Write about what captivates. This principle didn’t occur to me until Mysterium was finished, but now I believe in the words wholeheartedly. It was fascination and reverence for the mountains that bore the novel forward.
You could say I was taken captive by the mountains at the start, born cradled between two ranges, the Olympics and the Cascades, and into a family of outdoors people (my great-great grandparents immigrated to Seattle when Washington was not yet a state). People live here amid coastal forests and waterways, with a chain of glaciered volcanoes running north to south to magnify the panorama. It is not a landscape alluring to everyone, but for many the Pacific Northwest is the only place to be. For me, it was the opening chapter of life, a place equated with beauty and reverie and love.
Fascination also leads a writer to read. When engaged in a work topic of choice, what better excuse for putting one’s feet up with book in hand than wanting to be better informed by the subject? When I was young, and excuses to read weren’t needed, my enthusiasm for the outdoors carried into adventure books like Robinson Crusoe, Little House in the Big Woods, and The Call of the Wild. Mountain climbing stories came later, all of which were nonfiction as history of the telling was the only genre choice there was. There were no good climbing novels: not one. But there were plenty of memoirs and biographies out there, and I could not get enough of them: Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider, Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, Lionel Terray’s Conquistadors of the Useless, Reinhold Messner’s The Crystal Horizon. I could go on.
Do what you most love doing, and you will meet those who share your passion and know your devotion.
Do what you most love doing, and you will meet those who share your passion and know your devotion: call this premise number two. Out on the trail you walk and breathe in wondrous surroundings, talking with your companions or thinking your own thoughts, while moving together toward some common aim. You can be alone and part of something with someone at the same time. The people I spent countless hours with in the outdoors became my closest friends. A few became lovers. It was the romantic second chapter of my life.
Romanticism, long associated with mountains, was an 18th century intellectual and artistic movement emphasizing the glorification of nature and the individual. Nature, the cosmos, the universe, was portrayed as the embodiment of the sublime. Human feeling was depicted as aesthetic experience, an awareness justifying existence, invoking emotions such as joy and elation, terror and horror, fear and awe. For the artist, feeling is law. This might also be said of the nature lover. Those who know the glory and solitude of rambling into the depths of terrain unchanged by humankind experience a feeling of transcendence, an existence or understanding beyond the common or mundane.
“The mind, through sense impressions and experience,” said Immanuel Kant, “shapes the world we perceive.” As Arthur Schopenhauer later put it: “The whole world of objects is and remains representation . . . forever conditioned by the subject; in other words, it has transcendental ideality.” Or in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetic words, “As you see, so you are.” Transcendental idealism is the heart of Emerson’s thinking, rooted in Schopenhauer and Kant’s Idealism, the sum of all later elucidated (positively and negatively) in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. As a philosophy student at Columbia, I drew upon them all.
Before graduate school, back in the Pacific Northwest when I first started hiking, most of my outdoor friends were more experienced on the steep than I was. Along the trail during the day I learned tactics and skills. Around the fire at night I learned of famous climbs and climbers. The talk was of men and women who had been real heroes and heroines, back in the days when mountaineers were more explorers than the athletic achievers that so many of those getting to the tops of peaks today have become. In Washington State we had history-making luminaries like Willi Unsoeld, Jim Whitaker, Marty Hoey (she would have been the first woman to summit Everest if she had not fallen 6,000 feet to her death while climbing it). We had Fred Becky. A close friend of mine, call him Wild Man Dan, had tagged along with Becky to the top of several pinnacles. Author of the three-volume Cascade Alpine Guide, Becky was a genuine explorer, making more first ascents, and naming many of these mountains, more than any other North American climber in history. My friend Wild Man Dan had solo’d Yosemite’s El Capitan four times back in the ’70s—these were the days of big wall exploration—climbing among contemporaries who called themselves the Stonemasters: Jim Bridwell, John Long, Lynn Hill, et al. (In 1993, Lynn Hill became the first ever to free climb the Nose route of Yosemite’s El Capitan.) In the ’50s and ’60s there was Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Tom Frost, Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia, Inc.)—big wall pioneers with vision and honed skill, a touch of irreverence, and all-out commitment. My friend Wild Man Dan earned his name walking on his hands across ten feet or more of flaming red-hot coals. The climbing world has always been filled with bold and offbeat personalities. But who is not enthralled by what frightens the most?
Though I climbed mountains, I admit to a fear of heights. But the fear didn’t stop me. (It was probably love that drove me.) So when a friend invited me along with two others to climb to the top of Mount Rainier, I, of course, said yes. During this time I had been reading Arlene Blum’s Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, and her book spurred me on. A decade earlier, in 1978, she and several others of an all-female expedition team were the first Americans to summit one of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. Though using an ice axe was by now second nature to me, as was snow camping and fitting crampons onto my boots, tying the absolute correct knot or adjusting my pace to that of others clipped into a rope was not yet something I knew how to do. We went to Wild Man Dan’s backpack shop (where he made custom order packs for the climbing elite) and our self-selected team practiced knots and hung upside down by the beams rehearsing rescue techniques. Then the four of us went out and did a practice climb up Mount Adams to make sure we were a rhythmic fit for the rigors of Rainier. We were, and we got there. And I fell in love again. I was falling in love a lot back then. Could have been the altitude, the hypoxic euphoria. Or just youth.
Though I climbed mountains, I admit to a fear of heights. But the fear didn’t stop me.
