Helen Mort No Map Could Show Them Words: Natalie Berry / Images: Dark Sky Media
'When we climb alone
en cordée feminine
we are magicians of the Alps -
we make the routes we follow
- from 'An Easy Day for a Lady', No Map Could Show Them.
No Map Could Show Them. The pioneering Victorian women in mountaineering of the early twentieth Century. The women whose narratives and achievements became lost in the mountains, where they forged paths and ascended; their stories brought back down to earth, only to be silenced by the patriarchy.
Rediscovering and amplifying the voices of these female mountaineers today is acclaimed poet and keen climber Helen Mort, in her latest poetry anthology No Map Could Show Them. In recent years, Helen has been lauded with multiple prestigious awards for her work. Her first collection, Division Street, was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and in 2014, Helen was named as a ‘Next Generation Poet’, an accolade awarded once per decade to highlight the twenty most promising young British poets.
Born in 1985 in Sheffield, an upbringing in the Peak District introduced Helen to climbing and the outdoors, where she fostered a particular passion for trail running. Her love for the surrounding landscape and a keen eye for observation provided Helen with inspiration to draw upon in her writing and poetry:‘When I go running, I start with a line and take it out with me.’ Indeed, Helen published a trail running guide earlier this year - Lake District Trail Running.
The climbing-related poems in No Map Could Show Them were informed by historical texts written by and about unsung heroines of mountains and mountain literature, which Helen had read: by Lene Gammelgaard, Jemima Morrell, Jemima Diki Sherpa and Alison Hargreaves amongst others. In the book, historical poems on climbers and campaigners blend seamlessly with modern-day vignettes; the sexist parallels with a bygone era still apparent and all too often unchallenged. Unsolicited advice in ‘Ode to Bob’; irrelevant comments on appearance subverting achievements in ‘Big Lil’ and downgraded climbs in light of a female ascent, in ‘An Easy Day for a Lady’.
Helen compares and contrasts rugged landscapes with the female body and includes multiple poems discussing society's constraints on women, using the microcosmic world of climbing and mountaineering as an appropriate backdrop for highlighting the situation of women both today and throughout history. However, female narratives are not the sole focus of No Map Could Show Them. Many of the landscapes depicted in Helen’s work will be familiar to climbers: Hathersage, Black Rocks, Kinder Scout, Kalymnos and the European Alps, with a special emphasis on the Derbyshire hills, which first influenced her writing.
Often addressing universal issues within a local context, Helen remains loyal to her roots, with a highly self-deprecating sense of humour and a marked Derbyshire lilt. I asked Helen some questions about combining the oft introspective world of writing with the creative escape of the great outdoors, as she navigates her promising career as a young poet.
I'd always loved hillwalking and spent a lot of time in Scotland as a teenager. Appropriately enough, my first outdoor climb was when I was about 17 or 18 with a poet called Mark Goodwin! Mark and his partner took me to Stanage to climb Flying Buttress. I swore, hung on the rope and fell off repeatedly. But I was hooked.
Most of my climbing is on Peak District grit, but I also enjoy getting away whenever I can. I love the sport climbing (and sun!) in Kalymnos and have climbed on granite in Squamish, Canada and this summer I went on a mountaineering trip to Greenland where I got to lead some pitches in heavy boots for the first time. I'd love to have more of those adventures in future, but I'm always drawn back to Stanage and Rivelin, the huge concentration of routes there. My favourite climbs are usually exposed slabs, where you need to trust in friction.
When I'm climbing, it's a bit like writing a poem. I switch off all the other white noise in my head and all my attention is focussed on what I'm doing, on the detail of the rock or the words on the page. I've been a long distance runner since I was 12, but running doesn't allow me to concentrate in the same way.
As a kid, I was an only child and a bit of a loner. I was constantly making up stories, running a commentary in my head about the part of North East Derbyshire where we lived. I also used to spend a lot of time listening to the radio. I think I fell in love with sound as much as with narrative. I don't remember when I began to write things down, but my mum reckons that as a really young child I insisted on being read to all the time.
A lot of my poems start life when I'm out in the hills or running in Derbyshire, times when I have space to think.I also think there's something wonderful in the perspective you can gain from being on an edge and looking down, something that gives you a sense of what matters to you and what you want (or need) to say. Height gives me clarity.
There's a strange kind of alchemy that happens when you're putting together a collection. I'd written these poems over a period of about 4 years and had the sense that they were all quite distinct, but I only started to see the connections between them when I printed them out, laid them all out on the floor and looked at them. Again, it's a bit like looking down and making sense of the landscape when you're belaying from the top of an edge!
Helen after topping out on Namenlos, HVS 5a, Stanage Plantation
I'm intrigued by what 'success' means to different people and particularly the relationship athletes have with success. I grew up determined to be a professional runner and spent a lot of time striving for that before I got injured. I think we spend a lot of time pushing ourselves to reach certain goals that we think will make us happy, only to find that the pressure intensifies the better you become. It's always possible to be faster and stronger.
I'm really interested in how women's bodies are subtly controlled and how all bodies can be subject to a strange kind of public ownership. It strikes me that climbing has always been an act of rebellion against that, from early climbers abandoning their big skirts to scale mountains to the present day. Your body is your own when you climb.
I've always been in love with place names. I called my first book Division Street after a road in Sheffield and I think the names of landscape features are just as entrancing - I grew up asking about the naming behind the Eagle Stone, Robin Hood's Stride and Windgather, places that sounded almost magical to me as a child. The poet Roy Fisher always says 'Birmingham is what I think with'. I think with the Peak District.
I've been fascinated by Alison Hargreaves and her life as a mountaineer ever since I read her biography, Regions of the Heart. Something about the way she seemed to feel she could only truly be herself in the mountains reminded me of how I've always felt about poetry - I'm only saying what I really mean when I'm in the process of writing a poem. I think I wanted to communicate some of Alison's drive in my sequence and the poems that came out were lean and spare, relatively unadorned.
I think the 'Black Rocks' sequence in my book was a way of me trying to write to someone who inspired me, but also a way of me writing to Derbyshire too, the landscape I learned to climb in. I didn't want to attempt to write in Alison's voice because that would have been inappropriate and arrogant - I didn't know her. Instead, I tried to address her, write to her memory. Framing the last poem as a letter seemed to encapsulate that for me.
I've always found it staggering that Alison was attacked in the press. Few people would mention a figure like George Mallory being a father of three. I think Maria Coffey's book Where The Mountain Casts its Shadow offers a fascinating look at the people left behind when climbers go to the mountains (relatives, partners, friends). It's important to consider that side of mountaineering more widely, but we shouldn't focus on mothers and criticise them in the way Alison was criticised.
It's interesting how little I write about my own experiences. I find it very difficult to put some of my own experiences into words. Instead, I imagine the landscape through other people's eyes. I struggle to express myself when not writing a poem.
'I'm a very bad climber and I'll always be a writer before anything else. But both things keep me grounded, remind me what it's like to fail and try again.'