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The Ice Mirror

Posted on: March 8, 2019


[This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Smugglers' Notch, Vermont. [Photo] John PitoccoSmugglers' Notch, Vermont. [Photo] John Pitocco

When I was a little girl, my mother used to tell the fairytale of the Snow Queen. I no longer remember her words, merely pictures that blend with imagination: a broken mirror in a white sky; a whirling cloud of glass, ice and snow; a shard that fell into a child's eye that made everyday life seem like a grey fog. Far northern hills that shone with an irresistible blue light. The high walls of a frozen palace. A captive boy who struggled to piece together fragments of ice to spell the word Eternity.

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Unlike the characters in the Hans Christian Andersen story, I didn't want to escape from the Snow Queen's realm. I wanted to wake, each day, to snow falling outside my window, transforming our New England town into a silent and enchanted place. The first time I went ice climbing, I cried afterward. I'd never experienced anything so beautiful, and I thought I never would again—the shifting twilight hues of waterfalls, crystalline worlds re-created with each freeze and thaw.

Spring came, at first, as a dissolution of magic. When winter returned, I recalled how incandescent the whole of existence could be, sharpened to small points of sight: sparks of frost in a headlamp beam; constellations of snowflakes on a tilted ice slope. That spell has never faded.

THIS AUTUMN, I read Scottish writer Alison Fell's 1991 novel Mer de Glace, and I was surprised to find that her narrator, "K," also recounts a version of the Snow Queen story:

I felt blue, frozen, like that little boy.... Was it Franz or was it Hans?... He sat dragging some sharp-edged, flat pieces of ice about, fitting them together in all possible ways.... He could form whole words, but could never succeed in forming the one he most wanted, which was the word Eternity; for the Snow Queen had told him that if he could form this one word...she would give him the whole world.

In Fell's book, the names and roles of the fairytale characters keep shifting. "K" is short for Kathleen, but the word sounds like "Kay" of the original Andersen story: the boy who remained a prisoner of the Snow Queen until the heroine, Gerda, melted the mirror shard in his eye and caused the ice puzzle to resolve itself. "Hans," K tells us, alludes to another boy, a character in one of Freud's psychological studies—a symbol, for her, of a kind of loss. A writer undergoing therapy, K seems haunted by an inability to see her own reflection amid the shattered narratives of her life. "The woman, for Freud as for other Western philosophers, becomes a mirror for his own masculinity," K explains. "The pleasure of self-representation...is denied."

On her first Alpine trip, when K steps into a Chamonix bar, she observes only "men's laughter, photographs of men and mountains on the walls." Gradually, however, fairytale-like images seem to draw her closer to what she's seeking. She glimpses a silver-haired Polish woman who has made ascents of Chomolungma and K2 and whose eyes appear as "blue and distant as the snows." As K learns to climb, she comes to believe that "the spell of the mountain could make space in you, if you let it." Amid white-sculpted cornices, dark choughs and granite pinnacles, a mountain hut looms "like the Snow Queen's castle." In this upper ice world, K seems to enter a mythic realm beyond the boundaries of gender, age and time—where something like eternity might be attainable, if only for moments. Briefly, as if the Snow Queen's mirror has melted, K appears to dissolve and become a part of everything.

IN THE PREFACE to the 1990 anthology One Step in the Clouds, climbing editors Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith noted the particular usefulness of fiction as "a tool for sorting and making sense of experience and emotion." After Fell's book, I became fascinated by recurring myths and images in the ways that climbers interpret fragments of existence. And as I looked for more examples, I grew absorbed by the sheer volume of alpine fiction written by and about women. Drifting piles of faded hardcovers and cracked paperbacks soon accumulated in my house, their pages full of tales in every style from realist and experimental literature to political satire, fantasy and detective stories. The countless books of this genre seem to form an atlas of imagination, where the familiar world shatters into an ever-changing tumult of clouds and snow. Within these alternative realms, characters often strive, like K, to assemble their own meanings—as if searching to solve that existential ice riddle, to transform their societies or themselves.

