Introduction: A Note on Starting Late

The idea for this blog began the day of my grandfather’s death. He died almost two years ago and that is how long it has taken me to get it together and begin Strange Girl Climbing.

My grandfather was a mountaineer, a rambler, a climber. He told me once about the day in 1953 when he picked up the newspaper and read the headline, “The Crowning Glory: Everest is Climbed”. As a budding mountaineer about my age, he was crushed. What was there left? he’d thought. He said he’d wished he’d started climbing sooner. Over 60 years later, I’d think the same sentiment as I watched him take his last breaths. Why couldn’t I have found climbing sooner? I could have shared this passion for the mountains with him. I could have asked him what it was like to climb at Idwal before every hold was worn smooth. I could have asked him what gear he used to climb the Matterhorn.

I could have read Geoffrey Winthrop Young to him while he could still understand.

It seems almost incredible that I didn’t start my journey into adventure sooner, given that not only was my mother’s father a keen mountaineer, but my own father also. I have always been fascinated with the way people describe their own lives. At first, I mined my father’s collection of mountaineering and exploration life writing. I read of the far north, south and east and the severe worlds of snow and ice that sang like sirens to a certain type of person. I was enamored by these great men and their extremity. Their obsessiveness in pursuit of a goal, their intensity and severity of personality which made them less than ideally placed to be fathers or husbands off the mountain. I read of their lives sacrificed in pursuit of greatness and adventure with a childishly simplistic emulation. I only lamented that there seemed to be no girls in Antarctica or on Annapurna. (It would take several more years before a member of my climbing club pushed a copy of Gwen Moffat’s Space Below My Feet into my eagerly receptive hands.) While these men seemed to defy place and position, both in the world and society, I began at the edge of young adulthood to feel that these things and my ability to defy them were predetermined for me. I grew up in suburban Texas, in a land of cul-de-sacs and below-sea-level-elevation which sprawled infinitely away from Houston and, for those destined to be less than enthused with the habits of consumerism and popular culture, contains absolutely nothing of interest. There was no snow or ice, intensity or passion. No adventure. At the age of fourteen, in my own liminal space between child and adult, up and down, sane and mad, I went in search of other intense lives I could emulate from my second story bedroom in Conroe, Texas. This is how I first came to read Wasted by Marya Hornbacher.

In elementary and middle school, I was a lonesome little thing. Aloof to the concerns of my prepubescent classmates in the cafeteria, I preferred to spend my lunch times in the library where the librarians became my best friends and soon put me to work inventorying the books. They trusted me without doubt and taught me how to check in and out the other students’ books, how to repair broken covers and how to insert magnetized security strips into the deepest fissure between random pages. When I transitioned to high school, I looked forward to forming the same bond with the librarians there and further volunteering my time in order to continue avoiding people my own age. I hung around the library constantly in my first weeks of ninth grade, I read Dante and Rimbaud and Dostoevsky for the first time while I waited to earn the library’s trust. But the librarians looked at me the same way all adults look at fourteen-year-old’s who loiter inexplicably in the least frequented stacks and I lost my last living, human haven. So I turned to the memoir section for human connection and I began to read “the story of one woman’s travels to a darker side of reality, and her decision to make her way back”. I read Wasted in a day, and again the next. I was captivated. I located the magnetized strip in the book’s folds, ripped it neatly out, and stole for the first time in my life. For the first time, I felt I was reading a book about me, about a person I could see I was becoming. Like my mountaineer idols, the protagonist of Wasted was intense, passionate, brilliant and troubled. But unlike Hillary and Harrer, she “[got] to be the stereotype: female, white, young, middle-class”- crazy– and she managed to defy it.

Throughout my teens and earliest twenties, I struggled. And so I read the words of strange women who had come before me and made beautiful things from their madness. I read these memoirs seeking comfort, trapped in something I did not yet fully understand nor have the strength to escape. I forgot, for several years, about the mountains’ call, my vision narrowed to a different kind of survival.

In 2017, I find myself, inexplicably, beginning a PhD on these very memoirs of madness with the support of AHRC funding. After a summer racing to produce an MA dissertation good enough to secure said funding, I crash into the autumn: successful, wired and manic. I pause long enough to realize I am now being paid to read and write about my favourite books and I grin a face-aching grin, sensing change in the cooler breezes drafting through my poorly insulted student house-share. I end a relationship, move house and lose fifty pounds. I think about what I’ve always wanted to do and sign up for a climbing course at the university on a manic whim.

By the end of the four week course, I am hooked, and soon I have joined a climbing club and am at the local walls three, four, five times a week. I read Space Below my Feet by Gwen Moffat and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd and everything changes. I climb my first 6a. I go away with the club, or solo, to the Lakes, the Peaks, Snowdonia. I have my first Type 2.5 Fun (“near-death” seems a bit grand…) experience in the mountains. For the first time in almost a decade, being crazy isn’t the most interesting thing about me and it isn’t what I hang my entire personality, identity and being upon. I am wonderfully, fully and violently alive and young. I think about starting a blog, a blog to share this miracle with others. A blog which will take the research in mental illness I am doing for my PhD and the research into living well and fully I am doing for my sanity and convey the connection between this newfound sense of wellness and the natural world.

And then I watched my grandfather die.

Unsurprisingly, that slowed me down a bit. I had never seen death so literally and gruesomely. For months, the intrusive thoughts that are a part of my OCD latched on to the image of his corpse and I saw him that way whenever I closed my eyes. I struggled to retain my newfound zest. I struggled to go climbing. I got into a misguided relationship. I lost more weight. I struggled to hear the mountains again. For well over a year, beautiful things happened and moments of clarity were had, but they were like small islands in the overwhelming clawing, clutching undertow of anxiety. This anxiety was an old friend- the oldest, perhaps. But this time I bobbed about in the thrashing sea of it knowing that I had once, not long ago, found the shallows, found my feet and stood up above it.

An interesting thing then happens at the beginning of 2019. I contact the memoirists whose work I am writing my doctoral thesis about and they agree to be interviewed. I secure funding and find myself a few months later back in the US, sitting in front of each of these three women in turn, each in a different state, asking them every question I have longed to ask them for a decade or so. The things which they say are so revolutionary to me that I go back to my hotel room after each conversation crying with relief, feeling a little bit stronger than I felt when I left.

A moment I remember with great clarity: I sit in a hotel room in Minneapolis, reading the news, and I look up, startled. I think, “No one is coming.” No one is coming to save me. No one is coming to fix me, support me or take away the image of death which is haunting me.

I go home to the UK and my partner moves out. I stand in the empty house for a moment, looking around tentatively, trying to remember how I used to be. And then I grin a face-aching grin, and a laugh of relief and excitement bubbles up in my throat, uncontainable. I am at the climbing wall the next day. I am in Snowdonia the following weekend.

I begin to thaw the death-freeze.

And I remembered my idea for a blog. And so Strange Girl Climbing began because I didn’t want to think, Why didn’t I start sooner? again. Strange Girl Climbing was created with two aims:

1) To bring alternative conceptions of mental ‘disorder’ and current research in phenomenological psychology together in a way that makes them accessible and helpful to people in an immediate way.

2) To apply these ideas to the human experience of nature, adventure and risk.

I hope that Strange Girl Climbing will encourage other people to get outdoors, re-frame the way they conceive of their mental wellbeing, save themselves and triumph through adventure. It’s not too late.