Arkless, Brede (née Boyle) (1939–2006), rock climber and mountain guide, was born 10 August 1939 in Moston, Manchester, England, the daughter of James Boyle, a fitter, and his wife Mary (née Harrison). Born prematurely while her Dublin-resident parents were visiting family in Manchester, she had a working-class upbringing in Sandymount, Dublin. A highly active child with a love for hiking, cycling and swimming, Brede left school aged fourteen to do clerical work. In her mid-teens she started rock climbing in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, without initially showing any great aptitude for it. She emigrated to the USA with her mother in 1957, then returned briefly to Ireland before moving to London, where she worked in an office and went rock climbing at weekends in the Lake District and in north Wales. Eventually, she left London to go waitressing by night and climbing by day in the Lake District.
While living and working in Manchester in the early 1960s, she became a part-time climbing instructor for the Mountaineering Association (MA). In January 1964 she married Geoff Arkless, a full-time instructor, and moved into his hut outside Llanberis, Wales, at the foot of Mount Snowdon. Around 1966 she became the second woman to qualify as a British Mountain Guide. As the MA wound down in the late 1960s, she and Geoff did guide work for the Association of British Mountain Guides (ABMG). A 1960s contemporary recalled her ‘as a performer with great competence and composure in all branches of mountain activity; as a genial character with a sharp, sidelong, and deflating wit who could hold her own in company; as a singularly attractive woman, blonde-curled, blue-eyed, lively and of enormous strength’ (Guardian, 18 Apr. 2006). She enjoyed beating male guides in arm wrestling contests.
In the late 1960s Brede and Geoff established their own climbing school at Deiniolen, Wales. They had six children by the mid-1970s, taking turns climbing and childminding. Every summer the growing Arkless family moved from Snowdonia to the Chamonix Valley, beneath Mont Blanc, France, where they camped in the woods. Brede and Geoff offered climbing lessons and acted as guides on popular routes. Brede often shepherded clients up Mont Blanc (4,809m; 15,774ft) while heavily pregnant. The children were brought mountaineering as soon as possible; one of her sons climbed Mont Blanc aged thirteen.
Most ABMG guides had other jobs, but Brede worked full time on the mountains, dividing each year between Wales, Scotland and the Alps. Into the late 1980s she was Britain’s only woman mountain guide. She and her husband drifted apart, separating in the mid-to-late 1970s. She began a relationship with another Llanberis-based climber Mick Pointon; they would have two children together by 1980, though they never married. A practicing catholic in other respects, she attended mass whenever possible; her Irish upbringing was also evident in her accent.
In 1979, much to the consternation of the Alpine mountain guide fraternity, she became the first woman to receive a carnet from the Union International des Associations de Guides des Montagne (UIAGM), the gold standard for international mountain guides. Around this time, her growing disenchantment with the sexism pervading climbing led her to offer courses for women, the first of their kind. She saw that women beginners tended to get discouraged in mixed gender classes because, unlike men, they could not haul themselves up a rock face, irrespective of technique, through sheer physical strength. Furthermore, she contended that women needed to be taught differently because they had weaker arms than men but stronger legs and better balance.
Her parental responsibilities, a lack of funds and the reluctance of men to include women in their expeditions precluded regular forays to the great mountain ranges; there were some, however, usually as part of all-woman groups. In the Himalayas she got to 5,600m (18,372ft) in the Padar region in Kashmir (1970) and again on the Bakhor Das in Pakistan (1978), where a giant boulder tumbled just past her. As her children grew up, she went on about a dozen or so expeditions from 1980. In 1989 she was part of a high-profile British women’s expedition to the Himalayan summit of Gasherbrum II, where two other members of the group reached the 8,034m-peak (26,358ft). Back in the Himalayas ten years later, she was in the first expedition to retrace the route taken in 1934 by Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman across the Chaukhamba range between the Hindu shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath. She also climbed in Mexico, Borneo and Bolivia.
Wearying of the male chauvinism and overcrowding of European mountaineering, she moved in 1990 to New Zealand, finding there a more welcoming and egalitarian climbing community. By then a single mother, she brought her four youngest children with her, settling in Twizel, a small town in the Southern Alps. She acted as a guide for various companies, trained mountain guides and ran her own climbing courses, feeding clients from her vegetable garden. She migrated to Europe each year for the summer mountaineering season.
In 2000 she attempted to become the oldest woman to climb Mount Everest after being invited to join a Swiss expedition at a cost of US$12,500, about one-third the going rate. She was disillusioned by the experience declaring ‘Everest is full of non-climbers and rich people … people who shouldn’t be where they are’ (Press (Christchurch), 24 Feb. 2001). Stricken by a stomach bug, she abandoned her ascent at 7,000m (22,965ft) and vowed never to return, pointing out that the Himalayas boasted many great summits untainted by the commercialism and egotism rampant on Everest.
Financial constraints meant she scaled only one peak of over 8,000m (26,246ft), but she was a source of inspiration for women climbers and admired by all aficionados. Whereas most mountaineers quit in their forties and most women lost interest once they started a family, she remained a full-time climber into her mid-sixties while raising eight children. This was despite an injury sustained in her early twenties that caused her ankle to be gradually destroyed by arthritis. She preserved her mobility by cycling as much as possible. Latterly she shaved years off her age – presumably to reassure clients astounded to find themselves roped to a grandmother. No other woman climber approached her longevity.
Still going strong upon being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, she cycled the 285km (177 miles) from Twizel to Christchurch for exploratory surgery, which revealed an inoperable tumour. Over the next year, she travelled the world bidding farewell to family and friends while climbing in the Dolomites, New Zealand and Australia. She died in Cromwell, New Zealand, on 18 March 2006, following which her remains were buried in Twizel cemetery. The attendant media tributes hailed her for leading the rise in women’s participation in rock climbing and mountaineering. In 2011 an outdoor activity centre in Newham, London, was named after her in recognition of her work with disadvantaged children. Two of her sons and one of her daughters became rock climbing instructors.