One Step in the Clouds: An Omnibus of Mountaineering Novels and Short Stories. Compiled by Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith. Diadem, London. £16.95; Sierra Club, San Francisco, 1990. 1056 pages. $25.00.
The compilers of this enormous volume seek to refute “the idea that most climbing fiction has failed”; “it simply is not true!” they exclaim. To prove it, they give us 31 short stories, four novels, two novellas and a one-act play, as well as a lengthy introduction and a lengthier bibliography.
By their own account, Salkeld and Smith used “very few” guidelines of inclusion—“the main thing … was that we had to have really enjoyed reading the stories that finally went in.” There is something to fit each descriptive category in the Introduction: “Aspiring Women,” “Age and the loss of climbing powers,” “Humour,” and a number of others. The contributions are diverse in style, theme and quality. The range is so great—from whimsy to portentousness, from fantasy to literalism—that few readers will admire all of it. But more important: almost everyone will find plenty to like.
The longest of the novels, and the only previously unpublished one, is Vortex, by the Canadian, David Harris. It was short-listed for the Boardman/ Tasker Prize and praised (in High) as “a cracking thriller.” It is crammed with action and it does move along, but I found it the major disappointment of the collection. Its triggering event is the discovery, by climbers, of a crashed airplane full of drugs. Sounds like Jeff Long’s Angels of Light—a comparison that Vortex both invites and suffers from. For all its extravagance, Long’s novel was a convincing picture of climbing life, depicted with great intensity and the undeniability of a nightmare. Harris’s seems artificial in contrast, full of violence, including some nasty killings, yet not really frightening.
The climbing scenes, especially in Yosemite, are effective, but they are few. Indeed, is Vortex a “mountaineering novel" at all? It seems to me rather a crime thriller in which some people happen to be mountaineers. Harris tries to link climbing and rootlessness, but his principal figures are too thinly evoked for the connections to work. Thus the trouble is not just the brevity of the climbing action, but the failure persuasively to define the central characters in terms of their climbing. Much mountaineering fiction is afflicted in the same crucial way. There is rarely a lack of action, since climbing provides so much, virtually by definition. It is the characterization that is often brittle and unsatisfying.
Roger Hubank’s North Wall does a better job of relating event to character. His account of two Frenchmen battling their way up a fierce Alpine route is almost all climbing. The action has an authentic feel, and the narrative is strongly paced. The climbing descriptions have a gritty, convincing tone:
He was forced to cut left-handed, with his arm close to his body, chipping at the ice with cautious flicks of his wrist, terrified of swinging out of balance. … He hit at [the pegs] ineptly, with clumsy lunges of the hammer. Sometimes he missed and struck the wall. All the while the snow fell steadily, filling the steps he’d cut.
One scene that I found particularly ominous: a green dawn—“isolated clumps of fog clung to the land like pockets of green gas.” An overwhelming storm follows, further jeopardizing the party, whose leader has already been struck by an immense stonefall. At this point the reader may well feel that there is too much action, even though disasters do sometimes accumulate in the mountains. To his credit, however, Hubank endows his two main characters with considerable psychological interest, so that their destinies seem appropriate and the events assume a meaning beyond themselves.
The compilers also present one of the very few climbing novels that have attained the reputation of a classic, Elizabeth Coxhead’s One Green Bottle. After drug-running, murder, and lethal Alpine weather, it is a relief to turn to this account of a young working girl cracking the Welsh climbing scene some years back. Nobody gets killed or very badly hurt; there are no sensational interactions, although, as the compilers inform us, “the then-Bishop of Chester condemned [the book] for its [sexual] explicitness.” Forty years after publication, the offending scenes seem mild indeed. I hate to think what the Bishop would have made of Vortex and other pieces here that so vividly make climbers seem a sexually busy lot. As for Ms. Coxhead’s transgressing heroine, Cathy Canning, she has plenty of tough charm and is perhaps the nicest person in the entire anthology.
