The Mountain Sheds Me: A Feminist Approach to Writing about ‘Mountain Men’ (FreeX 2016)

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On March 5, I gave my first talk at a graduate conference. For those who missed it, here is the transcript: 

Good morning, and thank you for being here so early. I am not a morning person so I sincerely appreciate it. I feel extremely honoured to be presenting at Free X as an undergraduate student.

The following talk or presentation is an excerpt from my honours thesis, probably an introduction or an appendix of some sort. In brief, my honours thesis is a collection of hybrid poetry and prose inspired by my late uncle’s travel journals and documents. He died climbing K2 in 1995. Some of you may have heard of, or even seen the recent film “Everest” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Keira Knightly. It details a tragic expedition in which many climbers died. I cannot attest to the film’s accuracy or quality, as I have not seen it myself, but the film is helpful to contextualize my uncle’s life in a contemporary setting; he was set to be on that expedition in 1996, just months after his death. It would have been his second time on Everest. A longer excerpt of the creative work will be published in a limited edition chapbook this coming August through the Long Lunch Quick Reads program at Loft 112, where I have the pleasure of reading from another creative project this evening.

I would like to begin this talk with a short poem, and end with a bit of poetry as well.

L’inconnu de la Seine
hangs upside-down
clipped to weathered rope
in an ice-cocoon,
blue-lipped and plaster-cast
her bones, the rope, the icethey creak
they creak
for days, months, years,
then the mountain sheds her

Jeff’s body sinks, buried on a mountain in Pakistan.

his climbing equipment lies on peaks around the world; climbers often shed their packs when the weather or the mountain becomes too difficult.

His memories turn yellow in the old sauna room outside our house.

Leading up to the writing of this project and this talk, I sifted through photo after photo of frozen waterfalls and climbers doing cartwheels in mountaineering boots. I have countless photos of climbing gear laid out in colourful patterns, and exquisite sunsets over mountains. I have spent countless hours peering into an old slide viewer only to see identical photos of Everest or Lhotse.

I think the love letters and journal entries are the most fascinating, more fascinating than the photos. They are fragmented and noncommittal, but deeply felt. They are like first drafts of sophomore novels, frenetic and caffeinated in spurts of passion that last until the draft is finished and sleep arrives.

I have wanted to embark on a project about my late uncle for years, however the work became more complex as I aged and self-identified as a feminist writer. I felt as though I was doing a disservice to my feminism by writing about a man, especially a man who died pursuing a male dominated career, or sport. Why not write about Alison Hargreaves, who died on the same expedition? Why not write fiction detailing the ascent of a female climber? Why write about a white male climber when there are so many others out there? I suppose the simple answer is that I don’t have the intimate journals and photos of other climbers. Having been left with an archive of Jeff’s life, I have a unique opportunity, though I have considered alternate, more explicitly feminist narratives at length. The truth is that I haven’t brought myself to cease writing this story until it is finished.

The main question of this talk is, “What becomes of the feminist writer when she decides to write a book chronicling the life of a man?” In a field dominated by men and by nature, I would like to think that simply by pursuing this project I am subverting the power dynamics of mountain writing and mountaineering. In fact, I DO think that to a certain extent, simply being a woman writer and climber is a feminist act. Soemthing Dr. Martini said yesterday summed up my feelings about this topic: “Sometimes you know where you don’t want to be, rather than where you are going.” I am nearing the end of my project, and I feel that I still do not quite know the answers to these questions, but I have a few proposed methods, and in a way, the writing itself answered some of them.

After months of writing and reading, rearranging and playing with the spacing of poems and bits of prose, I realized that what began as a biographical journey into verse had ceased to be a biography. What I thought was a book solely about the life and death of a man became a family portrait told through the lens of his death and absence, at times through his own words. My own writing became the mountain, and my family the expedition. Floating between genres became the central figure.

Of course, much of the writing is about a man. On the 20th anniversary of my uncle’s death, I anagrammed his obituary into a poem. The project is about his absence and his presence, his being seen and remaining unseen. Much of this writing is about climbing and mountaineering; the aesthetic of the rock, the technique, the climber, the snow, the mountains, the views, the poems displayed on the page, even. More importantly though, this work is about a family; there is a through line of the mothers, sisters, nieces, and partners that agonize over the unique tragedy of a death due to the pursuit of a lifelong goal. Though this transition into a text more based in female experience was mostly subconscious, I propose a method for writing a man’s story with a feminist subtext, and argue that any story a woman tells becomes her story.

The first method of writing a feminist text masquerading in a male-driven field, as I’ve outlined above, it to simply write. You will find your way. Even without intention, we find ourselves writing our truths, often through the lenses of seemingly irrelevant subjects. Fifty pages into my undergraduate thesis, I’ve realized that even if my intention was to write a hard and fast biography, that it would be impossible. Writing is too deeply personal of an experience for me to remove myself from my work entirely.

The second method is learning the history of your subject as relating to women. Simply by following contemporary women climbers on twitter, I found myself seeing the work differently. After researching the history of female climbers in the western world and in western Canada in particular, they snuck into my writing unbeknownst to me, as background characters and small poems.

The third and fourth methods, however, are more complex. As a woman I find that I cannot avoid writing from my body, and this project seeks to emulate that in a subtle way.

Nearly a hundred bodies lay on K2. Like rungs on a ladder, they indicate time and place; death and the uncaptured grace of a mountaineer’s last icy breath. On K2, Everest, and Lhotse, mountaineers can map out the history of the mountain through the body parts and gear that remain locked in the ice. Like scorpions cast in lucite, eight-thousanders provide some of the most incredible mummification in the world. The body is inescable in mountain literature

K2 is said to be the deadliest mountain on earth, and only 250 metres shorter than Everest. Frozen bodies litter the rock and ice; finding one of these bodies is not uncommon for a climber attempting the mountain today.

