Tuesday 10 July 2012

Five years since work began on OGJ

These notebooks, in which I wrote down everything
I saw during my two visits to Zermatt in 2007 and 2008,
proved vital to my future work
In July 2007, my brother and I went to the Alps for the first time. We weren't very experienced mountaineers at that point. I'd been scrambling in the British hills for a couple of years and had a bit of winter climbing experience under my belt. James had done one winter route and, again, some scrambling and hillwalking. We decided to aim big and jetted off to Zermatt for our first Alpine season.

Before going on the trip, I had read a couple of books that inspired me: The Mountain Men by Alan Hankinson, and The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer (a true classic in the mountain literature genre). The shadowy outline of a new idea began to take shape in my mind. Up until that point my writing had all been juvenile attempts at Tolkeinesque fantasy, Anglo-Saxon historical fiction, or a clumsy science fiction thriller: all important stuff in the gradual development of my skills, but none of it was important enough to me, and I never really invested everything I had in my work.

The severe beauty of the Alps inspired me like nothing else I had ever experienced in my life. In an instant, standing there in the ancient streets of Zermatt looking up at the Matterhorn, I saw the full scope of my idea and realised I simply had to write this. It was one of those moments, rare in the life of a writer, when you are feverish with inspiration and it feels like a higher power is directing your thoughts.

The north face of the Matterhorn towers above
the Zmuttgletscher

I was drunk with the heady atmosphere of the place itself. Zermatt is a magical place where an epic past seems to seep up through the cobbled streets and suffuse the present day. Everywhere you look, reminders of the illustrious deeds of old, or tombs to the memory of a thousand mountaineers killed on the Matterhorn, seem to bring the place alive with a sombre poetry of its own. I'm not the first artist or writer to be inspired by Zermatt and I certainly won't be the last.

Here's my original post on the spawning of the idea, first published in this blog five years ago:

The good news is that, now I have a little time on my hands, I've started writing again. The Alps was just the inspiration I needed to kick another lingering idea out of the cobwebby corners of my brain. The central concept is very simple: what if, in the increasingly stagnated and conservative mountaineering climate of the 1890s, some young and talented climbers made an early attempt on one of the great north faces of the Alps? The Matterhorn immediately sprang to mind. I am familiar with its enormous, overpowering presence, the sheer inaccessibility of its north wall, and all the history that goes with it. Being a university student myself, an Alpine mountaineer, and someone with a reasonable amateur knowledge of Alpine history, I believe I'm in a good position to tackle this idea.

This is going to be a book about the first ever attempt at the north face of the Matterhorn ... a fictional attempt, but it's plausible. It's also going to be a book about how obsessions, particularly obsessions with an especially deadly or coveted climb, tear personal relationships apart.

Have I stayed true to my original vision? I think I have. The project went through a major hiatus and complete reboot, starting again with a partially new cast of characters and set a year later (also on a different mountain!) but the initial vision remained intact, developing into something far richer and more meaningful than the simple story I originally planned.

I never thought it would take five years to get here, but I wouldn't shorten the journey by a single day. It's been a lot of fun!

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