Unjustifiable Risk?

The Story of British Climbing

By Simon Thompson

A social, economic and cultural history of British rock climbing and mountaineering charting the conditions that gave rise to the sport, and the achievements and motives of those who have shaped its development over 200 years. Today's climbers share a desire to escape from urban society but what makes them take that unjustifiable risk?

21 Feb 2012
19.8 x 12.9 x 3.1cm
  • Overview

    To an impartial observer, Britain does not appear to have any mountains. Yet the British invented the sport of mountain climbing and for two periods in history British climbers led the world in the pursuit of this beautiful and dangerous obsession. Unjustifiable Risk? is the story of the social, economic and cultural conditions that gave rise to the sport, and the achievements and motives of the scientists and poets, parsons and anarchists, villains and judges, ascetics and drunks that have shaped its development over the past two hundred years.

    Climbing has both reflected and influenced changing social attitudes to nature and beauty, heroism and death. Over the years, increasing wealth, leisure and mobility have gradually transformed the sport from an activity undertaken by an eccentric and privileged minority into a popular part of the leisure and tourist industry. But while much has changed, even more has remained the same. Today’s climbers would be instantly recognisable to their Victorian predecessors, with their desire to escape from the crowded complexity of urban life, and willingness to take potentially unjustifiable risks in pursuit of beauty, adventure and self-fulfilment.

    Unjustifiable Risk was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker prize in 2011.

  • Contents

    Chapter 1  Introduction   

    Chapter 2 Before 1854: In Search of the Sublime   

    From gloom to glory   
    Aesthetes and heroes   

    Chapter 3 1854–65: A Conscious Divinity   

    Chapter 4 1865–1914: Gentlemen and Gymnasts   

    The Alps   
    The Lake District   
    North Wales   
    The Greater Ranges   

    Chapter 5 1914–39: Organised Cowardice   

    The Lake District   
    North Wales   
    The Alps   
    The Greater Ranges   

    Chapter 6 1939–70: Hard Men in an Affluent Society   

    North Wales  
    The Lake District   
    The Alps   
    The Greater Ranges   

    Chapter 7 After 1970: Reinventing the Impossible   

    Rock climbing   

    Chapter 8 Because it’s there?   

    List of Photographs   

    Appendix I A Note on Grades   

    Appendix II Glossary of Climbing Terms   

    Selected Bibliography  


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  • Reviews

    "The beauty of this book is that not only do you look back throughout many years of how and why climbing came about, reading amazing snippets of famous stories and getting an insight in to why they took the risk, but you will also question your own reasons for climbing and learn a lot about yourself. A personal journey from reading a book…not bad!

    I would recommend this book to anyone interesting in Climbing, mountaineering and walking in general, an enjoyable read which gives great insight. A must read!"

    Uk Active Outdoors, October 2014


    "Crammed with fact and anecdote, this impressively researched volume asks some fundamental questions about the sport – which boil down to the inevitable ‘why?’ – and proceeds to look for the answers in the lives and achievements of those dedicated to an undertaking that perfectly illustrates the phrase ‘deep play’.

    Climbing, Simon Thompson’s premise runs, is an irrational activity, a sport for romantics, and is based on the pleasure to be found in fear. It’s the kind of detail that drives the book, and there’s some high-energy history on offer. Thompson wraps up the Romantics then steams through the train-assisted boom in Alpine tourism.

    Hidden inside this breakneck history are plenty of surprises for the novice, and probably one or two for those well versed in climbing’s more arcane crannies.

    But this is a book that anyone interested in British climbing needs to read. Almost incidentally, between the tales of peaks overcome, it reveals that some barriers are more difficult to scale than other, and that the class and gender divisions in the climbing community haven’t been vanquished yet. And it has much to say about what drives those who climb mountains, and the intensity of experience they crave."

    Geographical, October 2010

    “Even if mountaineering’s not your thing, the psychology behind it – and its appalling death record – is grimly fascinating. This thoughtful and witty book by Simon Thompson is about the Brits who risked everything for what many considered nothing.”

