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"As Above, So Below" uses fiction to explore the realities of risk and relationships

Posted on: October 5, 2018


Cover design by Sarah Nicholson. [Photo] Jimena PeckCover design by Sarah Nicholson. [Photo] Jimena Peck

About four years ago, Chris Kalman, now 34, found himself struggling with heavy emotions while living in Maryland with his girlfriend and her father who was dying of cancer.

"They found the cancer in August and he died in December," Kalman said. "He was young, super healthy.... It was very traumatic.... I'd also lost friends to climbing that year and the previous year. I couldn't sleep, and I felt like I needed to write. I poured a strong drink and ended up writing what is now the middle part of [As Above, So Below]."

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As Above, So Below ($24.99 hardcover) is a 103-page novella that Kalman self-published through Mascot Books earlier this year after raising almost $13,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. The book is now on the long list for the Mountain Fiction & Poetry category of the 2018 Banff Mountain Book Competition. After those early beginnings of the story, Kalman was able to write and refine much of the book at the Mountain and Wilderness Writing Workshop at The Banff Centre, in Alberta, Canada. The book includes several illustrations by Craig Muderlak.

Considering the circumstances in which the story was conceived, it's not surprising that the fictional tale deals with matters of death, grief, risk and relationships. It is also likely to strike a chord with parents who have children who participate in risky activities such as climbing.

As Above, So Below is a hand-size hardback book with illustrations by Craig Muderlak. [Photo] Jimena PeckAs Above, So Below is a hand-size hardback book with illustrations by Craig Muderlak. [Photo] Jimena Peck

A collection of passages from the book reads:

Now, as Aidan and Dave sidestepped their way up the glacier, Dave reveled in the electric predawn stillness.

It is the coldest part of the night, he thought. The quietest. The most sublime.

When they had lived in the cabin, he would wake up around this time, the fire flickering faintly in the wood stove. He would rise from the bed, careful not to disturb his sleeping wife, and slip into the bitter Montana cold. He would pause by the woodpile to stare at the stars, his breath rising upward like a cloud, like a fine dusting of upward-falling snow. He would stand like that, thinking about the future, the boy, the marriage, his work, until the cold chilled him to the bone. Sometimes he would roll a cigarette and smoke it until his fingers went numb. Then he would grab an armful of split wood and head back inside.

Those, he thought, were the days. The boy was young. Gail was young. Hell, you were young yourself. And you were poor, but happy, living in that log cabin with only the wood stove, heavy blankets, and love to keep you warm....

Gail had been apprehensive [about Aidan starting to climb]. "I don't want this to turn into that," she told Dave when Aidan began going to the gym. Dave knew precisely what she meant: soloing, alpinism, the high-risk forms of climbing. So he made the promise. But in the back of his mind, he always believed that it wasn't his decision to make. It was Aidan's....

The age difference made them an improbable team. And yet, they were not an ill-matched pair. To Dave, it made all the sense in the world. He had taught Aidan everything he had learned through those vertical years: how to belay, how to climb, how to swing an ice tool, how to read the sags in the glacier, the condition of the seracs, the quality of the stone. Young as he was, Aidan was a skilled and competent partner. At this point, at least on rock, he was even the better climber.

But at the same time, all the years of teaching aside, there are things that cannot be transmitted—things you know not by instinct or instruction, but by carefully cultivated intuition. To whom should he refer Aidan? Some other child, brash and inexperienced in equal parts? A different geezer that didn't know him and his impetuous style? No, Dave was certainly the best partner for Aidan. And Aidan, in time, had become the best partner for Dave....

Dave guessed that Aidan would not suffer his tutelage much longer. He relished this opportunity to share with his [teenage] son what climbing truly meant to him: ineffable beauty, purity of thought and action, the brotherhood of the rope....

As any reader may very well guess, the climb does not go as planned and Dave's outlook about the importance of climbing changes. The following scene illustrates a shift in the character's perspective when Dave encounters a condor—a rare bird that is usually revered for its size and grace:

High on the summit slopes, a condor crouched in the snow like a gargoyle. It was statuesque, and obscenely large. It sat stoically, snow collecting on the shoulders of its folded wings and blending in with its white collar. A small pile of snow sat comically on top of the bowed black head.

Dave clambered up noisily, disheveled and beleaguered from the long day, the wind, and the cold. The great bird watched him impassively. Dave looked up, sensing the bird's shadow, and clumsily sat down.

"Fly along, vulture," he said. "Go to hell." The bird cocked its head at him when he spoke. Its snow cap fell to the ground.

"You can go to hell," Dave repeated. But the bird did not move. He turned toward the scavenger, brandishing a handful of granite and graupel menacingly. The bird stretched out its enormous wings, hobbled a few steps, and took off into the grey sky, disappearing behind white sheets of wind-driven snow. Dave slumped back down, letting rock and ice fall from his grasp....

A Q&A with the author

Chris Kalman. [Photo] Jimena PeckChris Kalman. [Photo] Jimena Peck

Why fiction? What does writing about an imagined experience allow you to do that you couldn't express in your usual journalism?

I wanted to address some very difficult subjects in a way that might go against the grain a little within our community. I don't want the reader to come away with only flowery impressions of the protagonists. I want their decisions, motives and behavior to be called into question. The goal is to use that technique to encourage the reader to ask hard questions of themselves, their friends and their loved ones as well. In this way, fiction is sort of like a mirror.

If I were to employ the same critical approach with real humans, who have real families, friends and loved ones, I think I would run the risk of simply pissing people off and losing the message of the story altogether. Or worse, I could cause a reader undue pain, emotional trauma, anger. That's not my goal. I don't want to defame the dead, or criticize anyone's hero or loved one. I simply wanted to create relatable characters so readers are encouraged to turn the lens inward.

