Monday 1 October 2012

The stories will never come to an end: a celebration of humanity in the mountains

The upper cliff of Stob Coire nan Lochan. Without human context, to a human observer it is meaningless.
As I read through The Only Genuine Jones for the final time and make my peace with the text before it goes live on the Kindle store, I have learned something from my own book I was not aware of before--or at least, not consciously. In my writing I revere mountains above all other things, and yet the mountains themselves are not the things my book celebrates; it's the human context that we assign to the geography itself. This quote jumped out at me from the chapter "Only a Hill", which is my favourite chapter in the book because it resonates so strongly with my own life:
‎"Everywhere Jones looked, the landscape whispered legends of climbers who had gone before him, and promised a lifetime of adventure for all those who would discover this magical place in the centuries to come. The stories would never come to an end."
The key word here is "stories". Without these stories and legends, the mountains mean less to us. A scientific person may look at a mountain with a scientific eye, and appreciate the geological processes that have formed it; but when he or she discovers that a man once spent 36 hours battling against gale and spindrift to win to the top of an unclimbed ridge, that appreciation is increased. Each story adds another layer. Discovering these nuggets over a period of many years, and adding to them yourself by your own experiences, is an exquisite pleasure.

The summit of Bidean nam Bian, April 2010, on my thirtieth ascent of the peak. The previous day I had climbed Ben Lui in similarly inspiring conditions. This was a moment of revelation, in which I realised my days living in this paradise were numbered--and therefore the value of each experience was magnified a hundredfold.
My writing is a celebration of these legends and whispers. The mountains are a mirror onto which we project our own hopes, fears, dreams, and longings. Before I moved to Glencoe in September 2008, there were no mountains that I knew well; I had climbed Bowfell a handful of times and Ben Nevis twice, but had yet to really build up an intimate relationship with any individual peak.

My years living in Glencoe helped me build up that relationship. Such a connection with a landscape is immeasurably profound and I have come to appreciate it as one of the greatest gifts life can give. My interest in history helped me to discover the stories from ages past; my own experiences, uplifting triumphs and desperate epics alike, helped to bring these legends to life. In time the mountains developed such a strong personality that, long after I had moved away, my first glimpse of Bidean on a return visit moved me to tears.

Isi Oakley and James Roddie approaching the forbidding slot of No.2 Gully on the north face of Ben Nevis,
December 2010. Avalanche conditions forced a retreat for James and I on a different route further left; Isi and her companion won to the summit.

By itself, a mountain cannot induce such strong emotions. The human connection is what touches our soul. It's a strange thing that, over the years it has taken me to write and edit The Only Genuine Jones, this knowledge never made any conscious impression. That I have learned it from reading my own book one last time is, I think, proof enough that I have successfully woven many strands of my own life into my work. It continues to  provide meaning to me long after I have moved away from the settings that feature so prominently. This encourages me to think that it will mean something to other people too.

James Roddie, the "Glencoe Mountaineer", high on the north face of Ben Nevis. The solo climber plays a lonely and dangerous game, but one that yields the most valuable rewards: knowledge of ones limitations and abilities, and unshakeable self-belief.

At its heart, OGJ is a story about stories: inspiring tales of adventure, heroism, and struggle in a testing environment. Conflict is at the heart of every good novel and I think this is why tales of mountaineering continue to be popular, even for those who have never set foot upon a mountain. We can all appreciate the human context of this otherwise meaningless geography.

Reading the book again at this time of year, on the verge of another winter season with snow forecast in the near future, has inspired me. My ice axe sits in the corner of my room, dormant but resonant with a thousand memories, as much wrapped up in symbolism as the mountains it once helped me to scale. I hope I can find the opportunity to travel north again at least once this season and add to my store of memories and experiences. The stories will never come to an end for as long as mankind feels the urge to wander in the wild and explore his environment.

Sunset from the summit of Ben Nevis, November 2009

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