Book Review: In a Line Above the Sky

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In A Line Above the Sky, writer and climber Helen Mort explores both the rapture and risk of climbing, and asks if and how motherhood might change it.

It’s clear from the start that climbing has been central to Mort’s identity. From learning with her father as a teenager, to joining predominantly male climbing groups during her college years, to becoming a mother, she uses her deep familiarity to show even the non-climbing reader the powerful attraction of the mountains. Whether approaching or descending, you feel your own body recognizing the weight and pull of the stone.

Mothering, however, has an emotional and physical impact on Mort; it evokes a breathless mixture of vertigo, responsibility, love and freedom, which seems to exist in parenthood as well as in climbing.

There is a strong feeling that motherhood is questioning her right to play in the mountains. She is exposed to notions of responsibility that persist in clinging to mothers, much more than to fathers. If this imbalance exists in many aspects of contemporary Western culture, its representation through escalation seems particularly relevant.

The sport has always been male-dominated, and A Line Above the Sky indicates that the traditionally different expectations of men and women still impact society’s perception of female climbers as mothers. Perhaps more importantly, it considers how these women view themselves. Mort’s experience of becoming a mother highlights these underlying tensions.

Alongside her own story is that of professional mountaineer Alison Hargreaves, famous for her solo ascent of Mount Everest without oxygen or Sherpa support, and for being the first person to solo climb all six north faces of the Alps in one season. In public scrutiny, however, the question of Hargreaves’ role and duty as a mother was never far from these exploits.

As Mort’s son begins to jog towards rock, she writes about Hargreaves’ own son, Tom Ballard, a skilled climber himself who spent much of his childhood in Lochaber. Tom was six years old when his mother died climbing K2 in Pakistan, then 30 when he tragically lost his life climbing Nanga Parbat in Kashmir.

Mort weaves Alison and Tom’s story with her own struggles around imposed issues around motherhood and climbing. In doing so, she captures a complex question for any parent: when your heart’s desire contains the risk of death, what do you pass on to your children?

A Line Above the Sky shows a deep love of life alongside an almost paradoxical awareness of death that is distilled through parenthood. Both climbing and motherhood are shown to hold uncertainty in one hand, and the absolute necessity to keep climbing in the other – to keep the knowledge of risk at bay and not let it stop you in your momentum, don’t let yourself down. Above all, it shows the strength, skill and love that comes from living with both the mountains and motherhood.

A Line Above The Sky by Helen Mort is out now, published by Ebury Press.

About Hannah Schaeffer

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