Brede Arkless

Eyebrow-raising mountain guide


Brede Doyle, mountain guide: born Manchester 10 August 1939; married 1964 Geoff Arkless (four sons, two daughters), (two daughters with Mick Pointon); died Cromwell, New Zealand 18 March 2006.

Almost three decades ago Brede Arkless became the first woman to wear the coveted badge of an international mountain guide. In those less enlightened times, the prospect of a woman guiding in the Alps was viewed with some disbelief by European guides, and near horror by the (then at least) deeply chauvinistic Swiss guides. For the Swiss and Austrians it was bad enough that any members of the Association of British Mountain Guides should be granted the carnet of UIAGM (Union Internationale des Associations des Guides de Montagne), let alone that one of their number should be a woman. How could a woman possibly be strong enough to cope with the rigours of guiding day after day in the high mountains?

Arkless wiped the look of superiority off the faces of her doubters, so the story goes, by forcing the forearm of a Swiss guide to the table in an arm-wrestling match. It was an activity in which she gained some prowess. She would also relate how she had broken a man's arm while arm wrestling in the back of a van, reset it and then burst into tears.

Strength, determination, self-will and a cheery nature are the qualities which stand out with Brede Arkless, demonstrated not only in her expeditions and guiding right into her mid-sixties, but in the fact that she combined such a peripatetic mountain life style while raising eight children. It certainly raised eyebrows.

Brede Doyle was born in Manchester in August 1939. But it was the wrong city. Her mother was on her way home to Dublin. Somewhat mistakenly, baby Brede became the stuff of front- page news - portrayed as the youngest evacuee to Ireland.

Mrs Doyle ran a guesthouse in Dublin while her daughter developed a passion for the outdoors, wandering in the Wicklow Mountains and starting rock climbing as a 15-year-old. Mother and children emigrated to California for a short while and then back across the Atlantic to London, where Brede started work for a stockbroker. By the 1960s, however, she had exchanged Threadneedle Street for Snowdonia and launched herself on the uncertain career of climbing instructor and later fully fledged guide.

Her first work was as a trainer with the Mountaineering Association, a body that introduced some 15,000 people to climbing in the post-war years before its sudden decline and absorption into the YHA in 1967. Also working for the MA was the climber Geoff Arkless, who became its chief instructor. The pair married in 1964, their first home being a hut above Llanberis called "Quarry House".

Not long after the demise of the MA, Brede and Geoff formed their own guiding and instructing business and for a decade or more were one of the best-known wife-and-husband partnerships in mountaineering. Each summer the growing Arkless tribe would move to the Chamonix Valley, beneath Mont Blanc in French Alps, where the couple would run training courses and guide the popular climbing routes.

"We had a VW caravanette and a big tent and camped au sauvage in the woods above Argentière. The kids would wash their hair in glacial streams," Brede recalled. Sometimes the couple would take along an au pair from North Wales, or they would take it in turns to do the childminding while the other was away in the mountains. Brede guided clients on Mont Blanc when six months pregnant with her daughter Denise. There was plenty of work and the Arklesses took on young Brits, one or two of whom in much later years, as professional UIAGM guides, would in turn employ Brede in an alpine season.

A big family and tight domestic budgets did not allow too much opportunity for long expeditions to the greater ranges; however Brede still managed to leave a modest mark. In 1970 she took part in a women's expedition to the Padar Himalaya, between Kishtwar and Padar in Kashmir. In this, as in most things, she proved a powerhouse, cutting steps up tottering ice, to reach the summit of Rocky Peak (17,700ft). The women also climbed an 18,500ft snow peak.

Eight years later she was at the front again on a women's expedition to the Pakistan Karakoram, getting to within 1,500ft of the summit of Bakhor Das, a pile of dangerously loose rock rising to almost 20,000ft. Her dramatic account of the climb appeared in the magazine Woman's Own in January 1979 under the title "Lucky to be Alive". Rock fall proved to be the biggest danger with Arkless and Jackie Anthoine escaping death by inches when a massive boulder brushed their tent as it hurtled down the mountain.

She concluded: "When I got back and hugged the children I had only one thing to say about the expedition - never again! But now I miss the adventure, the nerve-tingling excitement. And if people ask about Bakhor Das, I say: "Well, maybe next time . . ."

There wasn't another time on Bakhor Das, but as family pressures eased there were more expeditions, notably the 1989 women's expedition to Gasherbrum II, when Rhona Lampard and Pole Wanda Rutkiewicz reached the 36,360ft summit, and an attempt on Everest at the age of 60 in 2000. She would have been the oldest woman and the first Irish woman to reach the highest point of the world but had to give up at 28,000ft with severe altitude sickness - barely 1,000ft from the top.

By the time of her Everest shot, Brede Arkless's life had undergone a good many changes, though her appetite for mountaineering and her Roman Catholic faith remained constant. In the mid-1970s she and Geoff had separated and Brede and settled with another Llanberis-based climber, Mick Pointon, with whom she had two more daughters.

In the 1980s, to help other women realise their potential, she started women's climbing courses with Jill Lawrence, a feminist and talented rock athlete. She had also become weary of the still unreconstructed sexist attitudes of some European guides, angered by one particular remark from an unsurprising quarter: "I will eat my guide's badge if a Swiss woman ever becomes a guide."

In 1990 she upped stakes again and moved to New Zealand, by now a single mother but with only the four younger children in tow. Again she had to prove herself, and did. Her eventually tally of ascents of Mount Cook, at 12,316ft New Zealand's highest summit, was 22, all the more impressive when leading clients who might not be the most proficient of climbers. In the antipodean winter she would return to Europe, where she was still guiding at 65, and still meeting men who were shocked at being led into the mountains by a woman, let alone a grandmother.

Arkless was increasingly dogged by an old climbing injury, a badly broken ankle sustained when just 23 while guiding a new route on the Isle of Skye. A block came off and she fell 30ft, one foot jamming in a crack. As a result she had no Achilles tendon and her ankle was gradually destroyed by arthritis.

The thousands of miles she cycled - including alone across Cambodia - probably helped retain mobility and it was typical that even when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Brede Arkless made the 200-mile journey to hospital for tests and treatment on her bicycle.

Stephen Goodwin

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