At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women had already climbed many of the high peaks in the Alps, and they were establishing new routes and first winter ascents. For authors, alpine settings seemed to offer their heroines a level of empowerment that they rarely found in cities. In 1901 The Strand published A. Coralie Stanton's fiction story, "The Conversion of Mr. Bertie Vallance," about the comeuppance of a bombastic Mr. Vallance, who declares that "mountaineering is no occupation for women." Soon after, he meets a mysterious woman who describes a vision of alpinism as a means to seek an intimate connection with "vast solitudes of ice and snow"—rather than as a form of conquest. As Vallance makes an attempt on a high Swiss peak, he sees her free soloing a more hazardous route over "ice-glazed rocks like a chamois." His guides inform him that she is Olga Braun, who has climbed "Kunchin-jinga" in India and "won...membership of every Alpine club." (The real Alpine Club of Britain refused to admit female members until 1974.) Astounded, he tries to pick up his dropped binoculars and tumbles over a cliff. Once Braun rescues him, Vallance begs her to forgive his sexism: "My opinion was based on crass ignorance and conceit.... Will you will you teach me to love and know and understand the mountains as you do?"

Cartoon from Grant Allen's The Impromptu Mountaineer, The Strand (1898), about a heroine who rescues a hapless suitor.Cartoon from Grant Allen's "The Impromptu Mountaineer," The Strand (1898), about a heroine who rescues a hapless suitor.

In Annie French Hector's 1885 novel, A Second Life, mountaineering provides a desperate means of escape for a British woman unable to obtain a legal separation from her abusive husband. After faking her death in a crevasse fall on the Mer de Glace, Mildred Carr returns to England under an assumed name. As if reborn from the glacier, she has absorbed some of its wildness and become "strangely, fearlessly composed, as if conscious of some power within herself...some fortress." When she finally confronts her husband again, he agrees to leave her alone, feeling "powerless" in her presence.

Elizabeth Le Blond—one of the most accomplished Victorian alpinists of any gender—also published a novel, The Story of an Alpine Winter (1907), set amid a "glittering fairyland" of frost-coated trees, snow-white peaks and a frozen-mirror lake. Her hero falls in love with an athletic young tourist, Sybil Brownlowe, who transforms herself with silver gauze into an "Ice Flower" at a St. Moritz costume ball. Later, Brownlowe joins the initial stage of a first winter traverse of the Piz Bernina, balancing up hewn steps in deep blue ice, while the calving of a distant glacier fills the air with a glimmer of green shards. As the seracs thicken, Brownlowe demurely turns back, leaving the experienced climbers—all men—to continue. In real life, Le Blond climbed much higher than the fictional women of her novel do, and the plot reflects a sense of contrasts and limitations: an upper-class female character delivers a confident speech advocating for a woman's right to run for office; an actress who has left her husband dies shunned and alone; travelers of lower-class backgrounds find themselves excluded from the resort's social life. Despite the summits that some individuals reach, the freedom of the hills appears only available, still, to an elite few.

The great author Virginia Woolf—daughter of Victorian mountaineer Leslie Stephen—explored, far more deeply, the ambivalent promise of the heights. In Woolf's short story, "The Symbol," a British tourist writes to her sister from the balcony of an Alpine hotel: "The mountain...is a symbol..." Then, she pauses: But of what?... We are always climbing to some height; that was the cliche. Trying to see the mountain as it exists within her "mind's eye," the narrator dreams of adventures she'd abandoned for married life. A hazy unease drifts, cloud-like, across the story: the inchoate malaise that she feels before the "dead white" snow; the goiter that nearby villagers suffer, uncured for lack of money; the allusions to the role of explorers in the British Empire. After watching young climbers disappear into a crevasse, she gives up deciphering any meaning: "'They died in an attempt to discover....' There seemed no fitting conclusion."

