Sunday 28 December 2014

Book review: The Walk Up Nameless Ridge by Hugh Howey

The Walk Up Nameless Ridge is a short story by science fiction writer Hugh Howey, best known for the post-apocalyptic series Wool. Mountaineering fiction is an obscure genre at the best of times so it was with some surprise that I learned about this title. How, I wondered, would a science fiction writer tackle the subject of mountaineering?

The result is an utterly unique and — in its own way — compelling imagining of what mountain climbing might become in the distant, space-faring future. However, as I shall explain, I don’t think the central premise would stand up to scrutiny in a longer piece.

This story explores themes that already exist in the mountaineering culture of today: improving standards, the erosion of climbing ethics, summit fever, the difficult decisions faced by climbers on the cusp of success or failure. It can be summed up best by Alfred Mummery’s famous quote:
It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak — The most difficult ascent in the Alps — An easy day for a lady.
Victorian sexism aside, in this case Everest has become the “easy day for a lady” in the far future, with a tram extending to the summit. Humanity has long since expanded beyond Earth, and mountaineers have exhausted the climbing possibilities of their home planet thanks to a combination of higher standards, performance-enhancing drugs, and technology that would be considered cheating by the climbers of the early 21st century. The same can, of course, be said for today’s climbing culture when viewed from the perspective of the 19th century pioneers, which I suspect is the point.

The ultimate climbing challenge in this story is an impossibly high peak called Mt. Mallory, located on a planet called Eno. Mt. Mallory is an exaggerated nightmare of a mountain, sixty thousand feet high and pummelled by relentless hurricane-force winds. Climbers have attempted to scale it for decades but most have perished. Everything about high altitude climbing on this planet is exaggerated, from the conditions to the danger, from the insanely technical climbing gear (mechanical hiking pants!) to the vicious rivalry between different teams. There’s even an android trying to climb the mountain and be first to the top.

The idea is fascinating. It works on several levels because it serves as a critique of modern climbing culture while examining how the sport has developed since its early days, and making a logical extension into the future to look at where this exponential curve might take us. The writing is also beautiful and efficient.

But I think the idea itself only works as a thought experiment packaged as a short story, and collapses under close scrutiny. Will humanity still be obsessed with mountains and climbing centuries in the future, when we have the capability to travel to other worlds and do things currently only dreamed of? Possibly, but I’m not so sure. For the vast majority of human history, people did not generally climb mountains for fun; they did so only if they had to climb them for some practical reason. Even the leisured classes had no interest in climbing mountains before the late 18th century. The current popularity of mountaineering is largely due to an explosion of interest in the 19th century, and continuous development in standards and participation ever since. There’s a very persuasive argument that ties mountain climbing with modernity and industrialisation.

Our sport is changing in ways more complex and subtle than the changes portrayed in this story. Exploration is so rapid that only exceedingly difficult or exceedingly remote routes remain unclimbed. As the possibilities for first ascents dry up, the focus for the majority of climbers is slowly moving towards sport climbing, indoor climbing, and (above all else) convenience. People are still going into the mountains in the early 21st century, but what will another century of progress do the sport — another century away from the enthusiasm of the pioneering years?

I believe that, even if mountaineering still exists several hundred years from now, it will see drastic change far beyond the relatively simple extension of current trends presented here. For this reason, The Walk Up Nameless Ridge works very well as a thought experiment and a short story, but the flaws in the idea would be amplified in a longer piece and it would fall apart. The being said, I enjoyed the story and it certainly got me thinking, which should be the goal of all good fiction. The Walk Up Nameless Ridge is a fascinating short story and a worthwhile read for science fiction fans or outdoor enthusiasts.

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