'A Line Above the Sky' | Review
Joint winner of the 2022 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and Grand Prize winner in the 2023 Banff Mountain Book Competition, 'A Line Above the Sky' by Helen Mort is an exploration of mountains and motherhood, entwining Mort's own experiences with the tragic story of British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves. It is also, as Terry Gifford discovers in this review from the 2022 Alpine Journal (on sale now via Cordee), an unsparing work that is unafraid to take risks with its subject matter.
A Line Above the Sky
Ebury Press, 2022, 268pp, £17
Remember Messner’s definition of mountaineering? ‘If no risk has been taken, no climbing has taken place.’ Remember Robert Burton on danger and what he calls ‘a bitter jest’ in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)? ‘A bitter jest, a slander, a calumny, pierceth deeper than any loss, danger, bodily pain or injury whatsoever’. Helen Mort is the victim of at least two ‘bitter jests’, but she is also a risk taker. Halfway through this reflective memoir she catches herself ‘taking liberties with a story that isn’t mine to tell [...] I have no right to narrate this, embellish it, just as I have no right to delve into Alison Hargreaves’s innermost life.’ In this book Mort is intimate and unsparing in examining her experience of pregnancy, giving birth and the first years of motherhood as a climber and fell runner fascinated by the experience of Alison Hargreaves who sits on her shoulder throughout as her ‘ghost companion’. It is a risky writing project. We know that Alison’s story, and that of her son Tom, did not end well. But Mort is up for the challenge: ‘If there is no risk in my writing, no fear, there is no pleasure. I have to make myself feel uncomfortable, take chances in the way a mountaineer does, calculating and recalculating, pitching their frail body against the wind. In risk, we feel most alive.’
There have been other books by women on climbing, the outdoors and motherhood, perhaps most notably Lilace Mellin Guignard’s When Everything Beyond the Walls is Wild (2019), but none so frank, so visceral and so layered in meanings. Teased at school as a 10 year old for being fat – the first bitter jest – Mort turned herself into an athlete. ‘All my life I’d wanted to be a line,’ she writes, giving the book’s title one of its meanings. The others are in a life as a writer of lines, a climber, a runner and ‘underlining the desires of others’. ‘Then there is the line of the pregnancy test’ and the renunciation of lines, together with individuality. With her pink-cropped hair, Mort is uneasy at first in joining NCT classes with the other expectant mums: ‘I did not feel like a mother. I barely felt like a woman.’ But after their babies were born they ‘began to know each other as women as well as mothers.’ She writes: ‘Together, we formed a shield.’ The result of this new-found female kinship is a desire, when Alfie is a year old, to climb with a woman, something Mort had barely done before. The return to leading on Stanage with Anna Fleming as the only women climbing together that day is a reminder of how pioneering this can still feel at a personal level, for all our assumptions about progress.
Of course, the Alison Hargreaves narrative inevitably leads towards the death of her son, Tom and here the parallel ‘ghosting’ story might get uncomfortable. Mort recounts watching reports of Tom’s disappearance and search efforts hourly through the night whilst breastfeeding three-month-old Alfie. Her emotional investment is clear. Later, while Alfie is safe at pre-school, there is a knock at the door. ‘I could not shake the instinct that something must have happened to him.’ In fact, it is an acquaintance calling to warn her that her face has been superimposed on a body on a porn site – the second bitter jest and the ultimate crossing of the line of her own body. In writing about this Mort ‘takes back control.’ Women, she says, have always been judged by the world by more than their subjective selves, as in the duality of mother-climber in Alison Hargreaves’ case. Mort’s conclusion to this book is to reflect upon the multiple roles of the women who came before her, her present friends and, as poet and novelist, her fictional characters: ‘If women are always to be doubled, surveyor and surveyed, then let us be multiple. Let us stand so close that we seem to merge together, the dead and the living, the real and the fictional.’
In the final lines of the book Mort sees, with her eyes closed, a mother and son climbing on Stanage in the winter sun. A male reviewer might be forgiven for seeing, with his eyes closed, other lines above the sky, yet to be written. But that would not diminish his appreciation of this extraordinary revelation of what is also ordinary. The book belies its teasing assertion that to find meaning in climbing is to find meaning in life. Clearly it is not true for Mort to say that, ‘You love it precisely because it means nothing.’ Any reader will come away from this book profoundly enriched by the knowledge of why the opposite is the case.