After reading Blum’s account of Annapurna, with its storms and avalanches and Sherpa strike, getting to the summit of 14,410 foot Mount Rainier did not seem arduous at all. (I have a tendency to recall the pleasures of past adventures and quickly forget the pain.) Sleeping with my boots at the bottom of my sleeping bag at 11,000 feet to keep them from freezing—the most frigid and challenging night of my life—is now just an amusing memory.
I mellowed out, as they say, after moving to New York City. With respect to the mountains, that is. No one who moves to NYC mellows. If anything, we have a tendency here to become adamantine as the concrete that surrounds us: this, out of necessity. Chilling out would be a detriment to survival.
Still, my love of the mountains never went away. My NYC born-and-raised husband and I took vacations out west when first married, hiking in the Olympics and the Cascades, the Rockies and the Sierras, climbing to the top of something for the sake of a delicious picnic (everything tastes better in the outdoors: make this credo number three) and a spectacular view. Later, when we had a little more money to travel, we hiked in the Alps and in the Dolomites. The Europeans, who adore their mountains as much as Americans do, are more civilized about alpine sports. We discovered you could be out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a blizzard, and still find a hut serving hot soup and good wine. Though America is chock-full of legendary mountaineers, in terms of climbing methods and history, as most know, Europe led the way.
Eventually, we ventured to Asia. First India, several times, north and south, though not to any real heights. Then in 2007, we travelled to Tibet to circumambulate Mount Kailash, a holy mountain revered by Buddhists and Hindus, Bons and Jains. My husband was the camp physician on that trip, and at 19,000 feet he sent one member of our group down the mountain on a Mongolian pony and a loading dose of prednisone. Altitude can be a serious and unpredictable element in which to partake.
In 2008, one of the climbing heroes I had read and heard tales about, John Roskelley, led the way for a group of us to the 17,000 foot base camp of Gangkhar Puensum, in Bhutan, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. In 1978, Roskelley was one of the first Americans to summit K2. An American expedition team had first made an attempt in 1938, but it wasn’t until 1954 that the Italians would be the first to arrive to its summit. I still have the 1979 National Geographic Magazine with Roskelley’s K2 photograph on the cover: Rick Ridgeway looking like the tin man shackled in a high altitude suit with face covered by a silver mask, walking a knife-edge snow crest. (And looking relaxed!) Every time I gaze at this picture it blows me away.
For three weeks I followed behind Roskelley on the Bhutan trek, and when I wasn’t thinking through this or that notion or ambition or life complication, or simply letting my mind wander not pondering at all (what is walking for, after all?), I was listening to his stories. I still recall details of a few that will forever stick in my mind, even when I reach the age of not being able to recall my children’s names (or remember that I don’t have any). For example, he did not change his clothes at all (at all!) on one two-month-long expedition, day or night, for the sake of carrying less weight, and when he got off the mountain and finally had a chance to bathe he discovered the fabric of his clothing had embedded into his flesh and could not be washed away. Another time, he and a friend showed up to the base of a mountain in the Canadian Rockies they had hoped to ice climb the next day, and found the floor of the women’s restroom in a park campground a suitable enough place to bivouac for the night in below zero cold. (The men’s room was, evidently, unacceptable.) Roskelley was full of anecdotes like these, but he was reticent about incidents having to do with the Nanda Devi expedition. His hesitancy to speak about the Unsoelds or what happened on that trip fascinated me all the more. He had written a book and published an account of the team’s ascent (he and Lou Reichardt made the summit) and maybe there he had said all he wanted or needed to say.
Willi Unsoeld was one of the first Americans to summit Mount Everest on an expedition in 1963. He and Tom Hornbein traversed the west ridge—a legendary climb that has not since been accomplished. (Ueli Steck, the famed Swiss climber, plunged 3,200 feet to his death in 2017 on an acclimatizing climb for an attempt on the Unsoeld/Hornbein west ridge route.) Unsoeld taught philosophy and theology at Evergreen College. He died at the age of 52, two years after the death of his daughter on the Nanda Devi expedition, as he was guiding a group of his students on a summit climb of Mount Rainier. He and a student, a young woman who would have been about his daughter Devi’s age when she died, were killed in an avalanche on the descent.
Unsoeld named his daughter Nanda Devi after what was once the highest peak in India (it is now the second highest peak: in 1975 Sikkim joined the republic of India). “I dreamed of having a daughter to name after the peak,” he said. He did, and she grew up wanting to summit the mountain for which she had been christened.
It was the irony of the naming that compelled me to write the story. How would a father manage such a tragedy? A philosophy professor. What did he feel? How did he think? How did he carry on?
What would it be like to be him?
I realized I would have to write the book I had been hoping to read.
What would it be like to be Devi? To follow an ambition given to her by the name she had been named? To climb with her father, one of the most highly regarded climbers in American history? To meet and fall in love with a fellow team member on the trip and halfway up the mountain be engaged to be married to him? To be young and in love and at the top of the world with all of everything ahead of you? I don’t know, I can only imagine. No one can know. She is not here to tell us. I realized I would have to write the book I had been hoping to read.
Susan Froderberg is the author of Old Border Road (2010), which the Los Angeles Times hailed as a “remarkable debut novel.” Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Conjunctions and others. She worked for several years as a critical care nurse in Seattle before moving East to study medical ethics and philosophy at Columbia University, where she received her PhD. She and her husband split their time between Seattle and New York City.