Waymaking, an anthology of women's adventure writing, poetry and art, is the first book of its kind. With contributions from adventurers including Alpinist magazine editor Katie Ives, award-winning author Bernadette McDonald, adventurer Sarah Outen and climber Hazel Findlay among many others, Waymaking is described by Vertebrate Publishing as 'an inspiring and pivotal work published in an era when wilderness conservation and gender equality are at the fore.'
'Why the need for an anthology of women's adventure writing and art?' This question of purpose and demand for justification is often posed to those involved in gender or minority-specific events and organisations. It's an important point to raise, since exclusivity doesn't chime with inclusivity, and nor does it seem to contribute towards the diverse, equal opportunity world that many of us wish to live in – on first glance, at least. It pays to look deeper.
I remember a witty retort made on Twitter by Vertebrate Publishing prior to the book's release. "When's the men's anthology coming out?" an unimpressed follower chirped. "Take a look at a climber's bookshelf and you'll find the answer staring you in the face," came Vertebrate's measured response.
They're not wrong. Look at your own climbing literature collection or go to a bookshop – a second hand one would be particularly revealing – and witness the abundance of male narratives and the comparative lack of female writing. With tales of big peaks and even bigger egos, the focus of male adventure narratives has typically revolved around daring summit attempts and feats of endurance rather than sensation and emotion, with the exception of more recent and more cerebral nature writing from the likes of Robert Macfarlane.
There's always a fair share of whataboutery when it comes to discussing underrepresentation. I've heard the 'What about Nan Shepherd? What about Gwen Moffat?' card played numerous times. Yes, eminent and pioneering women have written and effectively "made way" – so to speak - for other female writers, but for one reason or another, few women have followed in their venerable footsteps. Are female adventurers naturally less inclined to share their stories? Are they pushed away by publishers? Intimidated by the invisible barriers of societal expectations? Too busy getting pregnant? (I jest…) Each possibility is inextricably linked to the others. Although a dearth of women's adventure writing clearly exists, that's not to say that it's due to a lack of adventurous women with stories to tell, or indeed the talent to put them into words.
Waymaking is testament to this fact. The short stories, poems, essays, cartoons, photography and artwork are as varied in content as their creators are in age, focus, nationality and ability. World-class athletes, weekend warriors, amateur climbers, adventurous mums, academics and outdoor industry creatives share their work; united in gender but distinguishable by their personal stories. Editors Helen Mort, Claire Jane Carter, Heather Dawe and Camilla Barnard have thoughtfully divided the book into four thematic sections, ensuring a flow of sorts between the pieces: Vicinity, Heart & Soul, Water, and Union. The project attracted a surplus of contributions from creative and outdoorsy women, 57 of whom made the cut - touching on adventures undertaken across the globe, from Patagonia to the Peak District, Australia to Antarctica, North Wales to Nepal. As much as I'd enjoy addressing each work individually, I'll focus on some key themes and personal favourites.
'Oh, I am a female.'
In one story, Oh by Paula Flach, the author writes about a sudden realisation of her gender while undressing in a tent, and her consequently heightened awareness of the preconceived notions that femaleness brings. For the past weeks in the Lofoten Islands, Flach writes, she had been 'two legs, two arms, two lungs and a heart,' prompting her to question 'What if our gender is not what it's cracked up to be?' The outdoors - free from claustrophobic societal expectations - has given many women in Waymaking the space simply to be; unburdened by becoming or conforming. As Lee Craigie asks in Rewilding, 'Is 'just being' selfish? Is introspection indulgent? Do we need to drive and do and achieve to be considered worthy of the air we breathe? Or is letting go of our tightly held sense of self to merge with something bigger the most generous gesture we can make as humans. Human beings. Not human doings.' Environmental themes are threaded through the anthology, most strongly in Leaving for the Edge of the World by Kathleen Jones, who focuses on issues of climate change, pollution and consumerism.
