When I was in my early twenties, my then partner went through phases of enthusiasm for various outdoor hobbies. One of them was mountaineering. Whilst I’m a happy camper and rambler, climbing up steep mountainsides, and worse still, coming down them is not my cup of tea. I’d tried rock climbing once on a school trip and having been told to jam my foot into a crack in the rock, I found I couldn’t remove it. The instructor had to climb up below me and undo my boot laces so I could extricate my foot. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, I couldn’t will myself to lean back off the edge of the cliff and abseil back down, so I had a rather shame faced walk back down by a longer route. However, and maybe because of that, I’ve always admired the exploits of mountaineers. I attended a number of lecture tour events given by Doug Scott, a fellow climber of Chris Bonnington, the British Everest conqueror. This was a time of slide shows and a one man show, retelling his recent adventures, to raise money for the next expedition. I always remember Doug Scott being quite self-effacing, describing life threatening situation with nonchalance and humour. There didn’t seem to be any famous women climbers at the time, the early 1990s. It was kind of accepted that women weren’t strong enough to undertake these exploits and I never really questioned it, even though climbing and other ‘extreme’ sports were taking off at the time.
This brings me to this month’s first offering from the Library Door. Its Uncoiling the Ropes by Clare Sheridan and published by Mweelrea Press in July 2020 (available – Amazon). This book was presented to us as our May book club choice by Lesley Sheridan, Clare’s younger sister. In fact, Lesley doesn’t really get a mention in the book, but there’s no doubting they are siblings as they look so much alike.
Uncoiling the Ropes is a memoir of a lifetime of heart stopping adventures. Having been told in 1970’s Ireland that ‘girls don’t climb’ Clare Sheridan decided she wasn’t listening and went on to become recognised by fellow climbers as a pioneering leader, meeting the love of her life during her first trip climbing in the Alps, raising three children , holding down a career as a teacher , whilst continuing to tackle difficult routes on mountains all over the world as well as achieving a phenomenal succession of first climbs on Irish cliffs.
This is an engaging and enjoyable book to read. The first chapter is full of drama. A real cliff hanger, if you’ll excuse the pun and it really reels you in. Then we go back to the beginning of Clare’s passion, started by mountain walks with her father and a rivalry with her sister. We travel through Clare’s early climbing career. In the Alps she meets Calvin Torrans, a well-known mountaineer from Belfast. They start a long-distance courtship, carried out on various cliff faces! We hear about their travels into Canada, where they take on oil exploration work designed for rock climbers to fund expeditions. Eventually they move back to base themselves in Ireland and raise a family. The social conventions in Ireland at this time are explored in the book. Clare and Calvin had an unconventional and forward-thinking approach to marriage, running a household and raising three children which would have certainly jarred at the time. However , they seem to carried it off with patience , humour and a determination to live life their way that many of us could envy now in these more ‘enlightened’ times.
This is Irish author, climber and retired school teacher Claire Sheridan’s first book. Although she has other writing credits to her name, such as regularly writing articles for the Irish Mountain Log and co-editing numerous rock-climbing guidebooks with her husband Calvin Torrans. In 2014 she was the first woman to be awarded the Lynam Medal by mountaineering Ireland, other recipients include Sir Chris Bonington in 2019, along with the only other woman to date to have been awarded one, Innes Papert in 2015. She lives with her family in Bray, Ireland.
The book is full of humour and there are sad events and regrets expressed too. Its very human. I was left feeling that Clare had, in the book at least, put herself second to Calvin. The book was quite technical in explaining about techniques and politics in relation to the sport, without being heavy handed. The included photographs are amazing and bring some of the text further to life. That’s not to say they are needed, the writing is very good , Clare really brings the story to life , making the inaccessible , accessible, but I enjoyed being able to see the faces and places she wrote about.
From the safety of my sofa, this was an enthralling and exhalating story, told with passion and aplomb. I would love to listen to Clare regale with me stories in a theatre, when restrictions allow.
Reviewed by Georgina Murphy