"If 'The Symbol' presents the mountain as an unsolvable problem, a crevasse that cannot be crossed," climber and literature professor Catherine Hollis mused in a 2011 lecture, perhaps "it also contains the germ of a solution." Hollis noted that the typescript of "The Symbol" contains the date March 1, 1941—the same month that Woolf died by suicide—and as she drafted the story, Woolf included the following, alternate lines: "The real problem is to climb to the top of the mountain. Why, if that is not it, have we the desire? Who gave it us?'"

In 1982 Hollis's mother, Val Ward, wrote an essay in which she imagined Woolf climbing El Capitan and discovering a pathway out of despair. By actually ascending the peak of "The Symbol," Hollis wondered, might Woolf 's narrator have found another significance generated by body, ice and stone, a life-sustaining contact with a wild, vertical world? Or would she, too, have vanished into the unbreachable silence of the crevasse?

EIGHT YEARS AFTER Woolf's death, the French writer Simone de Beauvoir declared: "It remains only for women to pursue their ascent." In her famous book of feminist philosophy, The Second Sex, she imagined a young girl who reclaims her right "to explore, to venture, to extend the limits of the possible.... She finds in the secret places of the forests a reflection of the solitude of her soul.... She herself is this limitless land, this summit jutting toward the sky."

Aspirations of union and transfiguration also appeared in 1950s British fiction. Elizabeth Coxhead's 1951 novella, One Green Bottle, portrays a talented working-class climber, Cathy Canning, who experiences moments of transformative joy at Welsh crags. As a winter frost covers her in beads of rime, her lover tells her: "You look like a snow-queen.... You look like you belonged to the mountain." During a nighttime ascent of Snowdon, she feels as if she's merging with "the sheer power which emanated from...these upheaved masses of earth and stone." Despite her ability, however, she can't afford to travel to the Alps to progress in what might have been a climbing career. Ultimately, she's unable to break free of the expectations of her society, though she believes she will "carry a part of the mountain with her always."

Four years afterward, Coxhead published The Figure in the Mist, a novel about a young nanny who learns to rock climb in the Scottish Isle of Arran. Like Canning, Agnes Flint seems encircled by cultural barriers of gender and class, but she has a scholarship to attend university and a greater chance to define her own life. When Flint scrambles up a narrow, stony ridge alone, she sees her image reflected in a Brocken Spectre against the rainbowed clouds, as if an enchanted mirror has turned her into a wondrous form. From the bird's-eye view of the summit, she seems to have solved, at least momentarily, one puzzle of her existence: "This was the truth of it, the world so wide. The strip of it one saw between houses was infinitely misleading. But once one's eyes had been opened, one could never be misled again.... It was the whole world she would take."

For other writers, as post-World War II expeditions marched like armies on the world's highest unclimbed summits, that sense of unchecked imagination seemed at risk. "I'd always imagined [Everest] as the last inviolate spot," declares the heroine of Mary Stewart's 1956 crime novel Wildfire at Midnight, in which an enigmatic killer takes vengeance on climbers who seek to "conquer" peaks and dominate the wild. In 1952 another British suspense novelist, Daphne du Maurier, had envisioned an imaginary peak called "Monte Verita," where women vanish to join a secret utopia, beyond the depredations of an industrial world. Searching for one of the missing female climbers, her protagonist clambers through a darkened gully toward a moon-drenched alpine face. There, he recalls, "I looked on beauty bare."

Behind high walls, he finds a place where "nothing once felt is lost," and mountain dwellers appear "ageless...neither male nor female, old or young." As literary scholar Christine Reynier explains in the Etudes Britanniques Contemporaires (2013), the devotees of Monte Verita exist "beyond a dualist hierarchical way of thinking; they do not think in terms of exclusion (either/or) but of combination (both/and). This is the form of truth they are looking for: a new way of thinking and a new way of life."

