Writing is a terrifying experience. Or rather, getting your writing published, is terrifying. Your words, after all, expose you in many ways, revealing your intellect, the degree of your research, and most of all, your ability to simply write. And when you bare yourself to the world, you are inviting critique, which all too often is criticism.
When I was writing my first book, Savage Summit, about the first five women who climbed K2, the world’s second highest mountain on the Pakistan/China border, it was exhilarating but frightening. I remember when I told my sister the proposal had sold to HarperCollins, she was the one who burst into tears. I did not. I knew better than to celebrate.
You see, I’d already been on two expeditions to the mountain, the first being a brutal experience with a dysfunctional, abusive, and sometimes downright dangerous team – somewhere between Lord of the Flies meets Animal House, or maybe Bevis and Butthead. All by way of saying, several of the men on the team (and it was almost all men) reminded me often that I was #1, a woman; #2, from the East Coast, which made me somehow suspicious; and most damning, #3, not a climber, and so presumably was unqualified to write a book about them. I tried to explain to the worst offender on the expedition that Sebastian Junger was not a deep sea fisherman, that Truman Capote never massacred a family, and that Tom Wolfe never flew to the moon; it was called research. This man would hear none of it, and ridiculed me and my presence on the team the entire four months of the expedition. It was exhausting and soul-crushing and I returned to the States knowing I couldn’t yet write my book about the women of K2 because I now had too much sadness and anger, and I knew it would corrupt the story.
It would take another expedition two years later with a group of dear friends to cleanse my psyche and enable me to finally write the book. However, when it was published in 2005, I waited in dark terror for the climbing community’s damning review. But it never came. Bullies, as you know, back down when challenged and my having barreled through their bullshit and written the damn book in spite of their condemnation, was confrontation enough. The book received rave reviews, but the process had been ruined for me.
By the time I was close to finishing my second book in 2010, Last Man on the Mountain: The Life and Death of an American Adventurer, I was elated. It tells the story of Dudley Wolfe, the first man to die on K2 in 1939, and the process of digging into his life was just shy of glorious. I loved every minute. In addition, I had gained enough gravitas in the mountain writing community (again, almost all men) to know that no boorish climber was going to take issue with my research – after all, I was the one who had found Wolfe’s skeleton on K2. How’s that for bona fides?
It’s been twenty years since that first devastating and debilitating expedition to K2, and I still harbor its cruelty. But that emotion has been somewhat diffused through the long lens of two decades so perhaps I can finally take a deep breath and dive into writing the saga. If I do, watch for a title something along the lines of, “The Dark Side of the Mountain: One Woman’s Story of the Expedition from Hell.”
It’ll be a blockbuster!