    Trail magazine, November 2010

    “As Simon Thompson remarks in his foreword, it’s been a long time since anyone has attempted to describe the entire history of British climbing between the covers of one book. At first sight, this does seem to be a surprise. But then, once one starts analysing what is required, the magnitude of the task soon becomes apparent....

    Fortunately, Thompson has pretty much managed to square the circle with this splendid social history. Unjustifiable Risk? is commendably ambitious in its compass, eschewing the modern barriers of the sport’s sub-disciplines and instead treating climbing as, well just plain old climbing...This makes far more demands on the writer, but it makes for a much more rewarding experience for the reader...

    Ultimately books of this type have either got to tell you something you didn’t know before, or to make a fresh point about the meaning of it all...Does Unjustifiable Risk? therefore justify itself? Overall, the answer is yes...Climbing books as intelligent, readable and wide-ranging as this don’t come along very often; cherish the opportunity to read this one.”

    Climb magazine, December 2010

    “Thoroughly researched and well illustrated, Unjustifiable Risk is by no means a risky purchase.”

    Westmorland Gazette

    This Boardman Tasker Prize short-listed publication is quite honestly a staggering piece of research work in its own right.

    We are taken through climbing history from what the author refers to as the Golden Age, then Silver, to the Iron Age; the start of the use of the first pitons up to the present day.

    The author explores the social, cultural and ethical changes in British Climbing. Along the way he raises as may questions as he offers answers or opinions. Alongside the wealth of background history of nearly 200 years of climbing Simon Thompson concludes with a chapter entitles ‘Because it’s there’, where he poses the big question: Why do we climb?

    This was a suitable enjoyable finish to the book. There are any number of book on the history of climbing and this certainly meets the bench mark and will not disappoint.

    Mountain Rescue magazine, January 2011

    Living as I do in Scotland, Thompson’s opening sentence ‘To the impartial observer, Britain does not appear to have any mountains’ was an unpromising start. However, by the end of the first two chapters, I was hooked. Thompson starts his story in the late eighteenth century, setting mountaineering in the social and philosophical context of the time. Those who went to the mountains were men (mostly - but some women too) of private means, either aesthetes or heroes, unconventional for their time. The zeitgeist was that of both the Romantic Movement and the development of scientific exploration. He quotes Blake “Great things are done when man and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street” and Burke’s eighteenth century idea that terror produces delight as motivating factors for the early explorers.

    Thompson loosely charts the main periods of mountaineering activity and achievement - the Golden Age, ending with Whymper’s tragic accident on the Matterhorn in 1865; the period up to the end of the First World War, in which so many of the officer class, including many climbers, were killed; and the social changes following WWI, when people who did not have either the resources or the leisure to go to the Alps discovered climbing on their local crags.

    Throughout the book, are potted biographies of climbers – individuals - often people on the edge of society, eccentric, xenophobic - including a number who committed suicide and several who provoked strong antipathy in their colleagues. Many were blackballed by the Alpine Club. The thread of eccentricity persisted into the twentieth century, long after the earlier social structures had broken down, and the climbing fraternity was joined both by a strand of people who were just plain outrageous for its own sake, and also by “the unemployed, people tired of city life, dreamers, poachers, hikers and revolutionaries…” (quoted from E MacAskill in Climber and Rambler).

    Thompson includes an essay on ‘Access’ between 1914 and 1939 and he maps the development of technology and innovation in tools and clothing, which has allowed the relentless pushing of standards throughout the twentieth century. As he reaches the time that you know something about, you realise that he has been selective in his material. This however does not detract from the book. Rather, he has a broad-brush style, moving the narrative at a good pace, and giving an excellent overall framework from which the interested reader can go into any of the subjects in greater depth, using the excellent bibliography. It’s a great read.

    Ladies Scottish Climbing Club

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Thompson Simon

Simon Thompson

Simon Thompson started climbing at the age of 16 and has been fascinated by the sport ever since. A former director of Anglo American and chairman of Tarmac, he has lived in seven different countries and currently sits on the boards of companies headquartered in Sweden, the UK and the US, but he continues to escape to the mountains whenever time permits.

View Guidebooks by Simon Thompson