in the history of the mountain to give context to the achievement of his team.

It was a hard decision to pick this book over Seven Years in Tibet, an account of Harrer’s escape from a PoW camp in British India into the Himalayas, where he becomes a mentor to the Dalai Lama.  It might make it into another list in future.

  • 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 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.

  • My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George

I think I was around 10 when I read this, and despite not really being as enamoured of reading as I am today, completely devoured it.  I still don’t really understand why I don’t live in the hollowed-out heart of a hemlock tree on the side of a mountain, with just a kestrel for company (though my childhood dog was named Kes…).  Give this book to any young people in your life, or read it together, to share the freedom of nature and the outdoors, and the excitement of an adventure.

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

Jean Craighead George

  • Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dylatov Pass Incident – Donnie Eichar

This is not a book for everyone, but this is EXACTLY the kind of book I’d recommend my sister, dad, and cousins.  But not my mam.  If you love true horror stories and the unexplained (and piña coladas), you might be aware of the Dylatov Pass incident and the mysterious disappearance of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains.  If not, be prepared for shredded tents, bare footprints in the snow, mysterious radiation, violent injuries, and no explanations for what happened on a winter camping trip on a peak called Dead Mountain.

  • Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Walk Home – Nando Parrado

You may know this story already.  The 1972 Andes air crash was written about in the book Alive, and turned into a film starring Ethan Hawk, but Parrado was one of the survivors, and this is his personal memoir.  His courage and perseverance in crossing the mountains to find rescue, and honesty and insight into survival in the aftermath of the crash, make for a moving and inspiring book.

  • The Ascent of Rum Doodle – W.E. Bowman

Some books can’t really be read in public, unless you’re prepared to be stared at for making great, snorting, guffaws of laughter that bring you to the point of accidentally peeing yourself (such as anything by Gerald Durrell, Tony Hawks, and this).  A genuinely hilarious parody of the classic alpinist mountaineering epic, it nails the spirit of the genre so accurately, it was thought that W.E Bowman was the pseudonym of a big time mountaineer rather than someone who never in their life ventured to the Himalayas.  Read it in companionship with No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.  

  • Space Below My Feet – Gwen Moffat

Moffat is a remarkable woman, rejecting traditional gender-roles of post-war society and living a transient life in the wilder parts of the UK with several hitch-hiking expeditions to the Alps.  As a climber she broke new ground, tackling some of the toughest challenges in Europe and becoming the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, paving the way for others to follow.  She often climbed barefoot in summer conditions, claiming 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.

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  • The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

A little known book that was almost lost to time, this tribute to the Cairngorms is an outstanding piece of nature writing, transformative and heart-soaring.  A spare, sparkling reminder that when spending time in the mountains, there are times where gaining the summit is just an insignificant distraction.  It teaches us to slow down, look closely, and feel deeply to know our surroundings.  I’ve recommended this book to everyone I know.  READ IT NOW!

However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.

Nan Shepherd

A recent biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock, explores more of her mountain exploration and writing.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s firmly on my TBR list.

What is your favourite mountain book?  What would you recommend to me?
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