|The Banff Centre, Canada|
Deserving or not, the purpose of my three-week residency in snowy Alberta is to write the first draft of a book of poems inspired by the experiences of female mountaineers and, in particular, the life of Alison Hargreaves (1963-1995). The history of women’s mountaineering is short. Or perhaps I should say our account of it is. Women have been climbing mountains for two centuries, but records of their climbs didn’t become widely publicised until the 1970s. In the first part of the nineteenth century, reports of their efforts were assumed to be targeted at an audience of men (an account in verse of Lucy Walker’s ascent of The Matterhorn in 1871 was addressed to her male counterparts: “I say, my boys, doesn’t she know how to climb!”). Later on, even as climbers like Wanda Rutkiewicz, Catherine Destivelle, Alison Hargreaves and Julie Tullis made their reputations tackling some of the hardest peaks in the world, their achievements were considered something of a novelty at first. As late as 1969, feminist and climber Arlene Blum was refused a place on an expedition to climb a 21,090 foot peak in Afghanistan because she would upset “the easy masculine companionship which is so vital a part of the joy of an expedition.”
K2 in 1995 (not long after her ascent of Everest without supplementary oxygen), she was criticised by the press because she was a mother. Last night, the first women to climb all 14 of the world's 4000 metre summits, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, gave a compelling account of her journey on K2, the mountain that claimed Hargreaves. In the introduction to her talk, the event host suggested that we might assume any woman capable of this feat would be a testosterone-fuelled, single-minded person. We were reassured that Kaltenbrunner is in fact 'beautiful' and that we would all fall a little in love with her. One can't imagine a male climber having such attention drawn to his image before a presentation. Times have changed dramatically, but there are still differences in the ways that male and female mountaineers are presented.
To write about these issues directly and overtly through poetry is problematic. You risk not writing poems at all, but polemic. The collection of poems I'm working on in Banff, 'No Map Could Show Them', tries to take a sideways look at the history of women's mountaineering instead. Though almost all my own experiences in the mountains have been with men, some of the women who inspired the book have been my silent, dreamt-up companions in the hills. To imagine you're joined by a ghost in the mountains is not uncommon (it even has a name, 'Third Man Factor' and was reported by Sir Ernest Shackleton in his book 'South') and Maria Coffey has written about a host of supernatural phenomena in her excellent book 'Explorers of the Infinite'.
Joseph Ledoux's well-known work on fear responses and the amygdala. Reacting to dangerous stimuli immediately, we largely bypass the frontal cortex and signals are sent straight to the amygdala, the 'emotional' part of the brain: pathways connecting the cortex to the amydala are much weaker than those that operate in the opposite direction. This might explain why, once an emotion is aroused in response to a stimuli, it can be difficult to control.
But Coffey then cites research by Elizabeth Phelps at New York University who argues that our fear responses can be 'unlearned' or at least regulated. Phelps showed participants in her research a series of images and gave them mild electric shocks to create fear connected to those images. She scanned their brains throughout this process and measured their galvanic skin responses. Participants were then shown the same images over and over without the shock and, after a while, their galvanic skin responses went back to normal rather than showing a fear response. Though I think it's hard to extrapolate from a simple experiment on fear and associative stimuli to the complicated world of mountaineering, Coffey suggests a connection:
"Is it possible that regular and intense 'fear workouts' - in response to real and significant levels of threat - could alter our neural pathways? That fear, once faced and controlled, could be harnessde to bring a spiritual feeling of intense well-being?"
The neuroscience in Coffey's book is used speculatively, but sometimes to dramatic effect. 'Explorers of the Infinite' takes climbers' accounts of strange, surreal or even out-of-body experiences seriously and includes fascinating testimonies from a range of athletes, including a haunting account of mountaineer Margot Talbot looking for the body of her missing friend Karen McNeill after she disappeared on Mount Foraker. Talbot was sure she knew where her friend could be found.
Fanny Bullock Workman (1859-1925). Workman climbed in the Himalayas until she was 53, claiming the women’s altitude record for a climb on the 21,000 ft Koser Gunge in Kashmir.
Fanny Bullock Workman jumps a crevasse above the Hispar, Karakorum.
I hated that leap,
by matchless dark,
across four feet, invisible.
It was only
a bed’s width, only
an arm span, less than my height.
I seemed so light
I might not land again;
go clear above the seracs
and the frozen scarps,
hopscotch the stars, hurdle
the amber moon by accident.
Just for a breath, I flew,
afraid you could not anchor me,
the earth not bring me back.