I’m currently knee-deep in research for a new novel. My protagonist is a Victorian woman mountaineer, someone who will be a challenge for me to write about because my idea of physically risky behaviour is having a tooth filled at the dentist’s office or boarding a plane, not scaling a rock face at ten thousand feet with nothing but a rope between me and certain death.
This photo shows one of the intrepid Victorian woman mountaineers, May Kinsey, whose father Joseph was the New Zealand-based agent for Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer (If you click on the photo, you’ll be able to see a larger version). I couldn’t bring myself to show only her boots, since it’s fascinating to see these women navigating mountains in skirts. (I’d like to see a man try that!) Victorian mountaineers didn’t have the kind of specialized equipment modern mountaineers have. Their footwear was usually ordinary, durable walking shoes, often hobnailed boots.
Although I prefer to conduct my research in a dusty corner of the university library, paging through old books or scrolling through old newspapers on microfilm, I thought I’d better do a bit of field research in order to get a sense of what climbing a mountain might be like. There are no mountains where I live, so I went to a climbing gym and dragged my surprised husband along. He didn’t realize I can be brave (to a point) if it’s for the sake of research.
As we drove to the climbing gym, I silently berated myself for choosing a protagonist who is less like me than any other character I’ve written about. How did I think I was going to get inside the head of a sensation-seeking extrovert? I also had second thoughts about the venue: a climbing gym, with hand- and foot-holds cleverly painted bright colours and coded for difficulty level, has little in common with an actual mountain that my protagonist would climb.
In spite of my second thoughts, we went ahead to the gym and signed a detailed waiver that made me feel as though my death (which would be my fault, not theirs) was imminent. It didn’t help that the climbing wall was higher than I’d expected.
Have I mentioned I’m afraid of heights?
I had to put on a harness, a mysterious contraption that highlights the, er . . . nether regions, making men look as if they’re wearing codpieces and making women look . . . well, just fine, if they have less than 10% body fat. The woman in this photo is clearly one of those athletic types, but I am not. As I watched some of the other climbers who were already halfway up the wall, I became desperately concerned that the harness would highlight and amplify my derriere, which would be hanging above onlookers’ heads. This doesn’t seem like the sort of worry that would have occurred to the intrepid May Kinsey, even if she had to wear a harness like this one.
A young man was appointed to be my guide and instructor, and my husband left me in this person’s capable hands while happily scrambling up the wall like a monkey (he’s done this before and is not afraid of heights).
I suspected that the descent would be the hardest part for me, especially if I had to actually look down, so I told my guide I wanted to climb up only about ten feet and come back down again to see how it felt. He humoured me with a tiny smirk that should have alerted me to his true attitude.
Even before I reached up to grasp the first handhold, I felt my palms start to sweat almost as much as they do when I board a plane. I asked my guide what would happen if I slipped and fell off the wall. He helpfully demonstrated by attaching the rope to his harness and scooting up the wall, then letting go. Just a little bounce on his rope, then he was hanging by his harness in the air, trying not to look bored.
Despite my misgivings, up I went. At ten feet I called out, “I want to come down,” but my guide seemed to be enjoying my fear and kept asking, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” Yes, damn it, I was sure. I was right about going down, or rather, about the moment I had to start going down. The trouble is that I had to let go of the handholds on the wall and lean back a little so the guide could let me down. Do you realize that this involves letting go of the wall and leaning back into thin air? Yes, I knew I was wearing a harness attached to a rope attached to a (very young) guide. Wait, I asked myself, is he really a guide or just a bystander wanting to have some fun? Or even worse, is he a former student who failed my course and he’s been waiting for this moment to drop me on my head? Ack.
Keeping my paranoia at bay, I let go with one hand, peeled my other hand off the wall, then leaned back slightly. The guide let me down slowly, but my persistent fear led me to hover too close to the wall, so I received a few scrapes on the way down.
I went higher the second time, then even higher the third time. I made it up about twenty feet, then looked down (not recommended) and decided to descend for the last time. This time I was able to hop down the wall a little (I hesitate to use the term “rappel” for my clumsy movements) to avoid becoming scratched.
So, what did I learn? I learned that I’m braver than I thought I was. I learned that rock climbing is a serious workout for the whole body. I learned that climbing involves trusting your partner or whoever is at the other end of the rope.
I don’t know if any of these lessons will ultimately help me get into my new protagonist’s head (or shoes), but I have a new respect for her strength and courage, especially since she’ll be climbing in a skirt!