Search Site


Barbara Swindin talks about tackling the Alpine Fourthousanders

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Barbara signing the summit book atop the Schreckhorn

Barbara Swindin, author of All But Onetalks with us about 'petticoat pioneers', ingredients for a successful climbing partnership, and her quest to tackle the fifty-two highest peaks in the Alps.

VP: Having spent your childhood in rural Gloucestershire, what was it that first drew you to the mountains?

Barbara: The first house I ever lived in was on the top of a hill on the edge of the Cotswolds, so my earliest memories are of being up high looking out over hills and valleys. In my family home there was a copy of Hugh Ruttledge’s story of the 1933 attempt on Everest – the first book to introduce me to photographs of mountaineers and snowy mountains. Those pictures made a deep impression on me. When I was introduced to the English Lake District on a family holiday, I was disappointed to find that it was as green as the Gloucestershire hills. At least that’s what struck me from the roadside. The great crags of Snowdonia impressed me more, and I pestered my parents to take me up a mountain, but the nearest I got was a trip on the railway up Snowdon. Finally, when I got to university, I joined a hill-walking club.

VP: Your book, All But One, explores the advances in mountaineering made by women since the first ‘petticoat pioneers’. If we twisted your arm and asked to select just two, which women would you cite as setting an inspiring example?

Barbara: That’s not easy – all the women I wrote about, and many more, inspired me greatly. When I was active in the mountains, I knew little about the female ‘pioneers’ but writing my autobiography enabled me to learn so much more.

I would choose, firstly, Katy Richardson. She was a vicar’s daughter and not as wealthy as some of the better-known lady mountaineers of the Victorian era. The first time she climbed in the Zermatt area of Switzerland she was overwhelmed by the appeal of the mountains there and wondered how on Earth she would ever be able to afford to climb so many peaks. Thanks to her extraordinary fitness and natural talent, she reached the summit of many of the big mountains she’d seen.  I was particularly impressed by the fact that she always climbed in a long skirt, even when she completed the first traverse of the Aiguille de Bionnassay in the Mont Blanc Massif and then dashed down to the French Dauphiné to become the first woman to climb the Meije.

Secondly, I would choose Dorothy Pilley Richards whose main alpine climbing years were in the 1920s and 1930s. I particularly warm towards her as, like me, she climbed in partnership with her husband and so knew the satisfaction that such a relationship brings. She seems to have been a very enthusiastic, feisty lady and even towards the end of her long life she continued to visit the mountains and spend time in the huts enjoying the camaraderie. 

However, for inspiration, it’s difficult to beat the records of Una Cameron and Nea Morin, who were also climbing in the Alps in the years between the two World Wars.

VPDid you ever feel that being a woman set you at a particular disadvantage, or advantage, in the mountains?

Barbara: Frankly I rarely thought about the fact that I was female. Now I realise that my slight frame and relatively short stature occasionally gave me an advantage, but most of the time I felt a little disadvantaged – I couldn’t reach the same handholds and on soft snow I often felt obliged to use footsteps that were further apart than my natural stride, simply to keep up. Mind you, some shorter male companions sometimes had to do that too!

I think that it wasn’t unusual for a girl of my generation to accept rather unquestioningly the fact that in my rock climbing partnership with my husband he would always take the lead. Once I’d got over my initial timidity on rock, Les and I generally climbed rock routes that might have pitches – or even just a few crucial moves – that were beyond my comfort zone. It usually gave me great satisfaction to climb them and I rarely came near to falling off, but I wouldn’t have been able to lead them myself. This was much less the case in the Alps, where virtually all the rock we climbed was well within my capabilities.

VP: While the number of female climbers has soared in recent years, it remains a male dominated sport, particularly at the professional level. Why do you think this is?

BarbaraThere are far more opportunities these days for girls to get involved in sport and outdoor activities than back in the 1950s when I grew up. But there will always be the question of childbearing. The essential difference between men and women is the role played by our hormones. We are programmed differently and this leads to different priorities at certain stages of our lives. For many women, to combine the role of caring for children with the essentially hazardous role of a professional mountain guide is simply not an acceptable choice. Of course, it’s not the same for every woman: Gwen Moffat, Alison Hargreaves and Brede Arkless all combined motherhood with professional mountaineering, and today there are many young women who do just that.

Barbara and Les in the Pennine Alps, 1986

VP: Many of your climbing experiences have been with your husband, Les. What do you think are the most essential qualities that lie behind a strong climbing partnership?

Barbara: Complete trust in each other. An understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Pleasure in each other’s company and a mutual desire to do the same routes. Tolerance and patience when things don’t go quite as you expected. 

VP: What was the initial motivation behind writing All But One?

Barbara: When I first started to plan the book and write the first chapters, it was a cathartic exercise. I still hoped I might be able to complete the challenge and climb the Aiguille Blanche, the only peak I had left to do when my spinal injury halted me in my tracks. On the other hand, I thought that writing about my experiences might help me come to terms with the fact that I might never climb in the Alps again. After a while I felt I no longer needed to write a book, and that probably nobody would be interested in it if I did. So I gave up.

A few years later, our friend and climbing partner Pete Fleming insisted that I should write up my story for a wider readership, and eventually I felt the urge to start again. As the writing progressed, so did my ideas about my own position in the history of British women climbing, and I got increasingly interested in comparing my own experiences with those of my predecessors. And so the book grew, as did my desire to share my love of the mountains and pay tribute to all those who’d climbed with me and encouraged me. Sadly, Pete passed away just before the book went to the publisher, which is why I dedicated it to him.

VP: Suffering a slipped disc drew your serious mountaineering to an end. Today, what continues to motivate and inspire you?

Barbara: Mountains, still mountains, especially the Alps that I love so much.  I currently have an art studio, and for some time now I’ve been concentrating on creating a collection of images of the 4,000-metre peaks – so far mainly acrylic and mixed media paintings. One day maybe I’ll have the opportunity to exhibit them. That would be another way of sharing both the excitement and the sense of peace that the mountains give me. I particularly like to sketch outdoors in mountain areas, but other subjects also inspire me – the sea, island landscapes, and then for a greater diversity of colours and shapes I always come back to flowers and trees and crags and skies in my search to create new pictures. My garden alone is a great inspiration. I just love to be messing about both in the studio and, as ever, outdoors.


Back to Top
. . .