When a climber dies, it is commonplace for the rest of the expedition team to bury the body in the snow, but with high winds and volatile weather, those bodies may in time return to the surface, and in high altitude accidents, self-preservation and survival often take the place of burial ceremonies.

Hypothermia, long falls, altitude sickness, and pure determination are some of the causes of death common on K2.

Unlike Everest, who wraps his talons around bodies, holding them for hundreds of years, K2 sheds most of her bodies. She is less willing to become an archive, though she knows how inescapable this is.

Although the work I have set out to do is largely motivated and influenced by climbing history and narratives, the writing and reshaping of existing texts falls into the grasp of L’ecriture feminine; a french school of thought wherein the body becomes a vessel for poetry. By writing through the body, through the hands with pens and with grip, I aim to carve a space in a largely male-dominated sphere for women’s climbing narratives and poetry. Embodiment is central to my work, which is why much of my research entails training. I don’t mean training in a traditionally academic sense, by sitting in lectures and workshopping poems with other writers; my training involves going to the climbing wall 2 to 4 days a week and puzzling out new routes. I climb until my hands bleed and my muscles shake; until I fall onto the mats below the bouldering wall. By pushing myself to show up, shut up, and climb, my relationship to my body and my writing has changed.

My Nana used to tell me I had perfect nail beds, and my father told me I had pianists’ fingers. I got manicures before vacations and painted my nails to wind down after a long day. I tried to learn the piano in high school, but sixteen was too late to put my long fingers to use. I always felt weird, being complimented on my fingers, like they were some kind of new age window into the soul. Now, I trim my nails three times a week. They need to be short to grip a tiny pinch; in my first climbing course I let them grow out and watched a hang nail slip down my finger while I hung 40 feet in the air. Before I tuck into bed with a book, I file away the new growth. It leaves residue like chalk on the tips of my fingers.

I no longer want to have pretty hands, delicate fingers, perfectly trimmed cuticles. Now, I relish in small bruises, protruding veins, and jagged cuts along my knuckles. I feel a sense of pride at the line of climbing chalk that never leaves my cuticles for long, and I rarely call it a day on the wall until I have to tape up a bleeding knuckle. My hands aren’t pretty; they’re powerful, strong, and beautiful. I’d rather admire ink stains from a night of writing or thank them, for holding my weight while I dangle mid-air.

This anecdote is meant to demonstrate the effect of physical movement in writing. This being said, my third method is to frame the work with feminist-leaning theory, and to embody the subject.

Onto the fourth method:

L’ecriture feminine is the school of poetic thought that allows for heavy, oulipian style experimentation with a female-centric method.

Christine Rochefort states: “Well. So here you are now, sitting at your writing table, alone, not allowing anybody anymore to interfere. Are you free? First, after this long quest, you are swimming in a terrible soup of values-for, to be safe, you had to refuse the so-called female values, which are not female but a social scheme, and to identify with male values, which are not male but an appropriation by men-or an attribution to men-of all human values, mixed up with the anti-values of domination-violence-oppression and the like. In this mixture, where is your real identity? Second, you are supposed to write in certain forms, preferably: I mean you feel that in certain forms you are not too much seen as a usurper. Novels. Minor poetry, in which case you will be stigmatized in French by the name of poetesse”: not everybody can afford it…. You are supposed, too, to write about certain things: house, children, love. Until recently there was in France a so-called littérature féminine . Maybe you don’t want to write about, but to write, period. And of course, you don’t want to obey this social order .So, you tend to react against it. It is not easy to be genuine.”

I fell in love with experimental and conceptual poetry, and by combining it with prosaic vignettes and archival materials, I found that my work became a collage. Conceptual poetry, however, is a favorite of the male writer. As Rochefort States above, when we write in ways that deny our status as “women writers” by adopting a philosophy or genre that is typically male; we are the “usurpers,” the “tresspassers.” Furthermore, I trespass in the territory of the male climber-turned writer, by existing as a female writer-turned climber.

In this talk, I have not come to any solid conclusions; I am not a strong believer in plans or outlines in creative writing. The fractured nature of this talk I think emulates my curiosity with my own writing practice. As a young writer and scholar, I find each new page, poem, chapter, or essay fascinating and thrilling. Every day of writing is an improvement on the last, and in five years the transcript of this talk may very well be mortifying to my older self. My proposed method of writing a feminist text about or inspired by a man is to write until you discover the true story, to learn the history that led you to this strange territory, to embody the work physically to come to a place of deeper understanding, and to look to genre and theory as a method of subversion, and more importantly, as intrusion. I will now conclude with another short excerpt from the project.

A woman’s sport

Muscles I don’t know the names of ache from pulling myself into the wall. White tape that feels like cotton wraps around the blisters and paper cuts on my fingers. I blink chalk out of my left eye. I chew on a few strands of hair. My toes, curved and tense, release from a tiny dip in the wall and I propel upwards. I miss the hold above me. I clatter to the floor. My ankle hits a hold. My knee scrapes against the wall. My bloodied fingers hit the ground as my body falls. The taste of blood and chalk comforts me. I stand up and crack my neck, reach for a sip of water and some chalk. The route still needs to be conquered, and I have a rule: seven tries before moving on.

 

 

 

One thought on “The Mountain Sheds Me: A Feminist Approach to Writing about ‘Mountain Men’ (FreeX 2016)

  1. Wendy says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! You are such a talented writer!
    Such an interesting source of inspiration. I wrote an honours thesis back in the day and you this brought back great memories of writing with it passion. All the best to you next year!

    Like

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