66. Linda Cracknell, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains
I ran across Linda Cracknell’s name in Deirdre Heddon’s and Cathy Turner’s essay, “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” They described her as a woman doing epic walking—as well as smaller, more localized walks—and writing about them. In fact, she took more than a dozen walks while preparing for a writing project about walking that resulted in three or four books (229-30). Oh, I thought, I want to read those. Unfortunately, they were published by small presses in Scotland and now out-of-print. However, Abebooks found them for me, and this one, Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, was the first one to arrive. I thought I would save it for my flight to Calgary, or else my flight to Dublin, but it’s not a long read, and so I decided to take it on this afternoon while the cats drowsed with me in the sunporch.
I need to make clear, at the outset, that I am not a mountain climber—I’d be pretty unhappy, living in Saskatchewan, if I were—and so I can’t tell from this book about walking in and climbing up mountains whether Cracknell’s practice might be a model for my own. I’m hopeful, though. In the book’s “Pre-amble” (get it?), she remembers the family walks she experienced in childhood (ix). They led to decades of climbing, mostly in Scotland:
My twenties and thirties were punctuated by mountaineering trips and some fairly cowardly rock-climbing, but I particularly started to enjoy long-distance walking in parts of north-west Scotland most remote from roads—Knoydart, and Fisherfield—wild-camping for five or six days with a sense of journey. I enjoyed the landscape unrolling, the rhythm and motion, the growing fitness, even the slight sense of hardship and rationed food. Only taking what you can carry generates the ultimate sense of independence. (ix-x)
(Note: what the English call “wild camping,” Canadians have to call “stealth camping,” because it’s not actually legal here.) “For me,” she continues, “those journeys were about climbing out of the trivia and pressure of everyday life, escaping the largely human world for a shift of scale” (x). In her 40s, though, she found herself walking less, and this book is a record, in part, of reversing that situation.
Surprisingly, these two walks changed Cracknell’s view of walking. “The first walk I’ve written about here, following a friend’s father on a journey of life or death through Norwegian mountains, set my feet off in a new direction,” she notes. “I became less intent on ‘getting away from it all,’ and more interested in walking paths which beat with a human resonance” (x-xi). In fact, the two stories in this book “are part of an exploration, on foot and in writing, of this new preoccupation—following people, stories, ancient ways, human structures in the land. I now walk as a way of celebrating both landscape and humanity” (xi). That Norwegian journey made her realize the need for the second walk she talks about in this book, one that connects walking and memory—her memory of her father, who died of cancer when she was a baby (xi). “I found that the time had come to explore his mountains,” she writes (xi).
The first story, or narrative essay, in the book is “Losing my footing, finding my feet again” (1). She accompanies five friends to Norway to follow the path their father, who had been active in the Norwegian Resistance, took in 1944 after he escaped from the Germans and walked across the mountains to Sweden. As with her second story, this one begins in medias res: Cracknell is concerned that the focus of their trip so far has been “meeting people rather than the practical details of the journey. I have little idea of the daily distances planned, or the amount of food we need to carry before reaching the next shop. I try to bury my frustration, wait for the moment when I can breathe the mountain air and get my arms and legs swinging. I want to put my boots back on” (3-4). She recalls meeting her friend Yuli in 1982, in Devon; Yuli’s father, Sven, died when she was young; 60 years later, his family decided to trace his footsteps (4). They had the maps that Sven had drawn after his escape (4-5)—and the account he published after the war—as guides. Cracknell’s account of her journey is layered with Sven’s account of his escape; she shifts from one story to the other, as she does in the second story as well.
But they also had the testimony of people they met who had been involved with Sven’s escape, and they heard stories about Sven’s activity in the wartime resistance (6-7). He was arrested taking photographs of a torpedo station and on a ship ready to be taken for a summary trial when he slipped away from his guard (9). His plan was to escape through the mountains to Sweden; a young man, André, gave him his hiking boots to replace Sven’s worn shoes (9). That was quite an offer, given wartime leather rationing (12). André also helped guide Sven in the mountains, with two other climbers: “they “were the initial link in a generous chain that ushered Sven Sømme 200 kilometres through wild and isolated mountain country still snow-covered in 1944” (12). Sven travelled at night, without a map, adequate clothing, or food, sleeping out in the open or in deserted summer farms, hiding frequently for extended periods of time before it was safe to continue (12). “Valley and mountain, valley and mountain; helping hand to helping hand,” Cracknell writes. “This was the rhythm of his journey” (12).
