Who was Mabel Barker?

“There are moments when it is rather good fun to be a woman. Probably no lady in history was ever so sure of creating a mild sensation by the mere fact of being where she was.”

Mabel Barker, Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, Volume 7, 1925.

Claude Deane Frankland, often referred to as C. D. Frankland had just finished his lead on a route on Scafell and was awaiting his second to join him on a ledge. Two gentlemen who were climbing a route named Keswick Brothers (Very Difficult), had seen C.D. Frankland and his partner climbing and asked which route they were on. C.D. Frankland timed his response perfectly and informed the two gentleman “Central Buttress, just got up the flake”, just as his climbing partner, Mabel Barker, appeared next to him.

Mabel Barker and C.D. Frankland had just achieved the fourth ascent of Central Buttress (graded E1 5b) which was also the first female ascent. This was in 1925, when female climbers were few and far between. During this climb Mabel Barker was also responsible for leading the Great Flake pitch, which now goes direct at E3 5c after the loss of the crucial chockstone in 1994 (there is still an E1 variation by climbing the face of the flake).

Sadly, two years later C.D. Frankland died while climbing Chantry Buttress on the Napes when a hold broke. Mabel was part of the climbing party that day and wrote the poem ‘On Great Gable’ in 1927 to memorialise her friend and climbing partner:

“…Never a cloud of the many that are

That form and threaten and roll and dip

Never a cloud had risen to mar

The lovely radiance of comradeship…”

Not only a rock climber, Mabel was also a geographer and geologist. Born in 1886 in Silloth, Cumbria Mabel was educated far beyond the usual level for a woman at the time, gaining a diploma in Geography at Oxford University and a BSc degree in Geology in London. After the First World War, Mabel studied in France at the University of Montpellier where she was inspired by the work of Sir Patrick Geddes, biologist, sociologist and town planner. During her time at Montpellier, Mabel wrote a Phd thesis entitled ‘L’Utilisation du Milieu Géographique pour l’Education’ (The Use of the Geographical Environment for Education).

Mabel was passionate about promoting outdoor education and opened a private school at Friar Row in Caldbeck in 1927. Mabel encouraged children to explore the woods nearby and learn about the environment which they lived in. She would also take the children hill walking in the Lake District with trips to Scafell and Great Gable. Mabel always taught her pupils to look after the countryside and leave no trace behind.

The school unfortunately closed when the Second World War broke out; Mabel had many students from Europe attending the school and they had to return home before the borders closed. During both World Wars Mabel temporarily left teaching behind to nurse. She assisted the Society of Friends (Quakers) with refugees in Holland during the First World War and nursed at Garlands Hospital in Carlisle during the Second World War.

“Although she always regretted her lack of physical strength, she had a fine natural style which seemed to dissolve all difficulties, and to climb in her company was often a chastening, though always rewarding experience.”

In Memoriam, Jack Carswell, Journal of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, Volume 19, 1962

As Jack Carswell’s testimonial makes clear, Mabel was known amongst her friends in the Fell and Rock Climbing Club as a superb climber. Mabel continued to climb until ill health no longer permitted her to do so (she began to suffer from arthritis during World War Two). During her climbing career Mabel Barker became to first woman to traverse the Cuillin Ridge in 1925 and at the age of 50 the first woman to descend Central Buttress.

Mabel Barker remains an inspiring figure in mountaineering to this day.

In our archive at Mountain Heritage Trust we have Mabel’s nailed climbing boots and rope used during the 1920s-1930s. In our library we also have Jan Levi’s biographical book And nobody woke up dead: The life and times of Mabel Barker.

Information for this article obtained from And Nobody Woke up Dead: The Life and Times of Mabel Barker and Fell and Rock Climbing Club journals from 1925, 1926 and 1961.

Written by Nicole Reeve for the final issue of Mountain Pro Magazine.

Mabel Barker
© FRCC Archives