vRachel Hewitt is not, by her own assertion, great at “technical descents”; those stretches of trail run where solid ground is a distant dream. Here the runner must yield to gravity while simultaneously navigating boulders and scree, often having already climbed great heights over a huge distance, grappling with weather and carrying a pack laden with water, energy bars, spare kit and incontinence pads. To those of us more at home in the great indoors, the mere fact that she is anywhere approaching upright seems miraculous, and it seems unnecessarily self-critical for her to focus on aspects of her performance she views as sub-optimal. Over the course of this deeply impressive, humane synthesis of scholarship, memoir and rallying cry for women and girls to exercise their right to a place in the world, she will consider how limiting it can be to attend too closely to that inner judge. She will also reflect, minutely and thoughtfully, on how women’s greater participation in outdoor life is not curtailed straightforwardly by a lack of self-belief or confidence, but by the threat and reality of male violence and derision.
Hewitt’s interest lies particularly in the flourishing of 19th-century sportswomen, especially the captivating Lizzie Le Blond, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat who, dispossessed by primogeniture, eschewed conventional marriage and motherhood for a life scaling the rock faces and summits of the Alps. Her climbing career had begun as she rambled over the lower slopes of Switzerland as part of a rest cure for suspected tuberculosis; the nearest thing to suitable gear was riding clothes with high-heeled boots and floppy hats to protect delicate skin from the ravages of the sun. It ended with her installed as the first president of the newly founded Ladies’ Alpine Club, an internationalist organisation dedicated to the promotion of female climbers that rejected, unlike its male counterpart, the feverishly competitive accumulation of records in favour of the supportive sharing of information. (She was also fantastically glamorous, and there is much incidental pleasure to be had in accounts of her gadding about in St Moritz, where she attended a winter ball dressed as an icicle and befriended EF Benson, the creator of Mapp and Lucia.)
Le Blond’s story, and that of numerous other women who climbed, tobogganed, ran, skied and walked, has fallen through the cracks of sporting history; Hewitt’s fascination with the topic was sparked when she was sold a pair of running shoes by a man who told her that the lack of choice was down to “numbers”, women having not really taken up sport until the 1970s. She details exhaustively how untrue this is, but also demonstrates how fragile women’s purchase on the great outdoors still is; how gains made on male territory were frequently offset by a backlash. The codification of sports, the provision of facilities and resources, the exclusion of women from scores of organisations, clubs and competitions all worked to deter them from feeling at home or at ease in the world of physical activity. One of the most sobering aspects of In Her Nature is how recently so many of these barriers were removed (where, indeed, they don’t still exist).
Woven into this history is Hewitt’s moving account of a year of long-distance trail running that she undertook when her life had been rocked by a series of bereavements, most notably the loss of her stepfather, Willy, who had done so much to encourage her to immerse herself in the natural world. She mourns not only him, but the girl who, beset by self-doubt, once sabotaged her own love of running by privileging performance over pleasure. With Lizzie Le Blond in her sights, Hewitt rediscovers that girl, even as the end of the book reveals an even more profound, life-altering loss. Sometimes, as she realises, the best you can hope for is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, remembering to lift your head to the horizon.
• In Her Nature: How Women Break Boundaries in the Great Outdoors is published by Chatto & Windus (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.