For the first two days, the party has a volunteer guide, Oddmund Unhjem; he is 73 but the fittest of the group (14). As they walk, Sven’s story comes alive; “we take delight in finally using our bodies to retell it” (15). They cross a high plateau and head into the Eikesdal valley, where they meet Kristian Finset, who, as a boy, had kept quiet about the strange man hiding in the spare bedroom (20). Finset invites them to stay in his house: “The next morning we are tourists—showering under the tallest waterfall in Europe, swimming in the lake, discovering potatokake. Our biggest worry is how to keep the chocolate from melting”—then they walk to Finset’s son’s farm, where they stay the night and see the room where Finset’s father had hidden Sven (20-21). She thinks about Sven’s family, and her own; she has no memory of her own father, who died of cancer in 1961, as Sven did. She has been told that her father was a keen mountaineer but knows nothing about his adventures (22-23).
Finset’s father gave Sven supplies and accompanied him to a narrow canyon, carrying three heavy planks which he used to make a temporary bridge for Sven; once Sven was across the canyon, the planks were taken away, and Sven was “alone with no retreat” (23). Two days later, Sven learns that the Germans are in the area looking for him (23); after that, he walks at night (26). He tries to swim across a swollen river but fails; he finds a bridge upstream and crosses there (26). He carries as little as possible in his borrowed rucksack; Cracknell, by comparison, has a new rucksack for the trip and she’s carrying too much, and her friends help her choose things that she doesn’t need and that can be sent back (26-27). The group looks for the point where Sven crossed the canyon; Cracknell writes, “I enjoy the sense of walking a storyline” (27).
They find themselves walking across a high moor; their guides have returned home and they are left to continue on their own (28). The party reads Sven’s book around their fire (29). They compare their experience to his: “Because in some senses we are walking for pleasure, it’s easy to forget how it would feel to be alone, and in danger. We have good boots and equipment, no Nazis in pursuit, no need to travel in the night” (30). They realize they have shared experiences with him already, though: “red squirrels trapezing through branches, golden plovers making their plaintive call, ‘tleee,’ and running fitfully towards us. Like him we’ve grazed on blueberries and wood sorrel in the forests. In marshy areas, we’ve picked cloudberries whose taste Sven characterised as ‘sunshine.’” (32).
They walk all day; the next morning, food is running low, and they begin fantasizing about their favourite meals (32-33). They’re tired and dispirited; a couple in a camper offer them apples, and then a ride to Dombås, which they accept (33). One of their party, Oliver, decides he’s had enough and goes home; the others take a rest day and look at maps, planning their route (34). They take a taxi out of Dombås to pick up Sven’s route again, climbing onto a plateau that reminds Cracknell of the Cairngorms (38). Then, Cracknell falls on a hill and hits her head; she seems to have broken her nose, and her friends urge her to stop walking and find a doctor (39-40). She takes a taxi back to the nearest village to search for a doctor; she’s not sure she will return (40-41). The doctor sends her to a hospital in a larger town, where she is told that her nose is too swollen to treat and that she should go home (41-44).
“Sven did better than I did,” Cracknell writes (45). He met friends at Nesset, and they helped him hide out for several weeks in a tent above Lake Atnsjøen while he waited for a safe moment to cross into Sweden (45). There, he made contact with his wife, saw his brother Knud, was provided with a false passport and ration cards and a message from his home town; people were overjoyed at his escape (45). Eventually he continued east, where he met a stranger who turned out to be the man charged with helping him to the river, where he crossed into Sweden (46). “He became one of over 48,000 Norwegians who walked or sailed to safety,” and travelled to Britain where he joined the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture before returning to liberated Norway in 1945 (46).
Cracknell’s friends carry on, following their father’s journey, and arrive at the Swedish border (48-49). “Sven’s story remains marked with its own memory-stones; a white-pebbled path visible in the dark,” Cracknell writes. “Like the best folk tale or legend it has been passed on, and then on again. Sven may have avoided leaving prints in the snow for his trackers to find, but he left lasting markers in people’s minds and in their concept of the landscape” (49-50). Cracknell realizes that although walk was intended as a holiday, it had become something more: “I discovered a richly peopled landscape. Even the strangeness of the days following my accident, with generous strangers playing their part, contributed to a sense of a living, resonant pathway” (50). She returns home thinking about this insight: “I wanted to follow more whispering ways; to seek out stories that still echo underfoot. And I began to wonder if that could include a faint path with a strong personal connection” (50). She starts asking questions about her father and a trip he made to the Swiss Alps, hoping to identify one of his journeys, or a route he had wanted to take, and walk a memorial to him (50). “But I had doubts,” she writes. “It might mean a climbing expedition in the Alps—something formidable that I had never done—and I no longer trusted my own feet” (50).