The setting of the story is Patagonia, which you describe in convincing detail—I assume it's based on personal experience. Can you tell me about the time you've spent there?

I spent one season in El Chalten. I tried to climb Fitz Roy and got shut down by weather a couple pitches up.... I also had many friends who had gone there and told me about it. I had El Chalten on my mind when I started writing the story, but I didn't want to name the range specifically. At the Banff workshop people suggested that providing a name for the setting would make it more powerful.

One of the main conflicts in the story has to do with the risks people take in the mountains and the tension or rifts that climbing can create when loved ones disagree about the level of acceptable risk. Is this something you've had to deal with in your own life?

Yes. I went through a very selfish phase from mid-teens to mid-twenties in which I took whatever risks I felt like, consequences and loved ones be damned. I got lucky with near misses while climbing several times. And then unlucky when I lost friends doing the same kind of thing. Eventually you just learn that it has less to do with skill or caution than you'd like to think. Everyone I know who has climbed in Patagonia has had some kind of close call that had nothing to do with skill or preparedness. I almost killed one of my best friends in Cochamo when I encouraged him to pull on a human-sized loose block to get around it and dislodge a stuck rope. I never thought that block could move, but it fell quite easily. He was lucky to be able to push it away from him as it was falling, and it nearly severed his rope.

Would you say that alpinists rely on luck more than they might admit, and tend to hold an overly optimistic attitude that "it can't happen to me"?

Yeah, I absolutely think so. Even alpinists who know that they rely on luck. To change your approach, objectives and habits is difficult. I do think there's a level of dishonesty in our risk assessment because we can't always imagine what the risk will be. [In the book] the character Dave has deluded himself into believing that the German climbers he encounters are relying on luck while he is not. With this story, I'm trying to impart to readers an experience and perspective that I couldn't see until I lost friends.

What do you think is the balance between climbing and duty to family, relationships and society; how do you manage this in your own life?

I have constant tension between these two poles. Climbing is fun, a diversion...I need it to be a good person. But if I made my life focus solely around climbing, I would feel very empty and selfish. That's not a commentary on anybody else. I think everyone needs to find his or her own path within their network of family and friends. For me, the path that makes sense is for climbing to take a back seat to social responsibilities and career goals.

In the story, the boy's name, Aidan, the description of his climbing ability and enthusiasm, his upbringing as a climber and even the part where he's chewing with his mouth open—these details seem similar to certain characteristics of Hayden Kennedy (a highly accomplished alpinist who had started to question the risks of alpinism in the wake of some of some of his friends' fatal accidents. In October 2017, Hayden died by suicide after his girlfriend Inge Perkins died in an avalanche). Was Hayden an inspiration for the name?

For the record, Hayden was not an inspiration for the name, at least not consciously. I originally had given the boy the name of John (my middle name), but at Banff everyone felt John and Dave were just too boring, and it was hard to remember who was who. I would say subliminally, or subconsciously, I'm sure Hayden [who was still alive at the time of the writing] was an inspiration for some aspects of the character, and so maybe Aidan came into my head a little more easily than other names would have. But again, I chose fiction for this subject very intentionally. I did not want to cause anyone pain. Hayden's tragic death occurred one week before my Kickstarter was set to launch. I thought about changing the character's name. I never met Hayden, always wanted to. In the end, I don't want people to think of Hayden when they read about Aidan. But I do hope that reading about Aidan will encourage the kind of internal reflection and conversations within our community that will help people who are LIKE Hayden, who have lost loved ones to climbing, and are clearly struggling to make sense of those losses. I don't claim to have any answers, but I think it is worth asking the questions the book attempts to address.

What was the hardest challenge in writing the story?

I hate projecting. I have always been an onsight climber. I get bored by just flogging away at something when you know that eventual success is almost guaranteed, and it's really only a matter of time. But writing this story was like projecting something I never knew if I could succeed on in the first place. It was like onsighting a [first ascent] that was way too hard for me. It was terrifying. I set the Kickstarter bar SUPER low because I had about zero faith it would succeed. The hardest challenge is that you have no guarantee of success. You have no idea if you're any good or not. And even if you are good, that doesn't guarantee people will learn about you or your work, or that they will care even if they do [read your work]. Folks make the conscious decision NOT to read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Mailer, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and a million other classic authors all the time. How the hell can I, as an author, be so presumptuous as to compete with that? Sticking with it for three-plus years in the face of so much self-doubt was incredibly challenging, and scary. I've never spent so much time on something I was fairly certain was destined to fail.

What kind of personal discoveries did you make in the process?

First, I am capable of sticking with hard things. The longest I've ever worked a rock climb was two weeks. The longest first ascent I've ever done [took] one month. College was the last time I committed to anything for this long (except the Index guidebook, but that was a little different because I was very confident that would be successful), and college was easy and required almost no effort. Second, I'm horrible with grammar rules and punctuation and shit like that, and a copy editor is well worth the money you spend (Lindsey Nelson did an incredible job for me). Third, you can't force it out, but you also can't just wait for the muse to come knocking. You have to schedule time to do the work. While at Banff, I wrote two-thirds of the book in less than a month. At the time I was like "this is dumb, I could be doing this at home." But at home, I never made the time. Fourth, you NEED to ask people for help if you want to do anything good or meaningful in this world. Fifth, I am lucky as all hell to have so many people who responded to me when I did ask. It's incredible how many people volunteered time and energy to make this project happen. I can't stress that strongly enough.

Kalman is a former intern for Alpinist. He is an editor for the American Alpine Journal and has authored numerous freelance articles. More information about his work and climbing endeavors can be found at ChrisKalman.com.

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