I don’t read mountaineering novels very often; I suppose I don’t really see the point of them when there’s already so many dramatic factual accounts to read.
I’m really glad I made an exception here. I thought First on the Rope is an exquisite novel. It’s a finely-written love letter to the mountains, perfectly capturing the beauty and magic of long days moving through the mountains balanced against the cost.
Chris Bonington’s endorsement across the front cover claims this to be ‘the definitive climbing novel’, and within a couple of pages it becomes clear this is no hyperbole. Frison-Roche has written a story so vivid and intricate in its details that it’s difficult to believe it’s only fiction. The language is beautifully crafted, full of evocative images and careful descriptions.
The book centres around one family living in Chamonix – three generations all enraptured by life in the mountains. Pierre and his family have different ideas about his future career, but all debate is put on hold as disaster strikes. As daring rescues and near-misses play out across the peaks, the writing is constantly drawn back to the beauty and majesty of the landscape. Behind all the human drama the mountains are constantly changing, shaping events and deciding futures.
Occasionally the author allows a welcome reprise from the mountain drama to show hut building or cattle herding. It’s a well-rounded glimpse into what it means to shape a life around the mountains.
As a mountain guide himself, Frison-Roche writes from the heart and uses the wealth of his own experience to make these settings and characters spring to life. The writing strikes a careful balance between glorifying the beauty of the mountains and showing the inevitable dangers of time spent playing in such a place. It’s a book about the costs of mountains and the sacrifices climbers make to keep returning to them, about the selfishness of risking your life for a hobby. But ultimately the mountains always bring out the best in the characters and shape them into better people; a risky and painful choice but an inevitable one.
(I was provided with a free copy by Vertebrate Publishing in exchange for an honest review.)
Predominantly climbing/outdoors literature, mountaineering history and nature writing.