That’s where the second story, “Outlasting our Tracks,” begins (51). As with the first story, Cracknell starts in medias res: she is in a hut in the Alps; it is summer but it has snowed (53). Now, though, the sky is clear and the wind has dropped: “There’s a sense of a charmed day emerging” (53). As the sun rises, Cracknell and her climbing friends Colin and Rick put on their crampons and attach themselves to the rope (54-55):
A line of shared responsibility now snakes between us, demanding to be watched so that our distances can be adjusted for different conditions—slack or taut, depending. The rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of individual reveries and slow waking with the need to communicate. Like riding a tandem, pauses will need negotiation. (56)
The snow that fell the day before, however, is a problem:
By covering the footprints of climbers in the days before us, the new snow has made pioneers of us, erasing the accepted route, forcing us to be slow. It disguises crevasses and snow bridges, laying itself in soft piles that our first laborious steps sink into and compress. Those behind us will harden it into an easier-going trail. (56-57)
“We would prefer not to be leading,” she notes (57).
After her walk in Norway, Cracknell had asked questions about her father’s mountaineering: “I wanted to colour in the shaded outline in his photograph, to have some stories to walk or tell” (57). The only mountain anyone could name was the Finsteraarhorn, the one she is climbing now (57). “At half my age, in 1952, my father led his own expedition here,” she writes (58). Her friends Rick and Colin agreed to absorb her into their own trip to the Finsteraarhorn—“bravely, considering my inexperience in the Alps” (58-59). When she was getting ready for the climb, she would look at the map, imagining her father’s route (59). But maps aren’t the same as the actual thing, of course. Their path takes them onto a glacier, which was concealed in dense fog: “Disorientated, I felt I was walking on a sea that had been struck still and silent at a moment of monumental swell” (62).
Walking and climbing are completely different activities, Cracknell realizes:
This wasn’t a walk of rhythm and thought, but a strict regime of care and concentration—watching for the route; avoiding the catch of a crampon on an opposite gaiter. My head was bedevilled by the squint, gargoyled grins of stalactite teeth leering out of crevasses; by the image of Frankenstein and his monster wandering fog-drunk on the ice. I was in a faded black and white movie. (64)
Her inexperience is clear, and the fog a constant source of anxiety:
The surface was tamed in time under my crampon claws. I gained confidence, but I longed to see the dark rock-rise of the hills that defined our corridor on either side. How would we know, I wondered, in this labyrinth of fog and crevasse, wandering at the whim of the glacier’s faults and blockades, when we were level with the gothic high notch of rock to our right which held the Konkordia Hut where we would sleep that night? Might we not walk right past it? (65)
She thinks of a photo her father had taken in the Alps: three people, Jim Parry, Effie Pendleton, and David Lawton, “blurred in black and white, paused with backs to the camera”; they are standing on a glacier, heading towards the same alpine hut she and her friends are searching for (65).
“The trail after my father has been slow,” Cracknell admits. “As a child, I remember searching for photographs, trying to find proof of his existence to fill the gap of memory. In the stiff second drawer of the dining room desk I stole glimpses framed and pasted into albums” (66). Before this trip, she wrote The Alpine Club in the belief that her father was a member; she talked to her mother, her uncle, an old girlfriend of her father’s; she looked at photographs; slowly she learned more (66). It turns out that, in the Alps, her father was with a party from the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC); she looks at photographs, reads a postcard her father sent home (68). The OUMC was able to provide some details of her father’s journey (68). “As I read the joyous words of joint adventure recorded in the OUMC Journal, Richard Cracknell, the summit-hunter, began to materialise,” she writes (69). Cracknell is able to trace their journey, at least part of the way (69-70).
“I imagined my father, in this three weeks or so of adventure before his ‘grown-up’ life began, feeling viscerally alive as he breathed in fine Alpine air,” she notes (70). He had just finished his chemistry degree at Oxford and had a job with a chemical firm (70). Her pride in her father comes through clearly: “He was an accomplished enough mountaineer to be leading his own party, and had been involved in the equipment tests for the first successful Everest expedition, which he and my mother would hear news of from the Lake District the following year” (70). She thinks about the differences between his equipment and that available to her (70-71). The job he was about to take involved working with epoxy resins, which probably brought him into contact with carcinogens that led to his terminal cancer (71).
