The mountain anthology has been around almost as long as people have been climbing mountains. Think of club journals from august mountaineering institutions like the CC, SMC and F&R, where editors have collected the writings of several authors, and published them in one annual publication. Over the years commercial publishers have got in on the act and used experienced outdoor writers to bring together works which were deemed inspiring and entertaining. The success of the anthology depends of course on the imagination of the editor and their choice of works. Several anthologies I’ve read, appear to have been thrown together with quantity rather than quality in mind, while other seemingly slight volumes, have nevertheless worked by virtue of the quality within.
The last mountain anthology I actually enjoyed was one of these latter slim
publications, a small volume of works by mainly Scottish writers,edited by Alec Finlay called ‘The Way to Cold Mountain’. This quirky little book which included writers like David Craig and Andrew Greig was light years removed from the 700 page blockbusters which seem to be aimed at readers who enjoy Bear Grylls books.
However, I’m delighted to have discovered an anthology which whilst not fitting into Cold mountain territory, is nevertheless rather a humdinger within the genre. Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome's edited Rock Paper Fire which is described as being ‘the best of mountain and wilderness writing’, and I certainly can’t argue with this qualitative element of the subtitle. Brought together through the Banff Centre’s Mountain and Wilderness writing programme, Rock Paper Fire offers 24 essays from 23 different writers including our own Niall Grimes and Andy Kirkpatrick. From the opening chapter where Canadian mountaineer Barry Blanchard offers a poignant essay on love and loss, through to skier, Ian Brown’s closing essay on winding down in later middle age which philosophically ends with the lines- ‘We can still make our own trails instead of following someone elses’- all essays shoehorned between,succeed in capturing the readers imagination, despite being drawn from disciplines as diverse as sailing and hunting.
As you will have gathered, this is not a pure mountaineering anthology. The clue is in the ‘wilderness writing’ element of the sub title, although with pieces from the aforementioned Mr Kirkpatrick, Boardman-Tasker winner Bernadette McDonald, Steve Swenson and Alpinist editor Katie Ives, there is no shortage of climbing essays.No surprise to find many of the non climbing articles particularly fascinating and enjoyable. Christian Beamish chasing for shelter as a Pacific squall batters his tiny craft; the perfectly named Wayne Sawchuck’s historical wilderness essay which took its title from cabin graffiti- Tough living -oh boy!, and even Masa Takei’s eulogistic hunting essay-Hunting and Killing- managed to capture the essence of the activity, although sceptics like me will remain unconvinced that game shooting is a ‘sport’ as such,though Takei gives it his best shot...no pun intended.
The mountaineering essays are, as you would expect given the pedigree of the writers, absolutely top drawer. Andy Kirkpatrick strung out on Troll Wall, Steve Swenson describing a catastrophic early doors episode on McKinley, Bernadette Macdonald described the madness of King Tomaz -(Humar). He of an oceanic ego and massive talent who lived by Neil Young’s edict-It’s better to burn out than fade away.
It’s all fascinating stuff where the writers pack a lot into their allotted pages.
Rock Paper Fire is to be sure, a veritable potpourri of top notch writing, brought to you by the Banff Centre Press. A nice little number to drop on an outdoor loving friend or family member this Christmas perhaps?