IN THE 2005 NOVEL, Inheritance of Loss, by the Indian author, Kiran Desai, an elaborate house called "Cho Oyu" seems built by generations of stories. Perched in the hill town of Kalimpong, the veranda looks out on the 8586-meter summit of Kangchenjunga, where iridescent tints of light and cloud float across high snows. During the era of British colonial rule in India, a Scottish man had planned this residence as a place where he could picture himself "wild and brave," endowed with a "right to adventure" like the heroes in his favorite Western travel tales: The Indian Alps and How We Crossed Them, by a Lady Pioneer. Land of the Lama. The Phantom Rickshaw. "As always," Desai writes, "the price for such romance had been high and paid for by others. Porters had carried boulders from the riverbed—legs growing bandy...faces being bent slowly to look always at the ground—up to this site chosen for a view that could raise the human heart to spiritual heights."

The young Indian heroine of the novel now lives there with her grandfather, and as she reads through dusty collections of library books, Sai is horrified by the way that the Western tales cast a distorted image of her country: "Delirium and fever somehow went with temples and snakes and perverse romance...it didn't correspond to the truth." Searching deeper through bookshelves, she finds the Lepcha activist A.R. Foning's memoir, My Vanishing Tribe, and she grows aware "of the people who had belonged here first. Lepchas, the Rong pa, people of the ravine" whose legends told of ancestors "created from sacred Kangchenjunga snow." She realizes that "the simplicity of what she'd been taught wouldn't hold"—that there was never just a single story, but a multitude of expansive narratives. As she imagines her escape from the house, and from the traps of its colonial past, the massif seems to flash with a fleeting, transcendent promise: "The five peaks...turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent."

NEARLY THREE DECADES AGO, Audrey Salkeld and Rosie Smith noted a particular discomfort that mountain fiction seemed to raise among certain climbers: "Climbing is considered by its adherents to be somehow too sacred to fictionalize. Its vivid real-life dramas and intense loyalties, its acts of heroism and the all-too- frequent encounters with violent death are too precious, too poignant, too much part of some private lore and myth." If the best mountain fiction still appears threatening to some, perhaps it's because it's inherently subversive. It dares to overturn dominant assumptions, to confront stereotypes and to venture beyond heroic platitudes, colonialist adventures and standard trip reports. It suggests the power of dreams to push boundaries—not merely of technical standards, but of inclusion and empathy—to restore what has been lost and to envision what is in danger of vanishing. "Why do we want to have alternate worlds?" asked the fantasy writer Joan Aiken in Locus Magazine (1998), "You have to imagine something before you do it."

Printed in 1982, Anne Sauvy's allegorical tale, "2084" suggests the hazards of restricting imaginative and critical thinking. The French writer envisions a future authoritarian regime that tries to suppress "nonconforming and possibly rebellious tendencies" by preventing any contact with wild mountains. The rulers of this dystopia permit only virtual, simulated forms of alpinism, and they order the construction of "translucent barriers, whose hazy blue suggested a seascape" to conceal the dazzling azure of real ice and snow. "Memory Police" remove all recollection of what lies beyond the boundary walls—terrified that someone might imagine the world as other than that of a single, imposed status quo.

AS THE SNOW FELL in November, I started up a gully near my Vermont apartment in search of early ice. Soon I felt like a child again—my face close to the mountainside, my mind focused on small things: a patch of green moss, a knob of wet rock, a glaze of transparent ice, any place where an axe or crampon point might stick. This, too, was a puzzle that had to be solved. Each fragment allowed an incremental movement toward safety and away from the abyss.

When the light faded, each surface seemed like a dark glass, ready to be lit by anything: a headlamp beam, a flash of moon, a drift of cloud. Once more, I had a sharp feeling that has long beset me: a glimpse of an elusive place, beyond the weight of time; of a purpose I was meant to understand. As ever, only shards remained, dazzling and fleeting—like the crystals whirling from the night sky—becoming whole somewhere beyond sight, in transparent mountains that exist only in dreams, ranges of the lost and the not-yet-found, in some luminous realm where all reflections dissolve, leaving truth and beauty bare.

[With additional thanks to Amrita Dhar, Catherine Hollis, and Stephen Slemon. This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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