Thursday, 10 November 2016

An interview with Gwen Moffat

It's not often you get the chance to sit down and spend the afternoon with one of your heroes but, thanks to the lovely folks at The Rheged CentreI was able to do exactly that.

We recently spent a day at their mountain film festival - part of a superb weekend of breathtaking mountaineering movies and a dazzling array of guest speakers.  The event was  raising money for CAN - Community Action Nepal - a charity founded by Doug Scott and supported by mountaineers from around the globe.  It works in partnership with  remote mountain villages to provide health, education and income generation opportunities for local communities.  The charity has been particularly busy since the devastating earthquake in April 2015.

One of the guest speakers was the awe inspiring Gwen Moffat, whose autobiography Space Below My Feet is an absolute must read for those seeking inspiration to head outdoors.  She's also the subject of the wonderful film Operation Moffat (see clip later).

To say Gwen has led an adventurous and eventful life is an understatement - now in her 90s she lives relatively quietly in Cumbria with her mischievous cat Nog, so it was an absolute treat to hear her speak at the event and then have the chance to interview her later on.

Q. Lots of people see you as a trail blazer – is that something you set out to do?
No, not at all.  I joined the Pinnacle Club in 1948 and I looked up to my seniors, they were my role models.  Evelyn Lowe, Nea Morin & Pat Kelly.  These were marvellous climbers who all climbed better than I ever did.

It was just the way I lived my life – I met a climber, learned to climb, then I think the Pinnacle Club got hold of me and said “come and join us” so I joined them – pregnant.

But you weren’t going to let anything like that get in the way?
Hahahaha – no.

Gwen at Rheged
When you were in the Pinnacle Club was it competitive at all – trying to compare yourselves to each other?
No, not at all in my generation.  I don’t know if it is now but I don’t think so.  It was very supportive.  I think in some areas now it’s very competitive but it wasn’t like that for us at all.

You were a bit of a rule breaker – is that something you’d recommend?
Depends on the rule doesn’t it?  Are you thinking about the deserting?

Well that, yes, and the unwritten rules back then that “a lady shouldn’t do that”.
Well, I never thought those rules were there.   I didn’t consciously break rules, except for the desertion bit.  Except that I didn’t make the decision – I just started walking away and it wasn’t until I was walking away from the camp that I realised what I’d done, and I just went on walking.  But I really was quite in a curious state when I walked out of the Nissen hut – that was not a conscious decision.  I just couldn’t stick it – it was after 2 weeks climbing in filthy weather and it was the life that these ½ dozen people had shown me – they were all conscientious objectors you see, so they had no time for military authority and so on.  I had done my stint – I’d done 6 years in the services, I wouldn’t have deserted in war time.

Gwen Moffat
Lots of people see you as an inspiration – do you see yourself as one, or perhaps more of a mischievous bad influence?
Well, only in the way that people might try to emulate something I did when they’re not ready for it.  

For instance long walks – I walked around the North West corner of Scotland.  Up to Cape Wrath, around and across the Kyle of Durness, this took me 3 or 4 days, sleeping out.  All I took with me was a sleeping bag, no stove, and a huge cake made of lots of calories, molasses and eggs and all that sort of thing, plus a slab of cheese and I drank from the streams.  Oh I did have a waterproof cover for the sleeping bag which unfortunately was an old plastic survival bag so the only night I used it, when it was drizzling was at the Kyle of Durness, I slept in the heather and when I woke I was soaking wet inside the bag from the condensation and I had to dry the sleeping bag out!

Of course that took me 3 or 4 days and I didn’t take very much with me, but I knew what I was doing and also I know how to deal with panic – not that there was much to panic about there – but it was terribly windy.  The wind was quite energy sapping and I was lucky to find a cove with one of John Ridgeways little huts down there – he used to run sailing courses from up there – and he’d built a funny little round hut with a turf roof which I used for shelter one night.

A couple of times in the book you could have been described as being “under prepared” – is there something to be said for not over doing things when it comes to taking gear and food on a hike?
The sort of security they have now, it just didn’t exist in my day.  I mean we just didn’t have all the ironmongery that climbers carry. When I started all I had was two carabiners on rope slings – and
Snowdon
they were ex-Army carabiners that were liable to open if you fell. When we made the first climbing film in the 1950s with Joe Brown – (he climbed hard, I did the easy routes) – we went to Clogwyn du’r Arddu and Joe did a hard climb on the pinnacle using these useless  carabiners that would have failed with a long fall. But Joe never fell. That’s the kind of equipment people used in those days and if they were good they survived. (You can see some of Gwen’s remarkable photographs from back then right here.)

Was there an element of the skill having to develop because you couldn’t rely on the kit in the same way then as you can now?

Oh no, you couldn’t rely on it – and ropes broke.  They were still climbing on hemp when I started climbing, but we changed over quite soon to nylon because nylon came with the commandos in the war – but when I started we climbed on hemp ropes which broke because they didn’t stretch.  If anyone fell off they just came to a sudden jerked stop.  There was a maxim when I was climbing:  The Leader Must Not Fall – because if the leader fell they were at least injured if not killed – there was no security all the way up,

Trailer for Operation Moffat

Everyone said that pitons were cheating when they first came in. There was a Very Severe line on Tryfan which hadn’t been climbed and some German chaps came over in the thirties and climbed it using three pitons for security. “Troops were mobilised” according to the guide book, and the Climbers Club went up and did the second ascent but they took the pitons out.

And the clothing!  I’m thinking now of snow & ice climbing, that’s entirely different now.  I mean the men in 1933, on the last Everest trip before the war, they climbed in Tweed jackets.  Nowadays we use down and down is lovely – I use down all the time now, even at sea level – it’s so warm and light.

