There is a line made by climbing and a line made by falling. There is the flawed line of my body. The parallel lines two bodies make. The line of someone walking into the distance. Someone else moving close. The line of want, the line of touch, of merging. Then there is the line of the pregnancy test, blue as the rope I climb with, slim and unforgettable.
Is March too early to decide on my outdoorsy book of the year for 2022? Quite probably, but with A Line Above the Sky, Helen Mort has set the bar so incredibly high that I’m pretty tempted to make the call already. It’s one of those very rare books that makes me want to write a gushing email to the author thanking them for putting this out into the world.
A Line Above the Sky is a raw and vulnerable discussion of womanhood and motherhood, and balancing the two with the risk and danger unavoidable in climbing. Helen traces the path of her pregnancy alongside an exploration of Alison Hargreaves’ life and climbing. I’m sometimes less keen on books that follow two narratives because inevitably I find myself drawn to one narrative over the other, but both storylines here are completely engaging.
I grew up reading every mountaineering book I could get my hands on, and they were all by men, all stories of men climbing. Like Helen, I found myself regularly dwelling on Alison’s story as soon as I read about her. She’s been a constant inspiration to me – but also served as something of a warning of the sheer impossibility of having a family and staying active in the mountains. (Before and after Alison’s death in a storm on K2, she was heavily criticised by the press for continuing to climb whilst having two young children.) It’s strange to think that until now, I hadn’t read a female perspective on her life. Helen’s wonderings and insights about Alison’s life, mirrored alongside her own experiences of climbing and motherhood, are such a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation about where and how women belong in these spaces.
A Line Above the Sky is also a beautiful meditation on the beauty, importance and complexity of female friendships. There’s a lovely description of Helen and some local mums rallying together to help each other through the first few months after giving birth, and of her forging new female climbing partnerships. After so many mountaineering/climbing books where woman are rarely mentioned, it’s so refreshing to read a book that focuses so strongly on the importance of surrounding yourself with brilliant, inspiring women.
This book meant so much to me that I’ve really struggled to write anything remotely objective about it. But then – that’s why this book is so important, isn’t it? An awful lot of it felt like reading a book about myself – so many of my own experiences as a climber, as a woman, were mirrored back to me from the page. For me, this was such an essential read because the concept of trying to balance motherhood around a life of climbing and mountaineering sounds so alien, so impossible, and because it captured parts of being a woman in the outdoors that I haven’t ever found represented anywhere else; because it gave words to some of my own thoughts and feelings that I hadn’t really managed to put shape to myself.
(With thanks to Ebury Press for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.)
Predominantly climbing/outdoors literature, mountaineering history and nature writing.