Boardman-Tasker 2017 shortlist: Image BT
So...the Shortlist has been announced for the 2017 Boardman-Tasker Award for mountain literature and in contrast to recent shortlists, there is a surprise entrant on the list....a woman! Yes, Canadian writer, Bernadette MacDonald who actually won the award in 2011 with ‘Freedom Climbers’- which charts the disproportionate impact Polish climbers had on post war mountaineering, despite their isolation behind the iron curtain- has climbed mountain literature’s slippery slope and planted a flag for female writers amongst the usual BT cast of male hard nuts and romantics. In fact, you have to go back to 2013 to find a female writer on the shortlist and as it turned out, Harriet Tuckey’s biography of her father, Griffith Pugh, took the first prize with her ‘Everest-the First Ascent'.
But this is not to have a go at the Boardman Tasker committee who select their long and short lists from books generally submitted by publishers. You can only deal with the hand that you are dealt, and if books penned by women are not forthcoming, or if those which are, are deemed not good enough, then that’s no fault of the powers that be. The lack of successful female mountain writers should come as no surprise I guess, as a lot more men climb at the extremes of the sport. Both as rock and winter climbers and as extreme mountaineers, and it seems as if literary committees are more inclined towards favouring what I’ve described in the past as 'tales of derring-do’ over more mundane fare. However, that begs the question, why should climbing at a lower technical standard or writing about people, places and experiences which are set in say, the English Lake District or Snowdonia, be considered as lesser works of art?
Personally, some of my favourite climbing books have been autobiographies which were firmly rooted in a world which is familiar and accessible to the everyday journeyman or women, Bill Peascod's Journey after Dawn, David Craig’s Native Stones, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Harold Drasdo’s The Ordinary Route, Harry Griffin’s Coniston Tigers, Gwen Moffatt’s Space Beneath my feet, even John Redhead’s esoteric, and one for the crow.
For the creative female writer there is material aplenty to fashion into a worthwhile literary work-as all of the above have done- without having to explore the greater ranges or describe being benighted at 24000‘, surviving avalanches or watching helplessly as a partner falls down a 2000' Himalayan ice face. With more women than ever taking part in mountain activities and more than holding their own with most men, I am left wondering how long it will be before female mountain writing really starts to make inroads into the macho world of mountaineering and climbing literature?