Going back to the pitons – these days people climb with a lot of tech – if you were climbing now, do you think you’d be using it?
No!  I was climbing about 20 years ago when all that stuff was in and I didn’t use it.  I started doing easy, solo, stuff, until finally I gave up because I realised that if I came off the rescue team would have to come and take me down – how humiliating!  So I stopped soloing even easy stuff.  But no, I would never have used all of that – no fun!

When I was living in Snowdon last I’d test myself.  I’d go out without a compass and without a map in thick weather and still find my way around, but then I knew the area very very well you see.  And I’d know from which way the wind was blowing, that sort of thing.

Was it easier to connect with the outdoors then, are we more cocooned now do you think?
It wasn’t a case of connecting then, although I’d been born in a town (Brighton) we’d moved to a new housing development on the edge of town when I was only 9 and we were the last house in the development.  I had the South Downs behind me, and I started walking and exploring then.  And as soon as I got a bike of course, I was going further afield into The Weald.

Children don’t enjoy those sorts of freedoms any more do they?
Nog
Well, people are frightened you see.  And of course with the media you hear so much of what is happening – you didn’t hear it then, presumably it was happening occasionally but we didn’t hear about it.  We only had the wireless and not everybody had one of those.

Being out in the wilds so much, climbing here and abroad, do you think it helped you to care more about it – I know you now have an interest in spotting wildlife such as dragonflies and adders – does it stem from there?
It started with guiding I think, I didn’t start to take an interest in flora and fauna until I realised that my clients were taking an interest and then I realised that in order to keep them interested I had to learn more about it myself.   The only thing I didn’t go for was Geology – now most people would go for the rocks as well, they’re climbing on rocks and they become amateur geologists but I didn’t, I went for the flowers mostly and then the animals.  Of course there were more animals to be seen in the 40s and 50s.

Are people caring less about it all these days because they’re not out there so much?
And yet there are more nature programmes aren’t there, on the TV – but I suppose that’s it, people don’t get out so much now, they watch, they read, but they don’t get out.

Would you have any advice to non climbers or others that are perhaps daunted by what you have achieved?
Start easy.  Go out with somebody who knows it, or join a club, and then you start low, on easy stuff and work up.

What about climbing walls?
Climbing walls can be very, very hard, they’re all graded,  so when you see something very hard on a climbing wall, don’t think you’ve got to go up and do that immediately, start with the easy stuff.

Is it ever too late to start?
I don’t know...I’ve had people aged 60.  I don’t think I’ve had people aged much older than that – for climbing.  Walking of course you can start any age.  I can still get up the tiny hills at 90 – just after my 90th birthday I got up Great Dodd (over 2800 ft/ 857 m).

Lots of people say that they don’t feel their age – I know you’re in your 90s but how old do you feel in your head?
I’m about 20 or so in my head – but I only have to do one little thing, like stand up and fall over – or comb my hair in the mirror to remember my real age.
Queue to speak to Gwen at Rheged

You’ve often said you have no regrets, but if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice when you were younger – would you?
I think I’d say “ignore me, just go for it” because I’m quite content with where I’ve been and what I’ve done and the things that have happened to me, even the bad things, have made me who I am today.  The bad things, and the sadness, are the things that make you stronger.

Do you get irritated by the “woman” angle?
Yes. One question I was asked recently was about the media pressure on women climbers these days to be sex symbols and how did I cope with it, well it didn’t happen with me – it was just different then.  There was no social media – just news papers and a bit of Woman’s Hour – and the press back then were terribly respectful, there was no “sex” angle.  They just concentrated on what you did and your skill, risk and danger – and now, well they’re not going to make a sex symbol out of a 90 year old now are they?

Lots of people in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond are quite cynical and depressed about the state of the world and the future because it’s different to how it was when they were younger– do you share that view?
No – you should live in the present.  In any case, in a few million years or so we won’t be here anyway, we’re just going to burn up.  Time is immaterial; you’re here so live today.  Of course you have to think a bit about tomorrow but you’re here, so enjoy what you’ve got.  And if you can’t enjoy it, just live it, do the best you can.  Happiness is like love, everyone has their own idea don’t they?  To me, happiness is fulfilment – you are what you are.

Do you have any advice for any protective parents who have a strong minded “little Gwen” on their hands who just wants to be a daredevil and climb things?
Yes – find somebody you trust who can teach them – either a friend or someone you can engage.  Quite a few parents came to me with their children, who’d never climbed – some wanted to learn with their children, others handed their older children over for me to teach.   Put it to the child as an ultimatum – yes you can do it but you go with that person.

I had this with my own daughter who I found walking along the roof of our home in Snowdon when she was only 4 or 5.  The roof at the back of the house came right down to the ground and she’d followed the cat up there.  I was out the front of the house and I turned around and there’s my child, two storeys high walking along the roof!

I can’t remember if I talked her down or went and got her down, but anyway, when she was down I put it to her – look, we’ll go climbing but we’ll do it properly with a rope.  After that I took her climbing on easy climbs and scrambles but she was always on the rope and she thought that was wonderful – like being an expert or a proper adventurer.

So yes, you can go but word it so that it’s one step up from climbing solo and then it sounds even more exciting.



With enormous thanks to The Rheged Centre for offering me this opportunity and, of course, to Gwen who is utterly charming, thoughtful and was endlessly patient with my questions.

The Rheged Centre is a brilliant place to visit any time of the year and always has an array of interesting films and exhibitions.  There are also a good variety of local shops selling the best that Cumbria has to offer and some fantastic cafes where you can put your feet up and enjoy a well earned coffee and a cake.