Friday, February 3, 2012

Following our Fathers - new from 'best foot books'

My latest ‘best foot book’ is officially published in a week’s time. Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains is non-fiction mountain literature with personal stories at its craggy heart. As the blurb says:
‘Two men make significant journeys on foot, one in Nazi-occupied Norway, 1944, and one in the Swiss Alps, 1952. Both die as young men from cancer in 1961. More than half a century after their journeys, the writer finds their routes still ‘way-marked’ by memory. By sharing their footprints, she makes memorials to the men as fathers – one of them her own.’

It includes maps, photos and illustrations I’ve drawn myself, has been packed into a neat 120 page pocket book, and self-published; this project has been a long time ‘cooking’. The post below tells how it came about. You can read more or purchase a copy of the book for £7 inc p&p from my website and it has a facebook page where you can follow its progress if you 'like' it.
My father was a mountaineer. He was also a motorcyclist. I know about the latter because my mother used to talk about the time she fell off the back of it. It became one of the repeated legends from the early life of our family.
I am also a bit of a mountaineer; a bit of a motorcyclist. A genetic inheritance or a coincidence? It seems unlikely I was influenced by a man who died on 31st January 1961 when I was 18 months old and he was only 33.
In the summer of 2004, I filled a 55 litre rucksack with stove, tent, books and clothes to join an old friend, Yuli Sømme, and her siblings who were following their father’s escape route 200 miles across the mountains from west coast Norwayto neutral Sweden, pursued by Nazi soldiers in 1944. It was a celebration of his life as well as his journey. At nights, wild-camping and mosquito-ambushed, we read extracts from his own account of the escape aloud. His euphoric sense of freedom often came across more strongly than fear of his predicament. He was breaking away from a settled life and work to make his own way in the mountains; he observed the spray kicked up by the heels of a herd of reindeer, ate cloudberries, and sang.
For Yuli and her family it was an emotional journey. But it was for me too, reminded with every footfall of my own lost father. As we walked, and talked about what we knew of our fathers (who died of cancer in the same year) and their passion for the mountains, I began to think about a walk to pay homage to my own father of whom I had no memory. I thought it might be either a journey he had always wanted to do, or retracing one that he had done. But the family’s collective memory was hazy.
The journey that was best recalled, because it generated lines in a newspaper which were duly stuck in a photo album, was an ascent of Finsteraarhorn, the highest summit in the Swiss Bernese Oberland. My mother photocopied the photos for me and the process polarised the black and white, so that the dark rock spars in violent angles and steep slopes up to a fierce point, the blank paper showing a formidable banking up of snow. There was also a small photo of my father, Richard Cracknell. Facing the camera, hands on hips, he wears rough canvas trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with big pockets and a cravat. Under a lop-sided, broad brimmed hat, his face is shaded but there is a small hint of white teeth, a smile, a suggestion of my own brow.
So this mountain (which became treacherous and traumatic for my father) presented itself to me in 2008. Standing at 4,274 metres and with a very long walk in, it was a considerable challenge, requiring mountaincraft. How to go about it? By coincidence, my friend Rick was planning an Alpine climbing trip with his friend Colin as a way of marking both their fiftieth birthdays, and Finsteraarhorn was their first choice. When we discovered this, they bravely agreed I could join their expedition. I knew they would be good companions – both first and foremost passionate about the experience of being in the mountains, having fun, appreciating flowers, and notobsessively ticking off conquests.
My first Alpine climb was an exciting prospect, but as a rather cowardly climber, it also jangled my nerves. I’ve climbed plenty of winter hills in Scotland, learnt some basic belaying techniques on ice, done a bit of rock climbing and have been at altitude a few times over the last 20 years – although not always comfortably. But I knew it would challenge me technically in terms of ice, snow and crevasses and there were a number of unknowns – how my veteran body would cope, the timing of the right weather window and what the party’s fitness would permit. I reassured myself that to be in the alpine environment would feel a meaningful pilgrimage in itself, even if we failed to summit.
The emotional challenge seemed to match the severity of the physical task. I hoped this journey would bring me closer to the memory of my father, the man I know was a well-loved friend, a chemist with a gift for languages, who cooked and cared for his children before he became ill. A man who loved mountains and motorbikes.
Following our Fathers overlays accounts of my own walks in Norway and Switzerland with the journeys taken by Sven Sømme and my father. One of the great joys of being a writer, and especially of taking excursions into non-fiction, is that I can relive and re-celebrate an experience such as this as I craft it into words for a page. It’s taken its time and I won’t pretend that finding an effective way to write about it hasn’t been a steep climb too…!