Cracknell and her friends cross a dangerous snow bridge (72); the slopes of Finsteraarhorn are dangerous after a snowfall, and she is worried (73). She asks herself why she had “imposed this ordeal upon myself” (75). “I’m not sure I’m up to it,” she tells her friends (75). But, as the climb continues, hope comes to overwhelm her fear; “height beckons,” and she continues “the trudge” upwards (75). She’s still concerned she’s not fit enough, however (77). Climbing is a slow process: “I plant the ice axe; lift my left foot through; lift my right leg through. Plant ice axe, and repeat; and repeat. Every motion is deliberate, and moon-walk slow” (77). She’s surprised, again, that she’s climbing the Finsteraarhorn (78). At the Finsteraarhorn Hut, she learns that Gertrude Bell, “famous as an Arabist, had made the first attempt on the north-east ridge of Finsteraarhorn in 1902. She rarely makes an appearance amongst the lists of men in Alpine climbing histories but her account of the ordeal in a letter to her father is terrifying in its detail” (79). Bell’s party had failed to reach the top of the mountain because of weather, and they encountered a thunderstorm on their descent (79). Storm-stayed, they had to sleep outside, and when they arrived at Meiringen, Bell discovered that her toes were frostbitten, ending her climbing career (80).
Like Heddon and Turner, perhaps, Cracknell is “puzzled by the lack of women participating in such adventures today”; only 1 in 10 of the people at the alpine huts are women (80). “Maybe it’s that women look for more meditative experiences in the mountains; suffer less summit fixation,” she suggests (80). She wonders if she doesn’t prefer the lower parts of the mountain, the meadows “effervescing with flowers,” the “passes where lives still linger, where green things grow; not these heights which above 3,000 metres seem equally to belong to any goretex-armoured warrior who gets there first” (81). Her self-doubt comes flooding back: “If this is Alpinism, am I really equipped to deal with its fearful implications? I began to think that the pull to the summits must be a young person’s thing, that my father never had the chance to outgrow” (81-82). Cracknell also wonders why Effie Pendleton accompanied her fiancé, David Lawton, and Cracknell’s father on their climb, and she recalls Pendleton’s image in the photograph she has seen: “She looks comfortable in this environment, ready for adventure” (82).
The next day Cracknell’s party continues upwards. The climb is difficult: “Each step is hard-earned” (84). “It’s steep and slow, but I can breathe, my moves feel strong, and we are undoubtedly heading for the summit,” Cracknell states (85). Then they reach the crest of the mountain: “a sudden shocking gulf of sky beyond it. Each step on the crest spreads a revelation of new geography: steep slopes rising in range after range below and beyond, should one dare look. We are walking in the air. Each further step is a bonus. I have no sense of time” (86). It’s late, though, and they are worried about the condition of the snow as the day warms up, and they decide to turn back without reaching the summit (87). The descent is difficult:
Our feet touch down on the safe-seeming, smooth snow of the Hugisatell. When we look at watches, we see that the ridge has gripped our minds and bodies for four hours. This is what Rick calls “mental fasting,” the absolute focus of mountaineering that clears all else. Now it releases us to a group hug and photos. Words flow again. (88-89)
Despite not reaching the summit, they are happy: “We revel in a sense of achievement, but mostly just in the joy of being up here” (89).
As with her walk in Norway, Cracknell realizes that sociability and conviviality is the point of this activity:
Colin and Rick name the peaks that years of familiarity with geography, shape, and distance have made theirs. In most areas of Scotland I can do this—know hills from different angles by their relation to each other and to lochs and valleys, despite their shape-shifting. Here I’m still lost, although the characteristic shapes of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc have followed us around enough now to be landmarks. (89)
“I’ve walked so much alone that it strikes me suddenly this sharing is what mountaineering is about,” she writes. “I feel incredibly lucky to have walked the last days fastened in trust to these two men, while following my father’s footsteps” (92).
