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for people who care about the West

Climbing over the edge

Review of "Snowblind: Stories of Alpine Obsession" by Daniel Arnold.

 

Snowblind: Stories of Alpine Obsession
Daniel Arnold
273 pages,
softcover: $15.95.
Counterpoint Press, 2015.

Snowblind, the first collection of short stories by veteran travel writer and alpinist Daniel Arnold, explores mountaineering and the power it holds over the people who pursue it. Arnold’s characters are drawn irrevocably to the mountains they climb, and their obsession works strangely on their minds, pushing them into sometimes-terrifying realms of thought and behavior. The locations range from cabins at the base of Mount Hood, in Oregon, to brutal mountains at the edge of human settlement in Alaska. The stories’ protagonists tangle intimately with death in all its many faces, from storm-caused disasters to fatal falls and even suspected murder –– as well as the lingering ache of mourning.

Even when death is not imminent, the threat of it hovers at the edges of the stories. In one story, after a dangerous climb, the mountaineers demolish a centuries-old cabin in a fury of pent-up emotion. In another, a climber’s accidental death drives those waiting at the bottom to drinking and then to blows.

Both alpinists and those who find their outdoor enjoyment in less perilous pursuits will recognize the emotional landscape inhabited by Arnold’s characters. The wildness of grief, an encounter with an old flame, the underlying fear of loss — these are experiences common to all.

Still, it’s the otherworldliness of climbing and the jagged beauty of the mountains that most grip the reader. In the collection’s finest story, “Ozdon,” Dane, a climber from Boulder, Colorado, and a native of the Wasatch, heads to Alaska to find a lost friend. The mountain where his friend vanished seems “torn from the earth, a bone from below dripping with ice and crusted with jags of black rock.” It ensnares Dane physically and emotionally, drawing him in, as it has other climbers, “like flies to meat.”

But Arnold avoids the traditional narrative arc of nobility and courage in the face of danger. The story of the climb remains unsettling and dark. It raises but never answers the question: What is the reward for all this risk and suffering? And, more important, what is its human cost?