These are exciting times for female climbers: last year, at the tender age of 13, America’s Ashima Shiraishi became the youngest person – male or female – to complete a sport route with the eye-watering difficulty grade of 9a+; and in May this year another American, Melissa Arnott, made it to the top of Everest and down again without using supplementary oxygen. If only these two could have met the French alpinist and author Etienne Bruhl. In 1929, he wrote that the 3,482m Aiguille du Grépon had “disappeared” as a consequence of having been climbed by women. “Of course, there are still some rocks standing there,” he went on, “but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it.”
In her second collection, No Map Could Show Them, Eric Gregory Award-winner Helen Mort uses this idiotic quote as a jumping-off point for her wonderfully playful poem An Easy Day For A Lady, in which she imagines early female climbers as “magicians of the Alps” who have the power to make the routes they follow vanish: “Turn round / to see the swooping absence / of the face, the undone glaciers, / crevasses closing in on themselves / like flowers at night.” It’s the perfect response to the chauvinism faced by the earliest female mountaineers. A climber herself, Mort doesn’t get angry at the men who insisted women couldn’t climb as well as they could – instead she takes their statements and dances elegantly around them. Similarly, in Ode To Bob she pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to the imaginary male companion that female climbers used to invent to avoid having to endure unsolicited advice from any men.
The centrepiece is a sequence dedicated to climber Alison Hargreaves, who died descending K2 in 1995. Mort is very good at imagining herself into some of her climbs; better at imagining her way into her personal life.
In the crowded field of mountain literature, this precise, sparky and constantly surprising book more than holds its own.