Sunday 18 June 2017

Xtremely Queer : Climb Every Mountain - Part 2

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.

Another Everest 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 deaths.

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 challenging.

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.

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