No feminist agenda is pushed, and the book reads like a profound expression of the connection between humans, adventure and the outdoor environment and nothing like the 'girly gospel' that some might expect (be reassured, boys - it's not all pregnancy and periods). The collection situates its creators as astute observers - not of the passive sort, but rather highly active, in their roles as participants in adventure and stewards of the landscape. In a UKC interview, I asked one of the editors of the collection, Helen Mort, whether she thinks that the female voice is different to the male voice - in a literary sense, of course. 'I don't know if you can characterise 'women's' or 'men's' writing in specific ways' she said, 'But our aim was certainly to include a variety of different outdoor experiences, moving beyond narratives of mountain conquest. We received an abundance of work, from writing about perceived 'failures' to gripping adventure narratives. It certainly felt as if the women we heard from situated themselves in landscapes in novel and interesting ways.'
Indeed, many pieces in the collection continue the phenomenological precedent set by Nan Shepherd in her influential book The Living Mountain, in which the body is not negligible, 'but paramount.' Hazel Findlay's No-Self is a sort of modern-day echo to Shepherd's call to 'walk the flesh transparent' through conscious, corporeal engagement with our surroundings. 'Time spent deep in an activity, deep in the woods, deep in exposure, deep on the surface of an ocean, deeply in love - in these wild places with wildness in the heart the self is absent.' Compare this description with Shepherd's: 'On the mountain I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy...I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain.'
In contrast, other pieces focus on finding oneself and soul-searching. In A Child in These Hills by Alaskan writer Solana Joy, she shares an endearingly honest account of self-discovery and finding her inner child through solo travels in the rolling hills of the Lake District. For Alpinist Editor-in-Chief, Katie Ives, in Unmapping, ice climbing at night gives her 'the temptation or the promise of the wild and the dark' to be 'so lost that one might at last be found.' Joanna Croston's poem Falling deftly mixes an ice climbing fall with falling in and out of love, while Helen Mort's poem The Climb ascends and descends as she tries to determine where, when and how 'the climb begins,' proposing more literal answers then downclimbing and resorting to the abstract, concluding with 'You start the climb/with no love, no name,/no fear in the mind.'
Family ties are explored as British Mountain Guide Libby Peter writes about winter climbing in Wales on a school day with her eldest daughter; a cherished Memory Ten in a collection of memories she presented on her daughter's 18th birthday, providing 'an alternative education of immeasurable value' for both mother and daughter. In Snow, Canadian author Bernadette McDonald reflects on time spent skiing with her elderly father, an activity which becomes painfully yet crucially intrinsic to remembering him when he passes away, as she scatters his ashes in the snow, 'returning Dad to the forest.'
The thoughtfully placed paintings, drawings, comics and photography complement the written work well, and some are accompanied by essays and commentary on the pieces by their creator. A mix of landscape photos and drawings, self-portraits, action shots and journal sketches make for a - thoughtful, well-presented - adventurer's scrapbook of sorts. Tami Knight injects humour into the collection with her comical adventure-themed cartoons.
During the book's well-publicised crowdfunding campaign, one commentator raised a concern regarding a potential lack of diversity in the selected works, asking whether it addressed the intersection of race, class and gender. While I admire their concern, I think it's neither necessary nor fair to criticise this initial effort by the editors. As Helen told me in our interview, Waymaking is a stepping stone for future publications as well as an effort to inspire and encourage more women to share their creative work. 'We very much hope that this anthology is a starting point and a gateway to a more diverse set of representations,' she said. 'We had an open call for submissions and publicised this widely, and we could only really make selections from the material we received in response, but of course it's also important to actively try to solicit submissions from groups who might be underrepresented. We hope this is very much the beginning of a much bigger conversation.' Included in the anthology is a story of how native American peoples perceive and respect their landscape by Leslie Hsu Oh, in K'é yił yał tx'i': Saying Something.
Gwen Moffat once told me in a UKC interview that, in her opinion, 'proper writers' were 'the authors who could take pride in conveying the essence of mountains without recourse to what was going on inside their heads.' She continued: 'We've lost that but it will come back: both the art and the appreciation.' Waymaking to me signals a renaissance of the art and appreciation of writing about our experiences in the outdoors; writing in which essence replaces ego. Maybe it's women who have the deepest voices, after all?
Kendal Mountain Festival 2018
Kendal Mountain Festival (15th-18th November) is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 18 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.
The Waymaking book launch will take place on Sunday 18th November 14:30-16:00. A selection of Waymaking editors and contributors will be speaking at the event.
- Book tickets on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE