Epic fails

img_3701-jpgThis week at the Banff Mountain Film and Book festival, I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. This might seem ironic in a context where climbing successes are celebrated and explored, from the unparalleled achievements of Lynn Hill to Denis Urubko (the 8th person to climb all the 8000 m peaks without oxygen).

My own record as a amateur climber in the Peak District, of course, is often a catalogue of failure. Before flying to Canada, my last outing involved falling off an E1 slab in Rivelin, turning the inside of my arm into a noughts-and-crosses grid. I spend an unprecedented amount of time retreating from routes, or losing my nerve as I stare up at them from the ground. The classic adventure narrative is one of success: climber sets goal, climber faces challenges, climber achieves goal against the odds.

img_3695On Thursday, I was more than usually alert to the idea of failing on mountains as I floundered in the powder snow on Bow Summit near Lake Louise, struggling like a beetle on its back. It was my first time ever in a pair of skis and I enjoyed a baptism of fire – back country skiing through the trees and a descent steeper than most beginners face. I seemed to fall every few metres, crashing to a halt, failing to brake, ruining my kick turns on the slow last descent. I swore and struggled, knees buckling like a foal learning to walk.

And, of course, I had a day in the mountains I’ll never forget. I was hopeless, happy and at home, remembering what it’s like to be truly lost, a true beginner.

The following day, in discussion with Katie Ives and Paula Wright from Alpinist magazine and with Professor Stephen Slemon and his students from the University of Alberta, I returned to this idea of productive failure. Stephen outlined his interest in people who climb ‘otherwise’ and we considered the merits of mountain narratives that focus on being in the hills (such as Nan Shepherd’s classic ‘The Living Mountain’) rather than triumphing in them.

East Greenland: landscape that makes you inarticulate (photo by Helen Russell)

As we talked, I became aware of just how much the notion of failure informs my practice as a writer as well as someone who loves the outdoors. I’m preoccupied by themes of inarticulacy in my work at the moment, particularly inarticulacy in the face of landscape. I’ve returned to it again and again as I’ve started work on a series of poems about East Greenland. Writing about remarkable landscapes can make you feel speechless. The best poem is always the one you aren’t quite writing. As Norman MacCaig said in his poem ‘Instrument and Agent’, we can’t even trust our own metaphors, ‘their exactness and inadequacy’. But our failures can still have a kind of imperfect beauty.

In his collection ‘Drift’, the Canadian poet Kevin Connolly ends with a poem called ‘Write What You Know’. The piece is a blank page.

If you need me, I’ll be somewhere near Tunnel Mountain, failing to climb.




3 thoughts on “Epic fails

  1. Hi Helen! I was one of the students in Dr. Slemon’s class and I just wanted to say thanks, first of all, for meeting with us at the festival. We all raved about you at our hostel after your reading.

    I’m so delighted that you wrote this up because, after speaking with you, I decided I’m going to look into ‘failure narratives’ for my final paper because I’m quite interested in what it means to “fail” as a climber. I’ve been thinking about this ever since you brought it up in our discussion, about the contrast between people who die on climbs versus people who survive them without a scratch versus people who survive but must bear certain physical and mental consequences versus people like yourself, who make it any fraction of the way up the mountain, look at the summit, and decide to turn back for whatever reason. I’m especially interested in people like Sandy Hill Pittman, who do manage to summit and make it back down but are still somehow represented as failed climbers because they chose to “climb otherwise” in one way or another. I think about Pittman against someone like Beck Weathers (who gets a moment to himself — one of my favourites — in No Map Could Show Them) who does not summit, nearly dies, and has to be helicoptered off Everest, yet is given a glowing portrayal as a hero by the media.

    Anyways, all that is to say thanks for opening up this idea of failed climbers to me! I’m excited to see where it will take me and the failures I’ll encounter myself along the way.


    1. Hi Natasha, it was great to meet you in Banff and I’m, thrilled that the conversation about ‘failure’ narratives has informed your ideas for your final paper. I’d love to read anything you produce for it (I will send you my email address via Twitter direct message!). Hope the rest of the festival was wonderful….

      Liked by 1 person

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