In praise of the oreads

My trouble — one of so many, my friends assure me — is that I have always admired outdoorsy, athletic women.

Peter Warland

It was probably forty years ago that I fell in love with the lithe blonde woman. I never spoke to her or even learned her name. She was the subject of a photograph in a Paris Match magazine that I was pretending I could read. She was poised alone like an oread, a mountain nymph, on an almost vertical rock face in the Italian Dolomite Mountains and I fell head over heels in love with the idea of her.

My trouble — one of so many, my friends assure me — is that I have always admired outdoorsy, athletic women. After all, I did successfully persuade one to marry me.

In those happy days, just after the second world war had stumbled to a conclusion, I was delighted to join a group of young people who had chosen  rock-climbing and mountaineering as their sport. We were an eclectic lot from all walks of life and it was with them that I encountered those strong but beautiful women I learned to admire.

DOROTHY: When I met Dorothy the first time, she was already married and had been with her husband, working at all sorts of jobs, doing a great deal of mountaineering and living on an ocean-going yacht. I never saw Dorothy in a dress; she probably didn’t own one. Her hair was always in a braid and coming undone, but she was still beautiful. And she was tough. On a week-long back-packing trek through Jasper Park, she was the only one of us who never complained about distance, flies, steepness of the slope or disinteresting food but, near the end of the expedition, as we all swam in an icy lake, I glimpsed her naked shoulders and they were rubbed raw from the straps of the gigantic pack that had been her daily burden.

JANET:  This diminutive woman once told me, “Unless you can put up with someone whilst camping in a small tent in foul weather and lousy food for several days, don’t even consider marrying him.” She found the right man, climbed with him in the Alps, in the Rockies and the Andes and, when she was a grandmother, beat her native guide to the top of Kilimanjaro in Africa.

GWEN: Gwen died just a few days ago. She was eighty-three but I remember her from over sixty years ago. I even saw her on TV, a tall stately blonde (even on black and white film) and she was being interviewed about her joining her husband in a climbing group in the Himalayas. When asked why she, a (mere implied) woman, was going, she replied coyly, “We want to know if women are different.”

The Sherpas certainly found out about this blonde woman being different. They were fascinated by her, especially as she could carry a fair load and yet keep up with them, even at extremely high altitudes.

WENDY:  A gang of us had just successfully climbed the extremely steep Grepon in the French Alps and it was Wendy’s turn to rope off the summit over massive cliffs. With a little wry smile, she muttered sotto voce, “Just think. I could be polishing the front room floor right now.” I wasn’t as light-hearted as I followed her over.

Many years later, when we were reminiscing, she told me, “The hardest climb I’ve done was following John, who had the baby on his back, up that awful track in the Pyrenees and singing silly nursery songs as we went.”

JEAN: “You know why she’s marrying you, don’t you?” said my best man as I stood sweating into my unaccustomed suit. “She thinks you’re the only one that can keep up with her in the hills.”

I whispered back, “She’s so besotted with my charms, she slows down for me.” Then the bridal march started.

Jimmy, as we all knew her, not only slowed down for me over sixty years of marriage, but she stayed with me through thick and thin, crazy climbs, wild ski runs, dangerous caves, two boisterous children and my rotten sense of humour.

I wonder how that pretty French oread fared in her later years.

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