In April I wrote about a handful of gay climbers from the early pioneering days of modern mountaineering in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today I’ll continue with another handful who began their climbing career before World War II.
The first climber today
was among the first female mountaineers, Freda
du Faur (1882-1935). She was the subject of my first “Xtremely Queer”
article back in 2015 so I’ll direct you there rather than repeat myself.
The next climber, George Mallory (1886-1924), is one of
the more well-known mountaineers. Mallory’s sexuality has been debated for
several decades. The supporting evidence comes from letters written during his
time at Cambridge University. He was closely associated with the group of
artistic and literary students who were later called the Bloomsbury Group. The
majority of these students were gay, lesbian or bisexual. George Mallory knew
all of them and joined in their out of class socialising. His good looks and
athletic physique drew the attention of many male and female admirers,
particularly as he was not averse to taking all his clothes off in front of his
friends. Mallory writes in his letters about being infatuated with fellow
student James Strachey who was far more interested in pursuing Rupert Brooke to
return his affection.
Throughout his life
Mallory exhibited homoerotic sensibilities – he posed nude for photographs as
well as appeared naked in front of male friends. Though he married and had
children and was a perfect husband and father he probably felt that his first
love was the mountains. It was a bug that had hit him in 1904 when studying at
Winchester College. A climbing mentor was Geoffrey Winthrop Young whom I
mentioned in my previous mountaineering article.
It was Mount Everest for
which George Mallory’s name will always be most associated. Several
reconnaissance climbs and summit attempts over several years culminated in the
ill-fated 1924 expedition on which he and climbing partner Andrew Irvine died.
No-one knows for sure if they made it to the summit and perished on the way
down, or perished before they got there.
mountaineer was Wilfrid Noyce
(1917-1962). Several connections link Noyce and Mallory. Both were protégés of
Geoffrey Winthrop Young, both taught at Charterhouse School, both climbed
Everest and both were married. While there is no conclusive evidence of
homosexuality one way or the other for either men they both enjoyed the company
of gay and lesbian members of the Bloomsbury Group and also enjoyed the
homoerotic naked swimming parties with some of the male Bloomsbury members hosted
by Young at his Welsh mountain retreat.
Wilfrid Noyce was a member
of the historic successful first summit of Everest in 1953. Noyce was
responsible for the equipment, some of which were, no doubt, pioneered by Oscar
Echenstein and his occultist friend Aleister Crowley, as I mentioned last time.
Noyce stayed on South Col while Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzing summited. Bad
weather set in as they arrived back at South Col and Noyce’s own planned summit
attempt was abandoned.
One final tragic link
between Noyce and Mallory is that they both died on mountaineering expeditions.
After Everest Noyce continued to climb. In 1962, after reaching the summit of
Mount Garmo in the Pamir Mountains in present-day Tajikistan Noyce and his
companion Robin Smith slipped on the ice on the descent and they fell to their
The final climber in this
succession of lgbt mountaineers is John
Menlove Edwards (1910-1958). His climbing career was predominantly on
British peaks. Nevertheless, he is regarded by many as the finest British
climber of the pre-World War II era, or at least the finest climber of British
mountains. He pioneered many new routes up peaks and often went for those that
other climbers avoided as being just plain “uninteresting” yet still quite
Edwards’ first successes
and new routes were in Snowdonia in Wales when he was barely into his 20s. His
physical strength gave him an advantage and he quickly became the rising star
of British climbing. Despite this he always seemed to be uncertain of his own
abilities and was rather introverted. Very few climbers ever accompanied him on
his climbs, and these included Wilfrid Noyce on several occasions. Edwards’
self doubt was exacerbated by his recognition of his homosexuality. As a
qualified psychiatrist he must have queried his motives to push himself to the
limit as a means of tackling his sexual feelings.
Although he was no fan of the
most extreme Alpine or Himalayan mountaineering he pushed himself to the limit
in other ways besides tackling new and difficult British ascents. Several times
he set off in a boat and rowed from the mainland to uninhabited off-shore
islands, the most distant of these taking a day to row there before taking
another day to row back.
In his 40s John Menlove
Edwards became more mentally afflicted. He underwent electric shock treatment
in a mental hospital and made two suicide attempts. It was a third attempt that
took him from our world.
The sad fate of John
Menlove Edwards and the losses of Mallory and Noyce on the mountains are
exceptions rather than the norm in mountaineering. Throughout the history of
modern mountaineering, from the later Victorian era onwards, many lgbt climbers
have taken up the challenge to push themselves to the extreme. Even though many
of them were not openly gay or lesbian, or left no conclusive proof that they
were, they have provided inspiration to many lgbt mountaineers to push
themselves to the limit in the 21st century.