Among the longer pieces, the strongest combination of action and psychological development is found in David Roberts’ novella, Like Water and Like Wind, first published in Ascent seven years back. I found this second reading even more compelling than my first. The story of Victor Koch, destroyed in the return to the peak he falsely claimed to have climbed long before, is a true nightmare because his afflictions are internal. The terrors of the mountains are nothing to what he imposes upon himself. The ending is perhaps too grisly, but it does have a horrifying logic worthy of the tensions that Roberts has established.
Two other noteworthy inclusions: The Ice Chimney, Barry Collins’ somewhat overwrought but clearly playable one-act, one-man drama about Maurice Wilson, furiously contending with God and death in his lone pilgrimage on Everest; and the well-known Solo Faces, James Salter’s novel about a mysterious and self-destructive American climber in the Alps.
In the short-story section, several authors are represented two or three times: Jeff Long, Anne Sauvy, A1 Alvarez, Greg Child. Menlove Edwards appears with his well-known “Scenery for a Murder,” as do some more recent British writers: Dermot Somers with an effective short story and John Harrison with part of his convincing if unlikable novel, Climbers. I do not share the compilers’ partiality for fantasy and whimsy; my own preference is for the more realistic pieces, such as David Roberts’ “A Storm from the East” or “For Everything Its Season,” by John Long. But as much as any other selection, I admired Anne Sauvy’s Orwellian nightmare of the climbing future, “2084.” By that date climbing has endured a succession of horrifying improvements: climbing permits in the form of “plastic cards each imprinted with the chromosome print of its bearer: the release at the bottom of each route could be activated only by feeding in the card itself and a drop of the bearer’s blood.” Later a “Climber-Breeders’ Association” emerges that “sought out blood-lines, dams and sires who seemed likely to produce the optimum climbing specimens.” After a phase in which mountains are dynamited to the point of obliteration to produce a succession of new routes, Robot-Guides are manufactured in stainless steel, “specially reinforced to withstand stone-fall.” Alas, “a surprisingly large number of their lady clients fell desperately in love with them, finding their conversation unusually polite and patient compared with that of the flesh-and-blood guides with whom they came in contact.” Things get a lot worse, and I only wish they were unbelievable. Ms. Sauvy’s tone is humorous and cool; her vision is truly frightening. The climbing contests with which her tale begins have become actuality: who can be certain that the rest will not follow?
The collection concludes with an annotated bibliography, 28 pages of small type. A star system—from one to three—indicates pieces especially favored by the compilers. The annotations, when provided, are oddly mixed: a number are neutral description, while others consist of praise or (less often) harsh dismissal. Sometimes reviews and dust-jacket copy are quoted. The remarks are at times identical with those in Jill Neate’s bibliographical Mountaineering Literature, though she is cited in only some of these cases. The compilers have found a lot that Neate omits, but the length of the bibliography is misleading. It is stretched to include “adventure stories set in wild or mountainous country, stories about skiing, and tales about everyday life in mountains.” Thus, we learn of a story about the “senseless murder of animals in a mountain environment.” Among the other inclusions are D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (because Gerald Crich wanders to his death in the Austrian Alps) and Hemingway’s unpleasant and inferior “An Alpine Idyll.” That’s the one in which the mountain peasant hangs his lantern all winter on the jaw of his wife’s frozen corpse. (Hemingway’s skiing story “Cross-Country Snow” is just as eligible under the broad guidelines, and much better, too.) Perhaps oddest of all is Matthew Arnold’s 40-page dramatic poem “Empedocles on Etna,” listed under novels.
Nevertheless, the bibliography is one of the most valuable features of the collection. Even without its marginal entries, it has more citations than most of us would have thought possible. Many sound very appealing. There are plenty of pieces that I had never heard of but now, thanks to Salkeld and Smith, want to read.
Surely, mountaineering still awaits its Melville: the writer who can both fully evoke and transcend the world of climbing. But even a few congenial selections would make this book worthwhile, and most of us will find many more. It is well produced and a tremendous bargain—costs less than a Friend and looks a lot sturdier. All those interested in the literature of our endeavor should get themselves a copy.