I don’t think I’ve ever felt as exhausted at the end of the book as I did just now, as I reluctantly turned the final page of the thoroughly engaging “Space below my feet” by Gwen Moffat.
Ms Moffat was the first woman to qualify as a mountain guide, and this account of her life, her adventures, her climbs (and a little of her personal life) is bursting with life and enthusiasm – and as the reader, you sit there mesmerised by the sheer gumption and intrepidness of the author who cheerfully hitchhiked her way around the UK, sleeps in barns, in open fields, as she dashes from one climbing adventure to another. She was clearly a fearless young woman, and amazingly independent, often choosing to climb bare-footed. To think that Ms Moffat lived such a free-spirited life in the immediate post-war years is even more telling. She travels light, meets many equally passionate climbers, marries, has a baby, continues climbing – and all this at what seems to be breakneck speed. She writes lyrically about the countryside and the mountains, whether in Wales or Scotland or the Alps.
I read the book sitting in the Himalayas, in the neighbouring valley to Kulu and when the author recounts how she was invited to lead a women’s climbing trip to Kulu, I got so excited. Alas, the trip didn’t happen.
One is filled with admiration not only for her physical skill and courage, but also her freedom of thought, her fierce independence and her ability to sweep you along on her adventures, many of them nail-biting.
Ms Moffat was clearly not a woman to sit idly and watch life from the sidelines. She is passionate about climbing, and about animals, and she focuses everything towards her climbing. Since money was always tight, she works at whatever job she can, to earn enough to pay her daughter’s school fees and have enough left over to climb. She never moans, never complains, and just charges onwards to her next adventure.
It would seem that no concessions were made to her, in what was then an almost totally male dominated sport:
“Johnnie said he would try the wall above me. At first he tried unaided, then I moved closer to give him a shoulder. Johnnie is six feet tall and built in proportion. He didn’t hurt as he was in vibrams, but he was very heavy. Then he lost his hold and all his weight came on me. I stood it for a moment (sinking into the snow like a pony in a bog) and then I subsided gently over my axe.”
At one point she is working as a professional climbing guide in the Lake District in England. Because of lack of money she sleeps in a barn, with an assortment of animals for company:
“ The cats welcomed me with open arms, for the nights were getting chilly and my sleeping bag was a boon to them. Every time I turned over in the night kittens flew off in all directions, to come stuttering back immediately with shrill little curses. Sometimes I woke up with the whole mob of them inside the bag.’
After her divorce from Sheena’s father, she marries Johnnie and she also buys her first car, a second hand 1932 Morris minor
“which was immediately christened the Daimler. Despite the fact that the steering was so bad I got cramps in both hands on long runs, I was jubilant at this new acquisition.”
The Daimler’s brakes are decidedly dodgy;
“The brakes screamed on a high. I have been warned about them several times by the police. My garage taught me a little speech to be delivered in a cultured, pleasant tone with a now-you’re-an-intelligent-man air. It began: “But all the models of that year made a slight noise with the brakes; in 1933 the makers…” I forgot what they did in 1933. The brakes were quite efficient; it was merely that they had to be so noisy about it.”
An engaging, spirited book about a woman doing extraordinary things, and usually the only woman around.
But I warn you. You’ll feel exhausted reading it.