Climbing their way out of a man's world

THEY set off for distant peaks in long tweed skirts, but once away from prying male eyes, they continued their climb in starched knickerbockers.

It was the era of the suffragettes, and these female climbers had been shunned by the all-male Scottish Mountaineering Club, which considered the fairer sex suitable only for preparing a sumptuous packed lunch.

But the women decided to strike out on their own.

Today, the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club (LSCC), which played a part in the first all-women expedition to the Himalayas in 1955, will scale a new peak, marking its 100th anniversary with a communal climb in period costume.

Some 120 members from all over Scotland will celebrate the milestone with a mass ascent of the 3,352ft Buachaille Etive Mor, the big shepherd of Glen Etive, in Glencoe and hold a party on the summit.

Among those attending the celebration is Pam Cain, from Abernethy, near Perth, who, at 92, is the oldest member. As Miss Cain, a retired occupational therapist, waited for her lift to arrive yesterday, she said: "We are certainly all entering into the spirit of it. Dressing up in costume is a bit of fun. I think I may put on a balaclava to try to look the part.

"The event is a very good idea and the women who founded the club deserve to be remembered. I met Mabel Jeffrey, one of the founders and had the greatest admiration for her."

The genesis of the club was explained by Helen Steven, 65, the LSCC's president and historian, who said it had played a "unique role in mountaineering". She said: "The club was started by Jane Inglis Clark, Lucy Smith and Mabel Jeffrey, who were frustrated at being barred from the Scottish Mountaineering Club on the basis of gender.

"They were sheltering in a cave near Killin, in Perthshire, in 1908. They wanted to climb but were denied access to the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

"Jane Inglis Clark apparently announced, 'It is time we started our own club for women'. They were pioneers. The suffragettes were rolling out their campaign for the vote at the same time – our records show one early member was a suffragette."

Mrs Steven, who stared climbing at the age of six and joined the club at 17, said the earliest members were "incredible characters".

She was taught to use an ice-axe by Mabel Jeffrey and said: "I knew Mabel and remember her as very warm, rosy-cheeked and welcoming – she came into a room like a burst of sunshine. But she was hard as old nails. They were all characters, though. They encountered opposition and prejudice from people who saw climbing as not ladylike. But they were adventurous. They set off in to the hills wearing long tweed skirts, which would get really heavy in the wet, and knickerbockers underneath.

"At a suitable point out of sight of the road, and if there were no men around, a lot of them took their skirts off and climbed in their knickerbockers."

'One doesn't take part for recognition'

THE oldest member of The Ladies Scottish Climbing Club, Pam Cain, said she was drawn to the pursuit by good views and the sense of solitude.

Ms Cain, who has climbed all of Scotland's Munros and taken part in expeditions worldwide, including in Nepal and the Arctic, said: "It's just very pleasant. The views are spectacular and you are away from everyone."

She added: "Women climbers probably don't get the same recognition as men, but then one doesn't take part for the recognition."

"I've been climbing since 1960 but had to slow down a bit when I reached 70, but I love it still, doing what I can."

Ms Cain was born on the Isle of Man, and has always had a taste for adventure and volunteered to work overseas with the Red Cross during the Second World War.

"I was sent to Italy and worked in a welfare role in military hospitals. We would go round and see the wounded military and write letters for them and take them out if they had difficulty walking."

Ms Cain said her experiences in Italy made her "want to do something worthwhile" with her life and when she returned to Britain in 1947 decided to train as occupational therapist.

This brought her to Scotland in 1950, and the Bridge of Earn Hospital. "I was going to stay for a year but I've been in Scotland ever since," she said.

"Climbing has kept me fit but I've also enjoyed trekking and dingy sailing. When I retired I kept myself active."