Believe and then begin.
These are the first words Sharon Wood spoke after stepping onto the stage at the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival last November. The first North American woman to summit Everest, and by a route that’s never been repeated to this day, Wood had just published her memoir Rising. That mantra, she said from the lectern, saw her through some of the most impossible parts of the climb, including leading the last hard pitch before the summit after little sleep, too many hours spent over 20,000 feet, and a belay that both she and her climbing partner knew would not hold if she fell. Her talk was articulate, suspenseful, deeply personal and, above all, inspiring. It moved me to immediately buy Rising, which embodies all of those characteristics and then some.
Wood’s memoir is a character-driven, captivating chronicle of her Canadian team’s 1986 attempt to make history on an unclimbed route to the top of the world’s highest mountain. Other teams were aiming for the same route, and upon establishing their base camp along with an American team that included Annie Whitehouse, it became clear that another history-making feat was at stake: becoming the first North American woman to summit Everest.
But Wood’s storytelling isn’t competitive or boastful; it’s exactly the opposite. Writing in a scene-based style more common to fiction, she captures the pressures of that un-sought race to be the first woman, and the subsurface stress of being the sole female climber on the 13-person Everest Light Team, as the Canadian team was named, that reflects the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of mountain climbing. She vulnerably writes about her guilt at taking one of the few summit attempts (on large climbing teams, it’s rare that all members stand on the summit), even though it meant her team made history twice over.
Amidst all that, she beautifully articulates the simplicity and euphoria of mountaineering that has addicted so many adventurers to the pursuit. And she captures the mythology of Everest, whose awe-inspiring capabilities, even after its commercialization in recent years, remain undiminished still.
Wood doesn’t consider herself a writer, she tells me. We met up in a coffee shop in Revelstoke, B.C., last month. I caught her as she was en route home to Canmore, Alberta, from a backcountry ski trip in the Valhalla mountain range. Clad in ski gear with her blonde hair corralled in a warm headband, one of the world’s greatest climbers jokes about her knees creaking with too much skiing now that she’s in her early 60s.
Rising wasn’t the kind of book she originally set out to write, she says. When she started working on it fourteen years ago, it was a memoir made up of short stories. But the editor she worked with at the Banff Center, whose programs are famous for producing authors of some of the best mountain literature, offered another suggestion. “She said, ‘Just give me one story and take me deep,’” recalls Wood. “She chose Everest.”
Wood found writing about that chapter of her life to be uncomfortable occassionally, as she dove back into her 29-year-old self: a self-proclaimed “hardass” who kept her emotions close, watched more than spoke and pushed herself hard toward goals. “I found I wasn’t really liking myself a whole lot at times; I didn’t realize in some ways how much I’ve changed.”
Wood likens the writing process to mountaineering. The times she would write for 16 hours, dropping into a euphoric flow state, were just like climbing solo or at altitude. Or she’d come to a hard part in the manuscript where she’d stop believing in herself, like those times she lay despairing in her tent, having lost faith in her abilities. “With both climbing and writing, I’d find myself wondering, ‘What am I thinking, where is this going to take me.’
But whenever you engage deeply in something, you stand to gain.”
In these unprecedented times with international travel on pause due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, a trip to Everest through Rising, and Wood’s cinematic writing, is a welcome escape.