Margo Talbot’s newly re-released All That Glitters opens with a meditation on two contrary events in the author’s life. Guiding a client to the summit of Mount Vinson, Antarctica’s highest peak, she recalls her arrest on drug charges 16 years earlier. The stark contrast between these periods in her life sets the stage for her memoir.
As a young child growing up in Fredericton, Talbot learned “that expressing my needs only got me into trouble. My mother ruled the house with her eyes, and I became adept at avoiding her ocular daggers.” By age 12 Talbot escapes her increasingly traumatic home life by running wild—before long indulging in partying, alcohol, drugs and sex. Inquisitive and smart, she eventually pursues university studies, but by her second year she is overcome by depression. Making her way west for the summer, she ends up in Jasper, where she discovers a new world of mountain living. She writes, “I felt safe and protected in the midst of these stone fortresses.” But her mental struggles continue, and the drugs and hard partying are amped even further to compensate.
The Icefields Parkway is nearby, and it is here that Talbot is introduced to climbing frozen waterfalls. “I had just accomplished something using my own arm strength,” she writes of her first climb. “I was having fun and for once I hadn’t had to ingest huge quantities of illicit substances.” But the drug arrest is still ahead of her. This misadventure will prompt her to leave Jasper and move to Canmore, eventually starting a landscaping business that allows her to work outdoors all summer and climb ice through the winter. In this milieu she begins the inner journey to confront her depression.
The topic is dark, yet her story is interspersed with tenderness, strong female friendships and the glamour of a life lived on the edge. Chapter titles are taken from classic Rockies ice climbs—Acid Howl, Shades of Beauty and Racing with Shadows—each echoing an important stage in Talbot’s life. Reading her memoir, I was sometimes startled to discover parallels with my own life, not simply because we both climb ice and have lived with depression. The surprise gift of All That Glitters is the author’s connection to greater, universal struggles. She writes that “it feels like everyone’s story: any one of us could have made a string of bad choices or lived through such dark experiences.” By exposing her pain and her battles with childhood trauma, depression, suicide and addiction, Talbot reveals how to chart one’s way to the other side. She reaches great heights, yet we are left not with a sense that her life is perfect but rather, like any of our lives, that it’s a work in progress.
—Elaine Morin co-edited Impact (forthcoming in fall 2021, UAP).