Passions run deep for mountains high

IN 1955, protocol dictated that women should stay at home, raise children, look after their husbands and generally keep quiet.

But three Scottish women bucked the trend and made history. They became the first non-male expedition to scale a range of wild peaks in the Himalayas.

Now their story is being detailed in an exhibition at the Scottish Portrait Gallery.

Monica Jackson, who now lives in Edinburgh, was one of the three woman who, in the spring of 1955, climbed the Jugal Himal, a range of wild and unexplored peaks perched on the border between Nepal and Tibet.

Wearing breeches and heavy boots, a thick wool jumper and the sort of round goggles that might not look amiss on a pilot, a far cry from today’s hi-tech gear, Mrs Jackson recalls that the expedition was very tough, very challenging but immensely exciting.

"I was a very, very keen mountaineer and when the opportunity arose to go to Nepal, I jumped at the chance to take it up."

Her groundbreaking expedition to the Himalayas with Elizabeth (Betty) Stark and Evelyn McNicol is being explored in an exhibition at the Scottish Portrait Gallery examining the role of Scottish men and women who have explored, recorded and conquered some of the world’s highest peaks.

Having been brought up in the hills of Southern India, on a coffee plantation, mountaineering came very easily to Mrs Jackson.

"Although, at the time, we had the support of most of the men in Scotland, my husband incidentally was very supportive, and of course the Ladies Scottish Climbing Club, of which we were all members, the expedition was not without its sense of adventure.

The group had slim resources, Nepal had only opened its doors to the outside world in 1950, but with enormous joy and spirit, they found a way to the remote peaks and made the first ascent of a 22,000-foot peak, which they named Gyalgen after Mingma Gyalgen, their lead Sherpa.

"It was very tough at times, but also very, very exciting. As we were the first people to explore the mountains, the maps we were following were not accurate. We had guides who accompanied us on the way and I would not say we were lost but we certainly felt confused at times."

Their spirit of adventure, an overspill from the 19th-century ethos of exploration and bonhomie, is something the exhibition, which opens in Edinburgh at the end of next month, hopes to portray.

Susanna Kerr, who is the curator of the exhibition, which coincides with the United Nations Year of Mountains, said: "The exhibition really spans the whole spectrum of mountaineering in Scotland. It starts with the Victorians that first began climbing for scientific and research purposes. They, of course, experienced the majesty and beauty of the mountains, the inner peace found whilst climbing and began the trend for climbing as recreation.

"We also include the period in the Thirties when people from all walks of life began engaging in the sport; a period that saw the formation of the Clydeside Craigdhu boys climbing club. The exhibition concludes with a variety of contemporary living mountaineers who have contributed to the sport.

The exhibition draws on work from the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and from other public and private collections. It includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, early instruments and documents.

Mrs Kerr said: "We are very privileged to have an oil painting of the great Sir Hugh Munro, who was the first person to map mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft. It is from a private collection that has not been seen before and we also have the original tables in which he mapped the mountains, of course we now refer to the mountains over 3,000ft in Scotland as Munros.

"We also have a specially commissioned portrait by Rob MacLaurin of Hamish MacInnes, mountaineer, writer and founder of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team. We think it will be a highlight of the exhibition."

Mrs Jackson’s sense of derring-do was also found with her companions on the journey. In a book entitled Tents in the Clouds, written with her co-climber Elizabeth Stark, they describe the days "as not only the happiest, but also, strangely enough, the most serene and peaceful days of their lives".

The sport of climbing, it seems, has come a long way from the buccaneering attitudes of the Victorians.

Mrs Kerr said: "What I would say now is that climbing is a boom hobby, it has now become a sophisticated sport in its own right, with the introduction of artificial climbing walls and a plethora of sporting equipment.

"What struck me about the early explorers was their comparative lack of equipment. When I was speaking with Monica Jackson about her famous expedition she quite casually observed that all she had was an old pair of socks that she cut up."