Monday, 22 October 2012

The Crystal Spirit: Karen Darke's Boundless review.

But the thing that I saw in your face
No power can disinherit:
No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit

George Orwell
Hanging around above the Lledr Valley in North Wales yesterday, I glanced up from my position  twixt earth and sky. Above, the rope disappeared over the lip of pale,sharp rock set against a leeching late afternoon ultramarine sky.Below the overhang, the ground fell away in an autumnal frieze of bracken,birch and scrub. It was then I thought of Karen Darke, or rather what the fates conspired to deliver to her. A pile driving headfirst fall into a plinth of dark rock under a Scottish sea stack. A fall which delivered paralysis from the chest down and which transformed her life beyond imagination.

 'I'd rather be dead than paralysed'... a climbers' predictable and instinctive reaction to a cataclysmic event which can never be a choice anyway. It was the natural reaction of the author herself  when she had considered such a possibility in the years leading up to her darkest hour . An event which was fully recounted in Karen's first book -'If you fall'.  As I sat there suspended in my harness I wondered at the odds of surviving a fall from here more a less intact? .80...100' down at least? I would hit the slab first...say 50'- then bounce out a hit the base of the crag from which I would  career through the boulder strewn bracken-which would be like falling down a cheese grater- before coming to rest. Dead...paralysed...a few broken bones??? I thought about the legendary US climber Doug Robinson describing in palm sweating detail the complete anatomy of a fall in his classic 'A night on the ground a day in the open.

" John told me later I screamed all the way down. He quit climbing for months,he said, because the scream and the sound of my impact on the rock kept rising incessantly in his dreams'

For Doug Robinson the fall which 'broke my back clean in two' saw him fully recover and return to his dirtbag climber lifestyle. For Karen, the climbing God's chose another path for her to follow. When presented with such a choice  do you stick or twist? Take the easy option and accept your outdoor life is over forever or re-invent and reapply yourself to your new physical circumstances?
For someone as motivated and driven as Karen Darke, there is only one answer. Boundless continues Karen's inspiring story through her description of an epic crossing of the Greenland ice cap, an attempt to circumnavigate the island of Corsica in a sea kayak and a jummaring ascent of a classic El Cap route with partner, Andy Kirkpatrick.

From the outset,let me say that Karen's story is written in a beautifully understated natural style which flows beautifully from page to page. Despite the drama and the tension within,she never feels  the urge to stray into experimental prose or invest in hyperbole. It certainly helps the reader the stay focused on the unfolding diary of events.
The first half of the book which describes her Greenland crossing on a specially adapted sit ski set up is not surprisingly the main course. The expedition over 29 days,crossing 550 kilometers of unyielding ice, is brutal,life changing and hugely impressive. For the ordinary Joe/sephine it sounds outrageous in its ambition and execution. A truly awesome achievement which can never be understated. By contrast, the passage which follows the drama and tension of Greenland, 'Down by the sea'- the sea kayaking expedition set in the Med- is something of a anti-climax and perhaps would have been better suited as an article or essay within a future KD collection. That's just my feeling; others will disagree.

However, The El Cap climbing/jummaring extravaganza-although relatively brief compared to the Greenland chapters-does work well alongside the former section. Karen at times brilliantly captures the wide range of physical and mental stresses and strains involved in multi day big wall climbing. An undertaking which would push most able bodied climbers to the limit. For Karen,these pressures must have been sheer torture at times. A grueling battle to keep body and mind together and stay focused- as much for the sake of her partners as for herself. On the page,she brings it all together perfectly.

The paperback version of the book I received is well produced and liberally illustrated with photographs which both relate to events  within and to the author's 'pre-fall'- life. Despite having just a minor  question mark over the inclusion of the brief Corsican adventure, overall, the book works as a moving and honest account of a remarkable woman re-inventing and reapplying herself to her circumstances.  A journey of discovery which  points the way towards new horizons and which offers  new goals. A fine testimony to the indomitable human spirit.

John Appleby 2012

Boundless can be ordered direct from Karen's website