Glitter Balls

Monday, 21 November 2011

Honestly, you wait years for a memoir by a leading female alpinist with a heart-rending backstory, and then two come along at once. A few weeks ago, Canadian Margo Talbot's book All That Glitters, published by Sononis, arrived, and I've just now had time to read it. I found it compelling, and will review it at a later date, but for now let me say it was at times jaw-dropping in its revelations. Talbot is a brave woman.

The other book is Wind From A Distant Summit by Pat Deavoll, more recently published in New Zealand by Craig Potton Publishing. I've barely had a chance to flick through this yet, but Deavoll is New Zealand's leading female alpinist who has spent the last decade on a series of imaginative expeditions. I recently caught a lecture by Malcom Bass about his first ascent of Vasuki Parbat that featured Deavoll and her selfless and hazardous descent alone to give her climbing partners a better chance of success.

The third character I must mention is Karen 'Curly' McNeill, who was born in New Zealand but lived for years in Canmore, Alberta and was a focus for the many remarkable women climbers and mountain lovers who live there. I met Karen and Pat at a base camp below a peak in Sichuan called Xiashe in 2005. They had arrived a few days before us and were aiming for the same unclimbed objective. My strongest memories are of Karen, breezy and adorable, falling with glee on the bric a brac local Tibetans brought round our tents to sell. We marvelled at her cosy down booties that she paraded around camp and so she promised to wangle us a pair. She then sent a note after the expedition apologising that her sponsor had stopped making them. It was the last I heard from her.

Karen disappeared with Sue Nott just a few months after Xiashe on Mount Foraker's Infinite Spur. Even though I had only known her for a couple of weeks, I felt crushed by the news and have often wondered since why. Like many climbers, I know many who have died. Why Karen? Reading Talbot's book gave me a possible answer. Its main theme is how she overcame years of depression and psychological torment, and how McNeill was over a period of a decade a real anchor for her, thrown around by the storms of her own mind. Karen, I knew, had that serene peace of mind those vulnerable to mental illness envy, admire, need – and can latch on to parasitically, something Talbot, who is thankfully matter-of-fact about her own trials, never does.

It was that energy I glimpsed in Sichuan six years ago. I realised, reading Talbot's book, this was why I shared her admiration for Karen. Karen's joy and enthusiasm weren't manic, they weren't tinged with the flip side of the coin. Talbot says of getting to know her: "Her presence was her gift, and in this presence I found a sense of safety that I had yearned for but had never experienced with anyone." She was for Talbot an inspiration, I think, human evidence that the world can function as you would hope. And these are the people who really count in the world.

Depression is not an easy subject to discuss or write about. I've suffered and continue to suffer bouts, long to find some escape from it, yet I couldn't face writing at length about such a gloomy topic. It's boring enough living with it, and only those who are similarly afflicted – by and large – want to read about it. Talbot's yarn is exceptional because of the wildness she came through, the drugs and crime, not the hours spent locked inside her own head, the anxiety shutting out the world and those around her.

It's shameful for me to admit these things. I view my own depression as – at best – a useful curse, but whereas those with a physical disabilty now have society's sympathy, those with mental illness keep a lower profile. Why? For me it's the fear of rejection, of admitting weakness. No one wants to buy into this stuff so why would you advertise? The fog inside my head is the antithesis of what the world admires.

So congratulations to both women for having the courage to write about their demons. Climbing a mountain is a commonly used analogy for depression. It hurts, you can't see how you will ever overcome it but take things one step at a time and eventually you will succeed. That's the easy answer. I rather think I snatch at whatever will keep me going while the next wave builds. That's not quite so heroic. But then again, the absence of self is a gift, one climbing has offered me for thirty years now. And for that sweet relief, much thanks.

Posted by Ed Douglas at 1.13 PM