Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

I love ebooks. The idea that I can disappear for a week-long ski-tour or a two-month long Himalayan expedition and just tuck a Kindle into my rucksack, a device the size of a paperback that can contain a 1000 books, one for every mood and every occasion, recharged infrequently thanks to a solar panel and the rays of sun – that is just amazing! On Everest in 1996 I remember being stuck at camp 2 (6500 metres) for a week with nothing to read but Spike Milligan’s War Memoirs Vol II and Living Dangerously: The Autobiography of Ranulph Fiennes. They are both very good books, but I’ll gladly never see either one again!

When my book, Just For The Love Of It, reached the end of its final hardcover edition, I was content to let it live on in the electronic ether, but it turns out that not everyone is as delighted with the invention of the ebook as I am. Many readers are adamant about their attachment to the feel and smell of paper, the sheer physicality of a book is important to them. With those readers in mind I’ve released a new paperback edition of Just For The Love Of It, including the additional chapter covering my 2003 attempt to climb to a new route on the Kangshung Face, a story that is not in the old hardback edition. You can, as ever, order it from Amazon.

Over the years people have said to me that they like the honesty of the book, particularly the emotional honesty. I’d write a rather different book now, if I returned to that time in my life, but the underlying impulse would be the same. I was sick of books with titles like The Death Zone and Killer Mountain. I love climbing, I climb for the joy of the activity. It can be frustrating and boring, difficult and frightening, but overall I climb for the love of it. Which was where the title of the book came from. If you really are hating every moment of your time on the slopes of some giant challenge – stop! Give it up. Go home. Do something else.

I wanted to write a book that shared the pleasure I get from wild mountain environments and ridiculous vertical challenges. I also wanted to share some of the emotional difficulty of these big expeditions. I live in the British cultural tradition and the British tend to produce a certain type of mountaineering book, generally written by a man. It prizes stoicism and understatement. The highest mountain in the world gets nicknamed The Big Hill. Edmund Hillary’s first words to his lifelong friend George Lowe, the first climber to meet him and Tenzing Norgay as they descended from the summit of Everest, were, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” All difficulty must be downplayed, no emotions may be admitted to and any detailed talk can only be of tools and techniques.

This style is delightfully and hilariously parodied in the cult classic The Ascent Of Rum Doodle by W. E. Bowman. One of the books it is parodying is itself a truly great read, Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8000-Metre Peak by Maurice Herzog, the account of his 1950 expedition. The image of Herzog stoically amputating his toes while on the train across India and sweeping them out of the door when stopped at a station will never leave you! Hard men indeed.

However, you do not actually need to be that hard to climb Everest. The book that first suggested to me that there might be a place for people like me in the high Himalaya was another Annapurna classic, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place. The best-selling account of the 1978 ascent of Annapurna by the American Women’s Himalayan Expedition, it was a rare female perspective in a very macho world. Their team motto was A woman’s place is on the face. Well, why not?

          

By the time I got back from the world’s highest mountain, the ‘Everest industry’ was just beginning to ramp up. I wanted to write something that was much more personal, more emotional, that gave an insight into the feelings engendered by clinging to the slopes of this giant peak, rather than the techniques needed to surmount it.

From the feedback that I have received from readers over the years, I seem to have succeeded, at least to some extent. Every year there are more women out in the mountains, and it’s a great thing to see. But it remains a world dominated by male voices, in blogs and books, tweets and films. I think there is still a place for a story that sets aside the stiff upper lip and shares the emotional complexity underneath.

The story of what she choose to do will haunt everyone who reads it.” UK Daily Mail
It truly was one of the top 5 best Everest books I have read and I have read nearly all of them.” Karl J. Landa
Your descriptions of inner feelings. WOW! I climbed it with you.” Hal A Huggins
Your book beautifully illustrates the fact that its an inner journey as much as it is an outer one…” Ziah Hayat

Grammarly, the grammar checker website, produced a fun infographic trying to argue that, despite the weight of hefty male voices in the literary world, women are actually better writers. I’m not sure that they are right, but in the male world of mountaineering, I do think that a woman’s voice can share different insights.

Do Women Write Better Than Men?

 

Leave a Reply