Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Helen Mort

6th December 2019

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Helen Mort:

Stanage Edge, early 2019

January – The year is days old. My baby son has been in the world for a month. Nights are a daze of feeding, failing to sleep when he sleeps and sitting at the window watching a tree dance defiantly with the wind. There is always a light on across the road and I think of my neighbour up and holding her child too. I read Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost:

Small mother, I want to believe 
that when the soul is released 
it is borne to the stars by a swan….

February – Spanish and Pakistani high altitude teams search tirelessly for climbers Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi on Nanga Parbat. I watch the story unfold through the ghoulish light of my phone at 3am and 4am and 5am, hunched on a sofa, breastfeeding. Each time Alfie cries and I stumble out of bed, I check Twitter obsessively, or pore over BBC articles, waiting to hear fresh news. Tom is the son of Alison Hargreaves, the Derbyshire climber who died on K2 in 1995 when Tom was just six. Suddenly, this means more to me than ever. When Alison was six months pregnant with Tom, she climbed the North Face of the Eiger. I once tried to imagine it in a poem:

…You wish that you could reach
beneath your skin
and hold the baby’s fist in yours
but you can only curl
into the Eiger’s mists, cupped
in a belly of enfolding snow….

I didn’t really understand what it was to carry a child then.

March – Tom Ballard is dead. They have given up the search. When daylight breaks over the houses, I am tense. I drive out to Stanage Edge, park the car and walk out into the headwind with Alfie strapped tight to my chest, daring myself to walk for ten minutes then twenty, telling myself my baby is ok, kept warm and close, soothed by my steady heartbeat. 

April – My dad’s 70th birthday. We spend a week in Threlkeld in the Lake District in unlikely sunshine. I carry Alfie to the summit of Blencathra. The world is patchwork below us.

Blencathra, April 2019

May – The ground is starred with flowers and the grass is lush outside, but I’m reading about dark underground places in Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, reliving a climbing trip to Greenland with him in 2016 when we lived by the crash and drift of the Knud Rasmussen glacier, spent days scrambling over scree or descending into blue moulins, wondering what the ice held. From the summits of mountains, we watched whales below, their movement like the swirl of paint when a brush is dipped in water in a jam jar. When I saw the Northern Lights, it was overwhelming, the sky forming and reforming itself in colour. I can’t imagine being there now. 

In Underland, Rob writes: “We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most.”

I think I understand what he means.

Memories of Kulusuk, East Greenland in 2016

June – I stop breastfeeding. I remember how to run. I go to Ardnamurchan with my parents and the sky turns itself inside out day after day. I keep running, soaked and chilled. Our whippet Charlie pants beside me or tears ahead into the undergrowth. After Scotland, I go to Wales and carry Alfie up Snowdon.

Running in Scotland, June 2019
Scottish highlands

July – When you stop breastfeeding, your hormones change dramatically. There’s a drop in oxytocin and – for some people – it can trigger depression, panic and hallucinations. I seems I am one of those people. Nothing I read makes sense. The moors are frightening. I can’t write and the landscape seems very pale, the colour of dirty wool and animal bones. I hope I will be able to express this one day, but for now I can’t even explain it to my family. 

August – I try to write a story for the Comma Book of Sheffield. It is about weaning and how the city seems to have disappeared before my eyes. I am only able to write it if I use the third person:

She had taken to falling asleep holding her son’s snowsuit. It was maroon-coloured with a fur trim and it had only fitted him for a short time when he was newborn and his head still flopped. Now, at night, she clutched it and imagined him older in the snow, pictured him toddling through all the white-covered, quiet places of the city, the parks now nameless to her…How could she keep her son safe and near if she did not know where he was walking? She took the map down and shone the light of her phone on it, haloing the script, the roads and boundaries. Endcliffe Park. Bingham Park. Whiteley Woods. She circled every one obediently.

It feels like looking directly at the sun. But every day I write a little more.

September – I read a book by Bryce Andrews which makes the hairs on my neck stand on end. Bryce is a conservationist and rancher in Montana’s Mission Valley and Down from the Mountain is an account of the life and death of a grizzly bear called Millie. The story itself is remarkable, but what’s more extraordinary is the way he imagines himself into her skin. It is an incredible act of empathy. I am beginning to believe again in the possibility of unlikely feats. I read Lara Palmer’s Rough Magic, an account of a horse race through Mongolia and it affirms my faith: it is dazzling, celebratory and wild, full of poetry. 

October – Canada, gorgeously cold: minus 17 some mornings. Tunnel Mountain in Banff is climbed by a switchback trail, a wide path that clambers up the hillside towards a plateau where the horizon rushes up to meet you, wide and clear under a powder blue sky. When the light breaks across these mountains, they are tinged with red, as if they’ve been dipped in embers. Alison Hargreaves came here in 1994 as a guest of the festival and took part in a debate about motherhood and mountaineering and I’m retracing her steps.  It’s easy to imagine her on the trails here, scanning for routes, whistling to warn the bears of her presence. I revisit her diaries:

It eats away at me – wanting the children and wanting K2 – I feel like I’m being pulled in two.

I miss my boy. But he is in Sheffield and I will see him again. It is nothing like the story of Alison and Tom. 

November – Back home, The Don bursts its banks. A month of rain in a day. Friends text and email with concern, but I am lucky, safe and relatively dry. I re-read Clare Shaw’s Flood, about what happened in Hebden Bridge in 2015:

Enough of the waiting. Enough of the checking.
Enough of waking up each night to listen
to rain, the rhythm of rain on the roof…

Running with author and artist Heather Dawn in Banff, November 2019

December – My son is a year old, crawling and standing and climbing with glee, a miniature mountaineer. How did we get here? I end the year with Liz Berry’s Republic of Motherhood:

In snowfall, I haunted Motherhood’s cemeteries,
the sweet fallen beneath my feet –
Our Lady of the Birth Trauma, Our Lady of Psychosis.
I wanted to speak to them, tell them I understood,
but the words came out scrambled, so I knelt instead
and prayed in the chapel of Motherhood, prayed
for that whole wild fucking queendom,
its sorrow, its unbearable skinless beauty…

We are skinless, but we have made it through the year alive. Here’s to 2020.