Now, however, she reveals that the postcard her father sent his parents from Grindelwald “carries a wretched rather than a triumphant message” (93): Effie Pendleton was killed by a falling stone near the top of Finsteraarhorn (93-95). It was his last adventure; when the family took a trip to the Austrian Alps in 1959, his children kept him in the valleys (95-96). She imagines Effie’s death and its aftermath:
I think of the slow digging of a platform in the snow, the necessary anchoring of the body, and the marking of the spot. A distraught fiancé to bring to safety. How quickly my father must have had to grow up. The youthful alpine-aired faces in the photos from Arolla just two weeks before, turn away from the camera towards serious responsibilities, jobs and death. (96-97)
And yet, her own descent must continue: “We descend the long, slushy slope to the hut, playfully when it allows—a glissading, rope-tugged bum slide—and seriously when sun-softened snow bridges have to be negotiated over crevasses” (97). Cracknell is starting to get sunburned “where the insistent running of my nose has allowed the sun to pierce Factor 40 cream” (97). Despite the sliding, Cracknell is tired and the work is hard: “I am unstable and lurching, rhythm-less, tugging taught the rope. Massive snow balls form on the base of my crampons and I jig along to my newly learnt tap dance with the ice axe dislodging them at each alternate step” (97). They finally reach solid rock, remove their crampons, and continue down the mountain (97-98). At the alpine hut, people in t-shirts are relaxing, drinking beer (98). “None of the three of us seems to feel that we failed to climb the mountain,” she states (98). Cracknell and her friends continue the descent to Konkordiaplatz the following day (99). She thinks about the glacier and its movement: “A little removed by the creep of the glacier lies my father’s way across here. I wonder how far downstream the imprints of his feet have drifted in 56 years, try to imagine their changed patina, perhaps transformed into something resembling a fossilized leaf” (99). “I know this experience will echo on,” she concludes.” A spell has been untied; a story retraced and given words out of silence” (100).
In the postscript, Cracknell returns to Pendleton’s death, and her father’s climb, and she reaches a new conclusion: “My father clearly admired Finsteraarhorn, but didn’t climb it. He chose instead a pleasing south-west to north-east traverse that probably took four or five days across the entire dramatic sweep of the Bernese Oberland, denying the enigmatic tug of its highest peak except as a sight along the way” (104). It’s a surprising discovery:
I’d been distracted by the spear of mountain and overlooked its lower foothills; saw my father as forever-youthful, striving for the highest summits. In this way, his memory beguiled me into a climb far more challenging than I would have chosen myself. After my initial dismay at ‘doing the wrong mountain,’ I’ve come to see it as his joke on me.
I also see how unreliable memory is, and how buried it becomes. My detective trails were slow and mazed, but it makes sense now that it was on Konkordiaplatz, rather than on the high mountain, that I felt the deep pull of our affinity; our common journeys. Somewhere on the slow glacier the plates of ice we’ve each trodden ground against each other, and our paths coincided. (104)
I wonder, though, given climate change, whether her father’s footprints have melted out of the glacier. That’s churlish, of course; Cracknell’s belief that somewhere, her path coincided with her father’s is quite lovely and a fitting end to her story.
I liked Following Our Fathers: Two Journeys Across Mountains, and I’m happy Heddon and Turner wrote about her so that I was able to discover her work. It’s possible that Cracknell’s layering might provide me with a model for writing about my own walking (although I’m not going to be climbing anything, thank you very much). I also like her recognition that connecting with others while walking is important–even central–to what she is doing. That’s something I want to incorporate into my own walking, although because it’s so difficult and often unpleasant walking in Saskatchewan, I’m not sure how to go about it. I recall that Phil Smith doesn’t think much of Cracknell’s writing; he suggests that by interpreting her journey, “the mobility solidifies into a commodity that is reassuringly unique and recognisable” (Walking’s New Movement 54). I’m not sure that comment doesn’t apply to Smith’s own account of walking in the footsteps of W.G.Sebald, but in any case, a text is solidified; I know some texts are more open than others, and that Smith works hard to keep his own writing open, but at the same time, a text is a commodity, isn’t it? In any case, I do want to write about my walking, and I’m looking forward to Cracknell’s other books arriving in our mailbox, so I can determine whether her practice might be a model for my own. So be prepared to see more blog posts about Linda Cracknell’s walking and writing.
I was thinking last night that I really like Cracknell’s idea of walking a story. That’s what happens on the group walks my friend Hugh Henry curates: we walk the story of the Battleford Trail, or the Frenchman Trail, or, coming up this summer, the Carlton Trail. That’s what I did in the Haldimand Tract three years ago: I walked the story of how settlers stole the Tract from the Haudenosaunee. That’s what I tried to do last summer; I set out to walk the story of Andrew Suknaski’s poems. That idea might be the most powerful thing I can take away from Cracknell’s book.
Cracknell, Linda. Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains, Best Foot Books, 2012.
Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.
Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.
———. Walking’s New Movement: Opportunities, Decelerations and Beautiful Obstacles in the Performances, Politics, Philosophies and Spaces of Contemporary Radical Walking, Triarchy, 2015.