Mountain Climbing – Research for Uncharted Territory

One of the first question people ask me after they read Uncharted Territory, is “How do you know so much about climbing mountains?”Uncharted Territory

The answer is, I don’t know as much as is in the book. I have climbed mountains, but much of what is in Uncharted Territory is new climbing technique and the newer environmental practices of climbers. What’s in the book is research distilled, so what I learn comes out only when Jack and his friends need it.

That’s the trick for all writers. Research in depth. Know a lot, but don’t spout what you know unless the story needs it.

So, how did I do the research? Books and people. Books and people, followed by first readers who climb now.

My climbing was done in my youth. My climbing stopped because I developed an inability to see depth and then, of course, a fear of heights. Moreover, I developed a fear of watching my eldest son catapult himself off a cliff because he never moved slowly and he never (until age 20 or so) believed that gravity applied to him. Even a hike with that kid left me a pretzel of mothering arms and rising stomach contents. Climb mountains with him? No thank you.

But living with my eye problems and my immortal son have made it possible for me to write about fear. It is, I guess you could say, a part of my research.

By the time I began writing Uncharted Territory, I was out of the climbing game, but I remembered vivid incidents and particular land and ice forms from many mountains in the Northwest, and a few in my birth state of Colorado. However, climbers’ techniques had metamorphosed since my last adventure through whistling marmots and tumbling rock.

Climbing ClimbingFor research, I opened with a return to A Climber’s Guide to Oregon, written by Nicholas A. Dodge and produced by the Mazamas in 1968. The Guide once was my climbing go-to book. By writing and research time, it had become valuable for the historic names involved in its production and for the quirky descriptions of routes, sometimes involving ancient trees that may or may not survive to help mark the trail.

But, the Guide is worth a lot for its very detailed drawings of the routes up specific rocks and mountains. If you can find a used copy and want to write about climbing, those drawings and route descriptions are worth a lot. Of course, some trees have died, some pillars have become part of the detritus at the bottom of a cliff, and the mountains and spires covered only exist in Oregon. Still, the types of problems met in any climb will be among the examples of A Climber’s Guide to Oregon.

At the time of the publication, the Guide says “This guide is written for the experienced climber who is assumed to know about proper equipment and techniques. Such information may be obtained in universities or colleges or from the many local climbing groups throughout the state.”

In 1968, REI was still a small co-operative endeavor, just beginning the move to the giant co-op it has become. The publication of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, edited by Don Graydon and Kurt Hanson had not had its first coming out party. Thank goodness Mountaineering now frequently produces an updated edition. It proved the best for checking my memory of tools, knots, and especially of rapelling techniques and problem solving for too short ropes.

Non-fiction books about mountain climbs helped my fear of heights gain a vocabulary. The climb of climbs, the 1953 British Expedition when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary summited, sparked articles and books about the climb for many years. As a child, I read any of these I could find, especially Hillary’s 1955 book High Adventure.

In Uncharted Territory, Uncle Jackson’s altitude sickness was inspired by the subsequent expedition of Sir Edmund Hillary in the 1962 edition of High in the Thin Cold Air by Hillary and Desmond Doig. Books like Everest, the West Ridge, by Thomas Hornbein provided insight into the relationships and working of groups of climbers. Most of that insight remained in my head, sneaking out in a word here or there and appearing only briefly in a scene described by Uncle Jackson. The Climb Up to Hell by Jack Olsen 1962 (reissued 1998) is a wonder of characters and rescue skill.

Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void provided insight into the view from both sides of a near disaster, and also into the move-forward in-spite-of-it-all attitude that is the only way possible to save oneself on some occasions. Jack’s Dad, Mallory, is that kind of climber and can’t be faulted for wanting to impose his solution to danger on Jack’s illness. It is what Mallory knows that works.

Pavalache Stelian, Dreamtimefree

Pavalache Stelian, Dreamtimefree

My first readers included my husband, Woody Richen, who climbed long after I stopped. He helped our sons and daughter understand gravity, mortality and the need for careful planning, practice and follow-through. Scott Light is our son’s good friend, and the closest we come to a third son in our family. Scott’s knowledge of mountain climbing gear and mountain rescue practices was invaluable as I began research, and his willingness to read and re-read the climbing scenes made Uncharted Territory the kind of book where readers ask “How did you know so much?”

Good to have such resources and such readers.

(see also the blog of interview with para-rescue mountain climber Scott Light.)