Time on Rock. By Anna Fleming. Canongate books; 272 pages; £16.99
IICONIC ESS that Jesse Owens’ victories at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, though no less infuriating for the games’ Nazi hosts, were those of Günter and Hettie Dyrhenfurth, a Swiss couple who won gold in mountaineering. The Dyhrenfurths, who had a Jewish heritage, were born in Germany and did not take Swiss nationality until 1932. They had made two expeditions to the Himalayas, in 1930 and 1934, with a success that contrasted sharply with the attempt disaster of the Nazis on the Nanga Parbat. Hettie, a mother of three, was 42 when she climbed the four peaks of Sia Kangri, capturing the women’s altitude record, which she would hold for more than 20 years. Günter pointedly refused to give the Nazi salute when accepting the medals on their behalf.
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 competitors for the prize, which rewarded works “inspired by the idea of sport” or dealing “directly with athletic subjects”, was Günter Dyrhenfurth, whose “Demon of the Himalayas” 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 climbing and writing.
“Time on Rock”, a new book by Anna Fleming, is the latest to embody this close affinity. It’s the story of a young woman’s life in rock climbing, from nervous teenage apprentice to head climber in her thirties. It’s also a “journey in the rock”, as Ms Fleming, an academic 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 of climbing literature, the book is a fine introduction to the genre.
Although most famous climbers are men, many of the best books on rock climbing 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 memoir, part Buddhist-influenced meditation, Shepherd’s work influences both Ms Fleming’s prose and her approach to mountain life. “The thing to know grows with knowledge,” thought Shepherd, a belief reflected in Mrs. Fleming’s attitude toward the mountains she climbs. “We shape the rock”, she says, and “the rock shapes us”.
Traces of other author-mountaineers are also visible. One is the poet Helen Mort, whose physical, winding verses, full of granite and rhyolite, flagstones and ledges, seem to have informed Mrs. Fleming’s tactile engagement with the mountain world. “I think through my hands,” Ms Fleming writes, grappling with “the textures and densities of rock that erode into their own characteristic style.” (Ms. Mort’s own forthcoming memoir, “A Line Above the Sky,” is an intimate take on motherhood and self-dissolution, and how the mountains can fill the voids in a lifetime.)
Partly the story of a woman 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 feel that reveals the dazzling variety of rocks which can appear from a distance looks very similar. The more Mrs Fleming spends time on mountain faces, 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 stones”. In a poised and poetic epilogue, in which she climbs the Creag an Dubh Loch in the Grampians, she writes how “self 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 Joe Simpson’s “Touching the Void”, Ed Caesar’s “The Moth and the Mountain” and Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air”, are driven by a sense of impending doom, by the horror of the empty space below. . “Time on Rock” avoids those dizzying thrills. The closest danger for Ms Fleming is an ‘epic’ ascent of Cuillin’s Ridge on Skye, where she is forced to retreat, defeated, as night falls. Instead, she uses the act of climbing, and the way “intense vulnerability heightens the senses”, to contemplate the beauty of nature at its highest peaks.
In this, she returns not only to Shepherd but to Gwen Moffat’s luminous “Space Below My Feet”, a hymn to the high places of Great Britain, as well as to Robert Macfarlane’s “Mountains of the Mind” and “Climbing Days”. by Dan Richards (about Dorothy Pilley, mountaineering pioneer and wife of literary critic and mountaineer IA Richards). All of these books draw a line between nature writing and 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 Al Alvarez’s “Feeding the Rat”. Alvarez, who died in 2019, was best known as a poet and friend of Sylvia Plath, but he was also a committed mountaineer. His book is a testament to his friendship with mountaineer Mo Anthoine, but it also talks about how climbing reveals hidden truths about the climber. The pretentiousness is untenable on the mountainside, and the “rat” of the title – the primordial and essential nature of the mountaineer – takes over. As Ms Fleming says, “the inner animal gets restless”. On the rock face, “the veneer is stripped and you can see a person’s heart and courage.”
The character exposure of climbing helps make it a fertile subject for literature. Mrs. Fleming’s book, like many of the best of its kind, is devoid of bluster. 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 Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Say it from the mountain”