The chance discovery of a book called Climbing Days by one Dorothy Pilley, a pioneering mountain climber of the early twentieth century starts Dan Richards on a deeply personal journey, for Pilley is his great-great aunt. He was aware of her and her husband Ivor Richards because of the stories of their exploits in the high Alps from his father and other relatives, but she was still an enigma to him. Maybe climbing the same mountains and walking the same passes, with her memoir as a guide, will help him understand her.
First though, he needs to learn how to climb. Trips to the Lake District, Scotland and Wales are his training grounds as he learns the correct way to ascend before travelling to the Alps. He visits a cousin in Spain who knew her and spends time with him pouring over photos and learning more of her character. There are a visit to Cambridge, meeting with Robert Macfarlane and finding out about the exploits of Ivor whilst he was there. However, all of this is a precursor to his ultimate desire, travelling to the Swiss Alps to climb the 4357m high Dent Blanche, following in her footsteps.
Richards has written a most satisfying book. It is a mix of history, memoir and travel and he has the balance of each genre just right. He has managed to highlight her achievements in life by drawing on different peoples perspectives; his father, his cousins and the Swiss guides, as well as his own journey of discovery. It is a physical and emotional voyage as he climbs the mountains and clambers back up the family tree. The book has photos liberally scattered throughout of his adventures and of the people he met as well as reproductions from the photo albums of Dorothy and Ivor; they enhance the book really well. Pilley was held in high regard by those that knew her and the intention of following the footprints of his great-great aunt in the mountains is a great idea. It is a fitting eulogy to a trailblazing woman, who was way ahead of her time.