The story of a mountaineer evokes classic mountaineering literature

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Time on Rock. By Anna Fleming. Canongate Books; 272 pages; £ 16.99

LICONIC ESS that Jesse Owens’ victories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics – but no less infuriating for the Nazi hosts of the games – were those of Günter and Hettie Dyrhenfurth, a Swiss couple who won gold in mountaineering. The Dyhrenfurths, of Jewish origin, were born in Germany and did not acquire Swiss nationality until 1932. They had made two expeditions to the Himalayas, in 1930 and 1934, with a success that contrasted sharply with the disastrous attempt. of the Nazis on the Nanga Parbat. Hettie, a mother of three, was 42 when she climbed the four peaks of the Sia Kangri, setting the female altitude record, which she would hold for more than 20 years. Günter pointedly refused to give the Nazi salute by accepting the medals on their behalf.

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It was the last Olympic mountaineering competition; they are also the penultimate games to which another Olympic prize is awarded, that of literature. Among the competition for the prize, which recognized works “inspired by the idea of ​​sport” or dealing “directly with sporting subjects”, was Günter Dyrhenfurth, whose “Himalayan Demon” was submitted in the “epic” category. . He did not win – the prize went to a Finn, Urho Karhumaki, for a long poem on open water swimming – but his participation in both events highlights the close and enduring relationship between rock climbing and the writing.

“Time on Rock”, a new book by Anna Fleming, is the latest to embody this close affinity. It’s the life story of a young woman in rock climbing, from a nervous teenage apprentice to a chief climber in her thirties. It is also a “rock trip”, as Ms Fleming, scholar and journalist, comes to know and love the varied terrain of the British Isles (and, in one chapter, Greece). It’s about the fear and joy of rock climbing, and how a hobby can develop into the centerpiece of a lifetime. Echoing and honoring some of the classics in rock climbing literature, the book is a lovely introduction to the genre.

Although the most famous climbers are men, many of the best climbing books are written by women. Ms Fleming pays tribute to perhaps the greatest of all mountain writers, Nan Shepherd, the Scottish author of “The Living Mountain” (written in the 1940s but not published until 1977). Part memory, part meditation inflected by Buddhism, Shepherd’s work influences both Ms. Fleming’s prose and her approach to mountain life. “The thing to know grows with knowledge,” Shepherd thought, a conviction reflected in Mrs. Fleming’s attitude towards the mountains she climbs. “We shape the rock,” she says, and “the rock shapes us”.

Traces of other authors-mountaineers are also visible. One is the poet Helen Mort, whose physical and sinuous verse, full of granite and rhyolite, flagstones and ledges, seems to have informed Ms. Fleming’s tactile engagement with the mountain world. “I think through my hands,” writes Ms. Fleming, grappling with “the textures and densities of rock eroding into their own characteristic style.” (Ms. Mort’s own forthcoming memoir, “A Line Above the Sky,” is an intimate view of motherhood and self-dissolution, and how mountains can fill the voids of a lifetime.)

Partly a story of being a female climber in a world still largely dominated by men, “Time on Rock” is also a kind of phenomenological engagement with different rocks, a look and a feeling of up close that reveals the dazzling variety of stones that can appear from a distance to look very similar. The more time Ms. Fleming spends on the mountain sides, the more she seems to recognize that the joy of climbing is not the brief exhilaration of the summit, but rather the “journeys through the rocks.” In a poised and poetic epilogue, in which she climbs the Creag an Dubh Loch in the Grampians, she writes how “me is poured into stone and rock flows through the body”.

Out of the void

Some traditional climbing stories are structured around triumphs or tragedies. The best of them, such as “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson, “The Moth and the Mountain” by Ed Caesar and “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, are fueled by a sense of impending doom, by the horror of the empty space below. . “Time on Rock” avoids these dizzying sensations. The closest danger to Ms Fleming is an “epic” climb of Cuillin Ridge on Skye, where she is forced to retreat, defeated, at nightfall. Instead, she uses the act of climbing and how “intense vulnerability sharpens the senses” to contemplate the beauty of nature to its highest extent.

In this, she remembers not only Shepherd, but also the luminous “Space Below My Feet” by Gwen Moffat, a hymn to the high places of Great Britain, as well as “Mountains of the Mind” by Robert Macfarlane and the “Climbing Days” by Dan Richards (about Dorothy Pilley, a pioneer mountaineer and wife of literary critic and fellow mountaineer IA Richards). All of these books are halfway between nature writing and rock climbing literature; they both celebrate places and ends, and show how time in the elements reveals the elemental self.

Similarly, “Time on Rock” is reminiscent of “Feeding the Rat” by Al Alvarez. Alvarez, who died in 2019, was best known as a poet and friend of Sylvia Plath, but he was also a committed climber. His book is a testament to his friendship with mountaineer Mo Anthoine, but it also deals with how rock climbing reveals hidden truths about the mountaineer. The pretense is unbearable on the mountainside, and the title “rat” – the primordial and essential nature of the climber – takes over. As Ms. Fleming puts it, “the inner animal stirs.” On the rock face, “the veneer is ripped off and you can see a person’s heart and courage.”

The exhibition of the character of rock climbing helps to make it a fertile subject for literature. Ms. Fleming’s book, like many of the best of its kind, is devoid of swagger. Instead, it penetrates deep into the mountainous landscape and into the minds of those who choose to spend their lives on rock.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Say it from the mountain”


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