Icefields. Thomas Wharton, Washington Square Press, 1996. Paper. $12.00
Icefields is a novel of subtle and singular beauty. The author, Thomas Wharton, takes us along on an actual 1898 Columbia Icefields outing with Norman Collie and Edward Byrne, then deftly allows history to plunge into imagination.
Byrne stepped up close, intrigued by the rippled bands of ice along the rim of the crevasse. Frozen waves. A faint childhood memory came to him, a fairy-tale sea from one of his mother’s stories. There had been a picture of waves like this in the book she read to him in bed at night. He took off his green-tinted snow goggles for a better look. The ice was aquamarine, deepening further down to blue-black.
In these opening pages, Byrne, the unroped protagonist, falls deep into that crevasse and, before passing into unconsciousness, dazedly spies the raison d’etre for the novel. Was the specter his mortality? The sublimity of glaciers? Or an angel?
One gauge of successful fiction is its presentation of truths with which the reader can identify. Byrne epitomizes the obsessions and drive of many of those who would peruse the back-of-the- book pages of this AAJ. Byrne (the first glaciologist to study the Columbia Icefields), Collie, Stutfield and others are in fact important players in the history of alpinism. Pay no intention to the publisher’s disingenuous disclaimer "… Any resemblance to actual events, locales, persons, or glaciers, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Wharton in fact is celebrating the roots of alpinism, capturing a forgotten band of early pioneers and rendering their story into plausible myth, with a blurry edge between history, morainal sketches, and seamless runs of fiction.
Icefields is entirely innovative, with a greater sense of natural place than any climbing fiction written, and filled with the sort of original prose and balanced language that one would expect from novelists at the height of their powers. Wharton has a compressed yet flowing prose, sets up wonderful humor, has a good ear for dialogue, and illuminates those subtle yet elusive moments of mountain aesthetics with the élan of a Geoffrey Winthrop Young.
Most climbers will have never heard of Icefields. It was written by a 20-something English doctoral candidate raised in Jasper, and originally published by NeWest, a small Canadian press. Although conventional editorial wisdom holds that the best writing usually comes from older writers with more life experience, much of Icefields' charm is its innocence and uncorrupted sense of wonder. Wharton was “discovered” by the Writer’s Guild of Alberta, where he won the Best First Book Award, then at the 1995 Banff Book Festival (the Grand Prize), and finally (after Simon & Schuster released the book in trade paperback), by the New York Times (plaudits in its Book Review).
Lacking gunfire or violence, and filled with journal-style observations of flowers and glacier melt-flow characteristics, fleeting romance, and the inchoate moods of a glacier about to recede, the book celebrates mountaineering as much more than mere sport. Most climbing novels should offer so much. To whit: "… musing on Caliban’s beautiful speech in the third act of The Tempest, the rhythms of which had become strangely mixed up with the chink, clunk of slate under his boots.” Or another man, running down the same scree field: “Like feather’d Mercury. … Vaulting with such ease.”
Wharton doesn’t waste transitional words moving his characters in and out of scenes. The novel focuses on the inside of both the glacier and Byrne’s head, then penetrating the mystery of this vision from within. In this, the author assumes an open-minded imagination of readers that is ultimately rewarded by the novel’s resolution—a vision that would be entirely fanciful outside of the book’s context. The reader is drawn into Byrne’s lifetime quest, mountain friendships, the climbing death of an extraordinary woman (who is not unlike the turn-of-the-century alpinist Annie Peck), and the protagonist’s own aging alongside the retreating glacier. The Arcturus Glacier has not incidentally filled him with wonder and sated his scientific curiosity, all the while chasing his original mysterious vision until the novel melts out full circle. It is a closure of crafted and haunting resonance.
Icefields is not really a climbing book, in the same way that Annapurna and Touching the Void were about more than just climbing. Wharton’s prose “vaults like feather’d mercury” to the heart and soul of why we climb, brings the Columbia Icefields flooding into the vasculature of anyone who has ever tied into a rope there, and allows the reader to breathe the same air and picture the same thoughts as climbers a century dead. Icefields is a work of high art.